The Three Words Every Donor Needs to Hear

When your donors think of your United Way, what words come to mind? We frequently ask donors this question, and it will come as no surprise that donors name hundreds of different words to describe their United Way. Hundreds of words reaffirm the fact that most donors do not understand what your United Way does.

Hands-down, the most commonly used word to describe United Way is helpful. Helpful, helping the community, helps organizations, helps people – when people think of United Ways, they think helpful. Helpful, although a positive word, is not the word we want people to use to describe United Way.

Why? Because every nonprofit organization is helpful. Helpful is woven into the genetic code of nonprofit organizations. Calling a nonprofit organization helpful is like saying a restaurant has good food. Studies have found that donors don’t support charities just because they are helpful. Donors often support a charity because they want to make a difference in their community or have an impact on an issue. Helpful does not suggest to a donor how they could make an impact on an issue or how they could impact their community.

Although helpful is not the word United Ways should be known for, there are three words that every donor needs to 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. One common misperception 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 that your United Way raises and invests money locally. If your United Way serves a county, then local will mean your county. Larger United Ways may need to express local by showing how your work impacts many local communities.

Second, people should associate your United Way with a local 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 use the word hunger when describing 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 their contribution to United Way will be used to reduce hunger locally.

If your United Way has adopted an issue focus, you will be communicating your issue, such as poverty or the graduation rate. If your United Way has divided your impact into categories, then you will be communicating your categories, such as education, income, and health. Our donor research has found that most donors cannot associate their United Way with more than three issues. Do not try to communicate every issue you are working on, instead select no more than three issues you want to be known for.

Third, although each United Way serves a different locality and addresses specific local issues, there is one word that applies to every United Way – united. United Ways convene volunteers, donors, partner agencies, governments, etc. to address the needs of the community. Uniting everyone is how United Way makes an impact. Your United Way should demonstrate to donors that when they contribute to United Way they are united in a larger effort to make a meaningful difference in their community.

It takes a long time to change how people think about and perceive your United Way. We have worked with United Ways that have spent four to six years to change the perception of their United Way in a meaningful way. Used consistently and effectively, your words will improve 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.

Is Your United Way Successful?
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Recently, I saw an interesting editorial from a United Way CEO about how their United Way is changing the way it addresses social issues in their community. The editorial explained some of the social issues and needs in the community and outlined the role of United Way in addressing those needs. What caught my attention, though, was not what the United Way is going to do to address those needs, but how they are going to measure their success.

Before I share their measurement of success, it will be helpful to look at two of the most common ways United Ways measure success. For many years, measuring success revolved around how much money a United Way raised – the campaign goal. The campaign goal was often represented by thermometers that would spring up all over town during campaign season. You can read more about campaign goals and thermometers in these blog posts.

In the past 20 years or so, United Ways have turned to measuring success by the number of people who have been helped. For example, a representative of United Way of the Alberta Capital Region was talking about leaving the campaign goal behind and said, “So instead of bringing forward a financial target, I ask … how many do you want to help in our community?” United Ways that measure success in this way will often include information about the number of people helped by funded programs, or the will make a broader statement like “7,418 children, individuals and families participated in United Way funded programs last year.” This evolution in measuring success is largely the result of United Ways adopting some form of community impact.

The quote that caught my attention comes from the United Way of Tarrant County’s president and CEO, who said in an editorial article, “Central to our beliefs, we know it is time to measure our results not by the number of people we’ve helped, but by the number of people who no longer need help.”

On the surface, measuring success by the number of people who no longer need help does not seem like such a big deal because United Way of Tarrant County is still counting people. But, if you look at the people helped by a local organization, like a food pantry for example, people may be returning to the food pantry every month. Until their underlying challenges have been addressed, they will continue to need help. When you count the number of people who no longer need help, your success becomes the number of lives that have been changed.

We have been helping United Ways transition to measuring their success by counting people who no longer need help for years. We call these United Ways issue-focused, and we help them to set goals like “United, we will lift 15,000 families out of poverty by 2028” (United Way of Pierce County) or “By 2025, all Skagit children entering kindergarten are ready to learn” (United Way of Skagit County). These United Ways and many others are focused on changing conditions in their communities, so people no longer need help.

If you are looking at how you define and measure success for your United Way, consider the possibility of measuring the number of people who no longer need help. United Ways that are issue-focused are not only changing their communities in powerful ways, but they are changing their United Ways as well.

When issue-focused United Ways measure the number of people who no longer need help, they become more relevant to their donors and community. When issue-focused United Ways measure the number of people who no longer need help, they become more sustainable as they grow and diversify resources. When issue-focused United Ways measure the number of people who no longer need help, they become more impactful as they change lives in their community.

If your United Way is interested in the possibility of defining success by measuring the number of people who no longer need help in your community, let us know. Our Challenges and Opportunities Retreat or our Introduction to an Issue Focus Retreat will help your United Way to decide how best to measure your success and you can learn more about how we transform United Ways to an issue focus here.

Is This Question Hard to Answer?
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Why does your United Way hold workplace campaigns? At first, this will seem like an easy question to answer. But, I would ask you to think about it at a deeper level – beyond raising money or because United Ways have always held workplace campaigns.

For some United Ways, holding workplace campaigns is about providing funding for local partner agencies and programs. United Ways promote the results of the funded programs to attract people to give to their workplace campaigns, and partner agencies use United Way funding to operate the programs that provide these results. There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between these United Ways and their partner agencies. Local partner agencies and programs rely on United Way to organize workplace campaigns to provide part of their funding. United Way relies on the partner agencies to provide results that are used to attract people to support the workplace campaigns. United Ways and partner agencies need each other to succeed.

Other United Ways might answer the question by saying they hold workplace campaigns to impact the education, income, and health needs of their community. The money raised from workplace campaigns allows United Way to invest in programs that will reduce poverty, increase the graduation rate, help the hungry, or provide mental health counseling as examples. These United Ways do not hold workplace campaigns to fund programs, but to impact or change conditions in their community. These United Ways ask people to support their workplace campaigns because of the issues or categories they address and not because of the partner agencies they support.

While there are plenty of United Ways that would give one of these two answers when asked why they hold workplace campaigns, can you see what is missing in these two answers? Neither of these two answers mention donors. These answers are all about partner agencies or impact, rather than about the donor. If your United Way is going to have effective workplace campaigns, your donors must be the primary reason why your United Way holds workplace campaigns, as they are the ones who are making the contributions.

Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to think of workplace campaigns as an invisible connector between your donors and what your donors what to accomplish. Your workplace campaigns give your donors the opportunity to support partner agencies, impact an issue in their community, or even to support a local nonprofit they care about by designating their contribution. Your workplace campaigns allow your donors to fulfill their desire to give back, help people, change someone’s life, feel good about themselves, and/or make the community a better place.

Based on our donor research, few donors give to United Way simply because it is an easy and efficient method of charitable giving. Donors have other choices for giving if they are looking for an easy and efficient method of charitable giving such as the internet, GoFundMe, and Facebook fundraisers. Your donors are the reason your United Way holds workplace campaigns, and donors give to your workplace campaign because of what they can achieve by doing so.

As you plan for your upcoming workplace campaigns, start with your donors. Be sure that your workplace campaigns connect donors to what they want to do and help your donors feel like they made a difference. Make your workplace campaign all about your donors – not all about United Way.

When you start thinking about holding workplace campaigns to meet the needs and desires of your donors, you will start to think much differently about your campaign brochure. Our next Master Class webinar, “Get Them to Give: Designing Your Campaign Brochure” on Tuesday, April 9th addresses the topic of what donors want and expect in your campaign brochure. Consider joining us for this one-hour webinar and we will show you how to design a campaign brochure that allows your donors to fulfill their needs and desires.