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In real life, they are Bank of America employees with comfortable white-collar careers — a private client adviser, an estate settlement assistant, and a self-described data geek.
But they recently got a taste of an uncomfortable alternative reality.
Dale Edmunds of Wellesley pretended to be unemployed, evicted, and living in a motel with his family after being laid off from his $50,000-a-year manufacturing job.
Kristine Millet of Concord, his fake stay-at-home wife, struggled to find work to replace Edmunds’ lost income and pay cellphone bills, car insurance, and overdue credit card debt.
Gene Poillucci of Boston played the part of their teenage son, upset that his parents may not be able to afford a restaurant meal for his birthday.
Together, this make-believe family navigated the world of food stamps, pawn shops, charities, and check-cashing agencies. At the end of the lunchtime skit, held in a conference room in a downtown Boston high-rise, they returned to their normal lives, but the experience had an emotional impact.
“I felt very stressed,” said Millet, a senior information officer. “I thought, wow, this has got to be so stressful for folks trying to stay on top of bills rolling in when you barely have enough to cover them.”
This so-called poverty simulation is one of several educational programs offered by the United Way as the nearly 130-year-old organization — long the dominant player in workplace charitable giving through automatic payroll deduction, but facing declining donations — strives to remain relevant in a changing philanthropic landscape.
For the hour or so they spent in this “Walk a Mile Experience,” Edmunds, Millet, and Poillucci got a glimpse of the everyday challenges faced by the working poor. Developed by the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, it’s a fast-moving, intentionally frenzied activity designed to convey the sense of chaos, confusion, and helplessness often endured by people living at or near the poverty line.
“I was hoping it would give me a better appreciation for the daily struggles of those living in poverty, and I think it did,” added Edmunds, a managing director in the bank’s private wealth management division. “I feel like we live in a bubble, and I want to be a little more sensitive to these issues.”
In Boston, the United Way offers about five poverty simulations a year at different locations. During them, participants learn about the organization’s “financial stability centers,” where struggling families can get support ranging from job placement to credit counseling.
“We want to get across the day-to-day challenges and feelings for people living in poverty,” said Karley Ausiello, a senior vice president at the United Way in Boston, “and at the same time show donors what the United Way can do to help families ease some of that stress.”
The organization hopes these initiatives will help attract new donors, retain existing ones, and shore up its financial support.
Over the past decade, individual donations to the United Way in Boston have dwindled almost 20 percent, from about $47 million in 2006 to $38 million in the most recent fiscal year. The nonprofit’s national office has seen a similar decline.
The United Way has been able to keep its overall revenue relatively stable by more aggressively pursuing government, corporate, and foundation grants, but it attributes the slumping donations from individuals to several factors.
Downsizing at companies means fewer employees to participate in charitable giving campaigns, and some employers have created in-house charitable initiatives rather than rely on third parties like the United Way to administer them.
Technology also poses a challenge; with charitable giving now as simple as clicking a donation button on your smartphone, the United Way faces lots of competition for donor dollars.
There’s also been a generational effect: younger people, especially millennials, tend to shun traditional workplace giving — in which the United Way collects funds and often determines how to distribute them — in favor of volunteering or donating to niche causes.
“Lots of Baby Boomers will talk about being asked to give to the United Way from their first day on the job,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Our parents and grandparents may have given to a general fund that let the United Way decide which causes to give to in the community, but millennials aren’t so crazy about that kind of thing.”
That shift has compelled the United Way to offer “donor choice,” which lets contributors specify which charities they want to support. To appeal to millennials, it has created programs like Youth Venture, which pairs high schoolers with mentors who help them pitch business ideas.
It has also developed “affinity groups” exclusively comprising, for example, women or people who work in commercial real estate. One of those groups is the United Way’s Private Equity/Venture Capital Associate Council, cochaired by 28-year-old Robert “Bo” Mlnarik, a senior associate at the Boston investment firm Summit Partners.
Like many of his peers, Mlnarik donates to charities through crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe, which he says lets people “give to causes that are more near and dear to their interests.” But he is also a United Way donor because “I believe in the power of institutions and the power of a nationwide brand,” he said, “so it’s a hybrid model for me.”
Mlnarik also recognizes that his professional skills can be as valuable as his money. For example, he and other council members used their spreadsheet expertise to help the United Way crunch numbers from the city’s annual homeless census.
“I’m not just showing up at a soup kitchen,” said Mlnarik, “but analyzing data to show how helpful that soup kitchen is or isn’t.”