Almost as a matter of course, charities can't help but associate themselves with sensitive subjects. Even United Way, the most mainstream, broad-based umbrella charity around, can't avoid emotionally and politically charged social issues. In one recent year, the United Way of Central Carolinas gave to groups that deal with teenage pregnancy, AIDS, homelessness and drug rehabilitation.
United Way in 2004 and 2005 gave to Florence Crittenton Services, a home where single mothers await the birth of their children. It gave to the Metrolina AIDS Project, an organization that includes a significant gay client base. It gave to ECO, Inc., which helps ex-offenders integrate back into society. It even gave to several councils of the Boy Scouts of America, whose decision to exclude gays caused controversy for United Ways nationwide.
So why not give to a gay youth organization?
Charlotte's Time Out Youth has provided support, education and social activities for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teenagers since 1991. It has a board of directors, is audited annually and would agree to participate in United Way's annual campaign -- all of which are requirements for admission as a member agency.
But Time Out Youth has never received United Way funding, either for a specific project or as a member agency: The group's applications, made sporadically since 1994, have been turned down every time. Many people who are or have been involved in Time Out Youth believe the organization's purpose -- to help support gay youth -- is the very reason for United Way's rejection.
United Way officials, however, dispute the accusation. Tony Neal, vice president of community investment for the United Way of Central Carolinas, is the administrator in charge of receiving applications for member agency status. He said he's never heard of Time Out Youth, nor has he received an application since he joined United Way's staff two years ago. "I'm not familiar with that agency at all," Neal said.
Time Out Youth itself has backed up Neal's claim: During his tenure, the group has indeed not applied for member agency status. But that's because Time Out's past efforts with United Way have been discouraging.
United Way of Central Carolinas is by far the Charlotte area's biggest charitable resource, helping 97 nonprofit agencies in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Union counties, as well as Mooresville and Lake Norman. In June, its board of directors approved distribution of $32.9 million in the 2006-2007 fiscal year -- an increase of 3 percent from the previous year. Of that, $17.1 million goes toward member agencies.
Neal said he would encourage Time Out Youth and other nonmember nonprofits to apply for member agency status -- even though United Way's board of directors currently isn't approving new agencies. He said its resources can't support expansion right now; regardless, between 20 and 25 groups applied unsuccessfully within the last two years in hopes the board will change its mind.
Tonda Taylor, who founded Time Out Youth in 1991 to provide a haven for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, said that freeze was the reason given for the denial of funds in past years when the gay youth group tried to join United Way. Before that, she was told that more socially conservative donors might be offended if United Way supported a gay youth group. "It was a candid explanation and very discouraging," said Taylor, who retired about 2-1/2 years ago from Time Out Youth.
Eloise Hicks, a former assistant director of Time Out Youth and now executive director of the Regional HIV/AIDS Consortium, said the gay youth group years ago was close to receiving funding. Then, the money was to be routed through the Teen Health Connection -- a local, private, nonprofit clinic. Ultimately, the idea was squelched amid behind-the-scenes concern about backlash, Hicks said.
"This is the buckle of the Bible belt, and people don't like to, I guess, support gay and lesbian youth organizations," said Hicks, whose organization is reliant on the United Way for some funding. "They think that it's promoting people becoming gay, which is a fallacy. But when you are dependent on the community for support for all the other organizations you support -- to have one agency that doesn't fit maybe a community mold, well, they were just not funded ... United Way does a lot of good, but I think they are extremely careful about who they fund."
Neil said he couldn't comment on that because neither he nor his staff worked for United Way then. "We don't turn agencies away," he said.
Mette Andersen, the current executive director of Time Out Youth, said the group has not applied every year and has despaired in recent years of ever gaining acceptance. "We've had several volunteers and board members work on United Way for many years, and we just never get anywhere," Andersen said.
She believes the group hasn't been accepted into United Way because of a false perception that gay youth organizations exist to recruit teenagers. "Our job is to create a safe space for everybody to be who they are," she said.
Eighteen-year-old Mattye Dane said she needed that safe space when she moved to Concord from Orange County, CA. She had a hard time adjusting to her Cabarrus County high school, where she often felt ostracized and alone as a lesbian. "Kids today say, 'That's so gay.' Or, 'You're such a fag.' In California, somebody would say that and a lot of times another student would call them on that. That didn't happen a lot here," said Dane, who graduated in 2005.
At Time Out Youth, she didn't have to worry about getting called names or having to explain herself constantly. "It's almost like a big extended family for me," Dane said. "You get support. You can come here and just unload. You don't have to preface everything with, 'Oh, I'm gay and this is why I feel like this.' They're coming from the same place."
She's known several people who have had to use the emergency shelter that Time Out Youth provides for teenagers who are kicked out of their homes because they are gay or lesbian. "It happens a lot more frequently than people realize," Dane said. "And in some cases, it doesn't get to the point of where they're kicked out -- but it gets to the point where the home environment is so stressful and even sometimes abusive."
About 60 percent of Time Out Youth's budget comes from individual donations, Andersen estimated. Another 20 percent comes from foundations and another 20 percent comes from businesses. Wachovia and Food Lion, she said, are strong supporters. Somewhere in there are religious groups. The liberal Myers Park Baptist Church gave Time Out Youth $1,500 this year. A handful of other churches also give funding. "It's a minimal monetary support, but it means a lot," Andersen said. "It's a good feeling when they stand up for us."
If Time Out Youth were to join United Way, the organization would lose a small portion of its grants from foundations that are limited to non-United Way groups. But that would be far outweighed by United Way's support, which would allow them to expand. "It would be the biggest difference in the world," Andersen said. But more importantly, she said, "It means that we are accepted. If we become a part of them ... we would be accepted in a different way."