“My heart just went to my toes,” says Sandy Rupp. The date was January 22, 2007, and she’d gotten word that Pfizer was closing its Ann Arbor labs. The year before, the pharmaceutical giant and its 2,100 staffers had donated $2 million to Rupp’s agency, the United Way of Washtenaw County–a quarter of its revenue.

Some Pfizer employees themselves instantly understood that the closing would devastate the organization that helps fund thirty-five local nonprofits. Rupp, obviously touched, recalls how one gasped, “But what will happen to United Way?”

Answering that question is Sandy Rupp’s challenge. An energetic United Way careerist, she says she’s “retirement age” but came here four years ago because she wanted “one last launch.” Small and trim, Rupp always looks for the positive, but she doesn’t sugarcoat. Asked last fall what she expected from the ongoing fund-raising campaign, she replied, “My anticipation is that it will still be pretty grim.”

It was worse than grim. In late January, United Way held its annual “community celebration” at EMU’s student center. Though a band played and a hip-looking master of ceremonies boomed out the group’s slogan, “Live United,” the atmosphere was subdued. County administrator Bob Guenzel, the campaign’s volunteer chair, was almost terse as he announced that the campaign was projected to raise $5.1 million-$1 million less than the previous year, and more than $2 million below 2006’s total. And as meager as it seemed, in the current economy even $5.1 million was a stretch. To get there, Guenzel warned, “we need to raise [another] $350,000.”

The applause was brief. When a follow-up speaker announced “These are tough times,” heads nodded in unison. Because even as the number of people able to donate to United Way is falling, the number needing help continues to grow.

Just in the last six months, demand for services has jumped 25 percent at the Delonis Center homeless shelter. In the same period, Peace Neighborhood Center, another United Way agency, has seen “an incredible upturn in ‘advocacy’ calls–rental assistance, housing,” says development director Kevin Lill.

“Everyone’s scared,” says Larry Voight, director of Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw County. CSS got $282,000 from United Way last year, using the money to help fund everything from a food bank to adult day care. CSS staffer Caroline Nelson does intake for people seeking psychotherapy, most of whom have lost their jobs. “I’m going to say out of ten phone calls a day, I probably have one to two that are crying,” Nelson says. “It is heartbreaking.”

Rupp started work on December 1, 2004. “It was supposed be January of ’05,” she recalls, “but I got to town and they said, ‘Show up for work-it’s time to get to work!'”

United Way’s previous permanent director, Jim Cieslar, had left a year before-partly to be near family members in the East, but also because of growing tensions with the agency’s board of directors. Cieslar, who now lives in Massachusetts, says that he wanted the agency to take a stronger lead in determining how donations were used but that the board was dragging its feet.

Making that change would instead fall to Rupp–whom Cieslar describes as a “well-respected pro” in the United Way world. Her first job with the agency was in her hometown of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Before coming here she ran chapters in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Lincoln, Nebraska, where she also picked up a master’s in management.

Widowed and the mother of two grown daughters, Rupp dove right into the Ann Arbor job. But the water was colder than she’d expected.

To get to know the community, “I had a goal to make ninety calls in ninety days,” she remembers. “It took me ten or twelve calls to really realize there was a trust issue-a lot of things had happened to this United Way.”

Like all United Way chapters, Ann Arbor had been tainted by the Bill Aramony scandal. Head of the national United Way for more than twenty years, Aramony led the organization through a period of significant growth–but also siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance personal pleasures, including a luxury apartment for a teenage mistress. In 1995 he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison.

The following year the Ann Arbor News broke the story that local United Way president Vince Buccirosso also had diverted agency funds to personal expenses. Nine days later Buccirosso resigned, walking out in the middle of a board meeting. Ultimately he pleaded no contest to three fraud charges; he was fined and put on probation.

The amount involved was less than $5,000, but the News played the story for all it was worth and then some. That fall, donations dropped by 10 percent.

The board moved quickly to improve financial controls and slash overhead: within two years, Jim Cieslar cut the payroll from twenty-seven people to fifteen. But though collections gradually recovered, many donors never forgot the incident–as Rupp discovered when she made her get-acquainted calls. One nonprofit employee recalls the new director saying she “couldn’t believe” that eight years later, people were still talking about Vince Buccirosso.

But they were–and their wariness was evident in how they were giving: of the $7.9 million the campaign raised in 2004, 48 percent was designated to go to specific non-profits. Put another way, almost half of United Way’s donors didn’t trust the agency to decide how best to use their money.

One nonprofit director compares UWWC to a three-legged stool: for years, its biggest donations came from the automotive industry, Pfizer, and the U-M. But that stool was wobbling even before Pfizer pulled out.

The first leg to go was the car companies. In 2001 automakers and suppliers raised $2.1 million for UWWC. By last year the total was just $600,000–a 71 percent drop.

Rupp made changes, large and small. She introduced Power of the Purse, an all-women’s appeal, and started the Caring Club, which rewards donors who give at least $156 a year with discount cards to local businesses. U-M interns added online giving options to the website, and she made sure everyone contributing to the United Way received a timely acknowledgment–an area in which it had sometimes been lax.

At first, though, her biggest changes were behind the scenes. She slashed the size of the group’s board of directors. And then she pushed them to tackle the challenge that had eluded them under Jim Cieslar: how to take a more proactive role in identifying and addressing community needs.

Historically, United Way had funded the same organizations year after year-a relationship so close that agencies even shared space in United Way offices. But according to Steve Dobson, he and other supporters had long felt that the organization needed to look harder at its priorities. He could never understand, he recalls, why a local charity was donating to the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation, a national group focused on a rare neuromuscular disorder.

The national United Way was also pushing chapters to change. With a mission of “mobilizing our communities to improve people’s lives,” it has set out three priorities for funding: fighting poverty, improving health, and keeping kids in school. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, many local United Ways have adopted similar, targeted approaches-and have seen donations increase by an average of 25 percent.

Campaign chair Bob Guenzel emphasizes that the reorganization is meant to get donors thinking in terms of needs. “You’re not just giving to an agency but to help the com-munity,” he stresses.

The change became more urgent when the Pfizer news hit-knocking out the second leg of the “stool.” Rupp remembers asking her executive committee, “‘Are we gonna close shop here, or are we gonna go forward?’ And from that, we convened the group that selected the basic needs that were funded in that ’06 campaign–that was food, shelter, and access to medical care.”

With the pool of donations shrinking, though, funding those new priorities would have to come at the expense of existing agencies. “There were knock-down, drag-out fights-people screaming at each other,” says a source close to the committee. The needs list was later expanded to include early childhood education and aging in place, and a grant fund was set up to ease the transition for agencies that were shut out.

Under the new system, ten groups gained funding, including Arbor Hospice, Packard Community Clinic, and several agencies that support early childhood education and literacy. The losers included “disease groups” like the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation. More controversially, the new focus on young children meant less for agencies targeting older “youth at risk,” including the Washtenaw Camp Placement Association and the Community Action Network, which runs after-school programs for children in low-income housing projects.

“‘Youth at risk’ has been lost as a priority,” lamented CAN executive director Joan Doughty in an op-ed article in the Ann Arbor News last spring. “Youth service providers can no longer ‘go at it’ alone.” CAN subsequently won a reprieve through United Way’s grants program–which may be why Doughty now declines to air any grievances with the agency publicly.

Rupp’s office on Platt Road has just enough room for her desk and a small round table with four chairs. The few personal touches include a certificate celebrating twenty-five years with United Way (she’s now on her thirtieth) and a photo of her Bichon Frisé, Tootsie.

Next door, a feathery red boa hangs outside staffer Angelina Semak’s office. Rupp explains that it signifies good news: yesterday, local Google boss Grady Burnett called Semak to tell her that the search giant will be sending volunteers to UWWC’s Day of Caring in April.

Down the hall, another boa celebrates a call from Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting. The Avis Farms office was too busy at year’s end to take part in the traditional fall fund drive-but will make up for it now with an “off-season” campaign. “This could be one of those gap fillers,” says Rupp, referring to the hundreds of thousands of dollars United Way still hopes to raise. “It’s a great company, stepping forward.”

Rupp responds to criticism of her leadership with composure, the toughness camouflaged by a frequently flashing smile. She points out that while “youth at risk” are no longer funded as such, older children benefit from many other UWWC programs, such as housing and health care. “Is it a perfect system?” she asks rhetorically. “No. And we always said that–it’s a work in process.” But she points out that whereas before almost half of all donations were designated to specific agencies, two-thirds now are unrestricted gifts to the Community Investment Fund-a change she sees as a vote of confidence in the new allocation process.

With Pfizer gone and the auto industry weakening by the day, every new donor is a triumph. Last year, Rupp says, the agency launched campaigns in thirty-one workplaces. But she believes the greatest potential for growth lies in a familiar quarter.

She notes that in 2007, when U-M president Mary Sue Coleman cochaired the campaign, donations from university staffers topped $1.1 million–an all-time record. “If every employee gave five dollars a month, what could we raise?” she muses. “You can dream sometimes.

“Our best hope,” she adds, “is that the U of M fills the Pfizer building with lots of scientists.”