There are many words that could be used to describe United Way. One survey we did asking people what words they would use to describe United Way resulted in people naming over 170 different words. The most common word used to describe United Ways, gleaned from interviewing thousands of people, is “helpful.” Helpful, a positive word which actually describes United Ways, as well as every other charitable organization, is not the word we want people to use to describe United Way. http://www.perspectives4uw.com/blog-our-perspective/2012/3/8/why-united-ways-should-not-be-known-as-helpful.html
There are, however, three words that every person should associate with your United Way.
First, people should think of your United Way as local. While United Way is a national charity, it is so in name only, as each local United Way addresses local issues and does so in a manner appropriate for their local community. Our research with United Way donors has found that one of the primary and most important reasons donors support United Way is because United Way addresses local issues and concerns. Conversely, one of the most common misperceptions about United Way is that United Ways are not local, that money given to United Way goes somewhere else. It is essential for your community and donors to recognize your United Way as local.
Second, people should associate your United Way with the issue you address. If your United Way has adopted community impact, and you have selected a limited number of critical issues to address, then your United Way should be known for those issues. If your United Way addresses hunger, then people should name “hunger” as a word to describe your United Way. Donors should be able to clearly associate your United Way with the issue you address, so that a donor who wants to address hunger in your community will know that a contribution to your United Way will be used to reduce hunger in your community.
One of the most common concerns I hear from United Ways is that we can’t be known for one or two issues because we address many or even all of the issues in the community. I have heard statements like “But if people associate us with hunger (or homelessness, poverty, etc.), then they will think that we only address hunger and not support us because they think we will no longer be funding programs and partner agencies that address other issues. “ This concern challenges our core reason for existence as a United Way: Is it our purpose to raise funds to support programs funded by partner agencies? Or, is our purpose to impact specific issues in the community? If it is our purpose to raise funds to support programs funded by partner agencies, then we should be known as fundraisers. However, if our purpose is to cut the number of high school dropouts, or to reduce the number of homeless, etc., then we should be known for those issues.
Third, although each United Way serves a different locality, and addresses specific local issues, there is one word that applies to every United Way – convene. United Ways convene volunteers, donors, partner agencies, governments, etc. to address the needs of the community. Bringing everyone together, convening people, is how United Way makes an impact. The word “convene” complements the “United” part of United Way, because convening people is necessary to become united.
Every United Way should aspire to be known and recognized by the community as local, for a specific issue, and as an organization that convenes people to address the issue. It takes a long time to change how a community thinks and perceives your United Way. We have worked with United Ways that have spent four to six years to change the community perception in a meaningful way. Once you have decided on your words, it is important to use them in everything you do from campaign to marketing, from allocations to board meetings.
These three words, used consistently and effectively, will improve community understanding of your United Way, as well as focus your efforts internally. In fact, you’ll find that these three words will be infinitely more helpful to your United Way than the word helpful.