Please Throw Away Your Thermometer

Anyone who has lived in Michigan for a significant period of time is fond of saying there are two seasons in Michigan – winter and road construction. I am certainly in the minority thinking that part of what makes Michigan great is our four seasons. For most of spring, summer, and fall, the temperature in Michigan stays within a fairly comfortable range, which means I don’t need to consult my thermometer too often. But, as fall gives way to winter, I start looking at my thermometer more regularly. This past week I found myself checking my thermometer every morning. My thermometer serves a very simple purpose for me, as it lets me know how I should dress to start the day.

Every fall, there are United Ways that put up thermometers in their community. Some of these thermometers are smaller, perhaps the size of a poster, while others are more grandiose creations – impossible to miss and large enough to be mistaken for billboards. Some of the thermometers measure in percentages with a scale of 0 to 100% going up the side, while others measure in dollars from $0 to some large dollar amount. No matter what their size or scale, all of these thermometers measure the same thing: how close are we to achieving our United Way campaign goal?

What purpose does a United Way thermometer serve? If I drive by and see the United Way thermometer at 35% or $75,000, what do I do? Do I act any differently if it is at 80% and $1,250,000? The United Way thermometer doesn’t motivate me to contact United Way and make a pledge. It might remind people it is campaign season, but a thermometer only reinforces the message that United Way is asking for money – again.

My biggest complaint and number one pet peeve about United Way thermometers is what they measure – campaign dollars. If the primary purpose of United Way is to be a fundraiser, than a thermometer measuring progress toward the campaign goal might be a good thing. But, every time I ask a United Way staff member, a United Way board member, or a United Way volunteer if the primary purpose and reason for their involvement with United Way is fundraising they cringe, roll their eyes, and shake their head no.

I am absolutely certain that your United Way could measure many things more important than campaign dollars. How about the number of homeless people you have helped house, the number of hungry people you have helped feed, the number of volunteers you have mobilized for your Day of Caring, the number of people who have received job training, the number of children who have been mentored or tutored? Sure, it takes dollars to make these things happen, but these dollars are just a means to an end. Why not measure the end?

Is your United Way thermometer out there? If so, go get it now and throw it away! Replace it with a sign that reflects what we truly accomplish as United Ways. And by all means, if you feel there is a place for a United Way thermometer in your community, please leave me a comment and set me straight. I’ll be waiting.