Just Because You Can - Doesn't Mean You Should

The typical United Way addresses a wide variety of issues. From observation alone, I would estimate that the average United Way addresses at least seven different issues. However, in many cases, they are not issues, they are focus areas, such as: “nurturing children,” “strengthening adults and families,” or “preventing and dealing with abuse.” An extreme example of a United Way that addresses more than seven issues is the United Way that has a seven page Adobe Acrobat document of their “Target Outcomes by Impact Area,” which includes 10 impact areas and over 100 target outcomes within those 10 impact areas.

Education, income, and health seem so simple – just three areas of focus. But for many United Ways, these three areas are not enough, as there is a growing trend to add “basic needs” or “community essentials” as a fourth area. Just putting “education, income, health, and basic needs” into a search engine will find lots of United Ways focusing on at least four areas.

If you were to ask me, “What is the right number of issues or focus areas for a United Way?” I have a very simple answer – how many can you do effectively? Not how many issues can you say you do, but how many issues or focus areas can you truly do effectively?

Take a moment and think about each and every one of your issues and focus areas to see if you are making a measurable and significant impact on the issue. Measurable impact means that you have identified a way of tracking your progress to address the issue, and you are tracking your progress. Significant impact means you are making a difference addressing the issue that is worth the resources you are investing in the issue.

In my opinion, just funding an issue is not effectively addressing the issue, unless you are able to document measurable and significant impact. Tracking outcomes is good, but are the outcomes measuring significant impact and demonstrating effectiveness? What outcomes are so good that you are shouting them from the rooftops? Perhaps outcomes worth shouting about are a test of effectiveness you can use for your issues. 

Are you effectively addressing all your issues and focus areas? If you are like nearly every other United Way out there, you will say that there are a few issues or focus areas, or perhaps even only one issue or focus area, where you are really effective. Even most United Ways we have worked with that have adopted education, income, and health will admit they are truly effective at only one or two of these areas.   

The simple truth is the more your United Way does, the less likely it will be effective at everything. The strategic planning conversation I have most often with United Way boards revolves around prioritizing resources and efforts. We must be able to step-back from our work and say we can effectively address this issue “OR” that issue. Too many United Ways say they address this issue “AND” this issue, “AND” this issue, “AND” this issue, and don’t address any of the issues effectively.

Your United Way must understand what the community needs it to do, and then focus your resources and efforts on effectively impacting that issue or focus area. Just because you can address a whole bunch of issues doesn’t mean you should address a whole bunch of issues. Pick only those issues you can do effectively. Your donors and your community will thank you.