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When United Way brochures began looking a lot like those of St. Paul's Cooperating Fund Drive, the small charity was flattered. Now it's worried the agency wants its donors.

AT FIRST, SAYS Cooperating Fund Drive Executive Director Katy Lowery, she was flattered. The pamphlet from St. Paul's United Way bore a striking resemblance to CFD's pamphlet of the previous year: Both were close-ups of an African American girl's face, washed in teal and gold. Even the text was familiar: "This is something we do together," CFD's said, while United Way's pamphlet exclaimed, "Imagine what we can do together!"

But the following year, 1997, a Minneapolis United Way pamphlet again mirrored one by CFD, a small St. Paul-based nonprofit fundraising federation: Both bore pictures of a woman and child; CFD's tagline read, "Building Healthy Communities." United Way's, "Building a Healthy Community." Lowery felt it was time to defend her territory. Although United Way denies any intentional similarities and seems baffled by the accusations, Lowery believes the campaigns are meant to confuse CFD's donors into giving to United Way. And it's just the latest in a long series of tactics to muscle out smaller fund-drive organizations, she says.

In recent years a number of alternative fundraisers have waged public battles with United Way. In 1994, charity groups cried foul when UW-Minneapolis created five sub-funds to enable donors to give to specific causes. The smaller fundraisers noted an eerie similarity between the names of certain sub-funds and smaller charities. The organization Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless, for instance, was angered by UW's "Hungry and Homeless Fund."

Farther from home, last year the alternative fundraiser MaineShare accused United Way of squeezing rivals out of the workplace arena, and the Southeastern New England United Way branch lost a Rhode Island Supreme Court decision last summer after using the name of a rival in its brochures. Lowery says the same thing is going on here. Funding grassroots groups is becoming more popular, she says, and she believes United Way is targeting CFD's donors. "United Way is operating in an industry that used to be just them. And so they naturally had a monopoly position. So it disturbs them that there's increasing competition," she says.

Lowery claims that she's tried to contact UW-Minneapolis twice to arrange a meeting and received "very dismissive" replies. UW-Minneapolis officials say they've only heard from CFD once. UW-St. Paul officials were never contacted directly.

But UW officials say similarities are coincidental: Marketing Director Jim Boyle says UW-Minneapolis started using gold and teal in some materials as far back as 1990, taking inspiration from trends in fashion and furniture. As for the similar words--"building," "healthy," and "community"--"It's a very similar kind of terminology because we're in the same business," Boyle says. Additionally, UW's "Building a Healthy Community" brochure targeted the health-care community, which isn't a big part of CFD's efforts. UW-St. Paul's officials say their freelance designers used only past UW campaigns and overall ad trends for inspiration. They say the Colle & McVoy ad agency created the "Imagine" slogan in '93 and it was adopted nationally.

Ironically, United Way's sheer size and marketplace dominance--subjects of complaint among smaller fundraisers--might absolve it: The St. Paul and Minneapolis United Ways together raised almost $80 million last year, while CFD brought in about $1 million. "Why would Coca-Cola, with the leverage it has and the brand name, change its stuff to look like Shasta?" asks UW-St. Paul Marketing Director Bill Rodriguez. "When you are number one, you don't backpedal and say, 'Let's look more like our number-three competitor because somehow we'll get their small share of the market, too.'"

University of Minnesota marketing professor Mark Ritson agrees. But after comparing the ads--the models, the logo positions, the fonts, the colors--he thought a case could be made: "If [UW was] quite happy with the existing fundraising base they had, they'd make sure their ads were significantly different from everyone else's in the market. But they're clearly not doing that," he says. "Whether they are deliberately trying to confuse the gift-giving public, who can comment on that? But clearly these ads are designed to compete with the CFD advertisements."

In the meantime, Lowery has again asked to meet with United Way. Both sides seem to want to avoid bad publicity and legal wrangles, but Lowery says CFD will take its case to court, if necessary. "Our concern is that this is an overall strategy," she says. "I don't have access to any national strategic plan and I'm not claiming it exists. I need a dialogue to discuss it."

 
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