The focus of agencies like United Way will shift in coming years.

That's the prediction of Clarke La-Mendola, senior vice president of resource development and marketing for United Way of America. LaMen-dola was in Utah last week to meet with area United Way staffers."I think a big change is coming," he said. "It's not enough to maintain the present system; we need to transform it. We're going to find we have to make a long-term investment in prevention. Right now, we're using bandages to approach social problems. We need to keep the bandages, but they are not enough. And I think we'll find we need more coalitions of different groups to solve the problems."

United Way is well-situated to help solve problems like teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, home-lessness and hunger, he said, because "we are a community table. We can, in effect, pull players from all over together to craft solutions. United Way represents the whole community and reflects its values. We're uniquely positioned to help that collaboration take place."

According to LaMendola, "Problems are getting more intractable. It's a combination of factors," including the fact that disposable income hasn't grown. Work-force size has remained stagnant. Drug abuse flourishes. The "sandwich generation" is trying to raise children and care for elderly parents. "There's an erosion of values and a loss of hope.

"Inner cities are under tremendous strain. We have to get at the root problems from a prevention point of view without losing sight of bandaging the wounded."

The strength of the United Way, he said, can be found in its diversity. LaMendola praised the "fundamental benefits gained in the act of car-ing as a group. Often, our agency is the only place where people cross so-cio-economic barriers. Our boards are people from all segments of a community so there's empowerment and increased awareness of the needs of the community."

Market research shows that most people have a "sense of what's happening in the world," gleaned from newspaper and television reports. But when they are taken past the surface story, they are troubled. People, LaMendola believes, want to "help the people who need it the most, but they want them to be accountable. They want to know where their money is going."

United Way, with its auditing and other requirements, lets people see where the money is going.

But what about a person who wants to give directly to the homeless shelter, for instance?

"If you care only about the shelter, you should do that," LaMendola said. "People often don't know about a program - a very good program - so they don't think to give to it. Without allocations by our panels, some programs would not survive."

Individuals who donate to religious causes are more apt to donate to non-religious organizations, according to United Way research. And those who volunteer their time and skills are three or four times as likely to give money, too.