The Urgent Need for Strategic Planning


Back in the day, life was pretty good for United Ways. United Ways were able to raise increasing amounts of money year-after-year, and many donors would support United Way until retirement without giving it a second thought.

But the times have changed. Over the past three decades, an endless stream of new challenges has made the work of United Ways more difficult than ever. These challenges include economic recessions, growth in the number of nonprofit organizations, open campaigns, third-party processors, the ability to find and support any charity and cause on the internet, downsizing companies, organizations not disclosing donor information, companies that no longer have local leadership, scandals, Facebook and social media, online giving, Giving Tuesday, Red Nose Day, GoFundMe, partner agency competition for funds, difficulty getting outcomes for funded programs, increasing designations . . .

You get the idea. The challenges are there – you know them all too well.

These challenges make it clear that doing what United Ways have always done is not going to work moving forward. For United Ways to be sustainable, relevant, and impactful in the future they will need to determine what they are trying to accomplish, select the best strategies to achieve their goals, and decide how they are going to implement those strategies.

In short, United Ways need to be doing strategic planning. Even if your United Way’s mission is still absolutely right for your community and its needs, the strategies your United Way will be using and how your United Way implements the strategies will need to change. Strategic planning, done well, does precisely this – articulate a clear purpose, select appropriate strategies, and plan to implement and execute the strategies successfully.

If you think your United Way’s mission is on-track, I would encourage you to take a couple minutes and read my blog post “The $6 Million Question.” Think about the reason why your United Way exists and perhaps try the $6 million question with your board at your next board meeting.

Some United Ways find themselves heading in several directions at once. After you read my blog post “You Only Need One Compass” you may find that your United Way has a lot of compasses. For United Ways to be successful, it is absolutely essential to clarify your mission and purpose, one of the first steps in our strategic planning process.

Many United Ways tell me they already have a strategic plan. Great, but does it help your United Way jump higher or farther? Take a moment to read my blog post “Jump Higher or Leap Farther?” for some perspective on strategic plans that will move your United Way forward. With all the challenges facing United Ways, it is imperative to be leaping farther, which is something we address with our playbook of transformational strategies that we use with United Ways during our strategic planning process.

Strategic planning is urgently needed at most United Ways. Most United Ways are still doing what they have always done and have not yet fully evolved to address the challenges they are facing. If United Ways expect to remain relevant, sustainable, and impactful, they cannot wait any longer to address their challenges.

We know that United Ways are unlike any other nonprofit organization. Because we only work with United Ways, our strategic planning process is unique. Our strategic planning process recognizes the unique aspects of United Ways, including workplace campaigns, designations, allocation processes, partner agencies, community impact, and affinity groups. If the time has come for a new strategic plan or an update to your current strategic plan at your United Way, check out our strategic planning information and let’s start a conversation about how we can ensure that your United Way will be relevant, sustainable, and impactful for years to come.

The Other Half

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For nearly 30 years, we have been conducting donor and community research for local United Ways throughout the United States. Over time, the questions we ask have changed – for example, we now ask about social media usage, but we no longer ask if people use email.

One of the questions we have consistently asked is: “If you did not give to United Way this past year, have you ever given to United Way?” We have found that the percentage of people who did not give to United Way this year but have given to United Way previously has increased over time. In every survey we have conducted since 2014, at least 50% of all people who did not give to United Way in the past year had given to United Way previously.

Here is a sobering thought: Half of all people who did not give to your United Way this year have given to United Way previously. When you walk down the sidewalk or through a store, take a moment and think that one out of every two people you see has probably given to United Way at some point in their lives but did not give to your United Way this year. It makes you want to grab them by the collar and ask them “Why aren’t you supporting United Way?” doesn’t it?

But, it is not their fault – you can’t blame them. The reality of the situation is that most of those people don’t give because they are no longer asked to give by their United Way. Perhaps they retired and are no longer exposed to a workplace campaign, or maybe they changed employment and now work at a company that does not have a workplace campaign.

The vast majority of people who did not give to United Way this year but have given previously did not give for any reason other than they were not asked to give. How do we know? Because when we asked them, most community members who have previously supported United Way indicated they would support United Way again if asked. This is especially true with retirees.

I can already hear some of you thinking “Hey! We give people an opportunity to give online on our website.” While this may be true, the challenge with providing an online giving opportunity is that your potential donors need to “find” the giving opportunity. Workplace campaigns reach out to potential donors by bringing the giving opportunity to the donor. Most charitable giving occurs because the charity brings the giving opportunity to the potential donor through direct mail, social media, a golf tournament, or even cookie sales. Online giving portals fail to do this.

For all of the United Ways that are wrapping up their workplace campaigns, it is now time to start working on reaching the other half of your donors. What giving opportunities can your United Way provide to engage your former donors such as special events, affinity groups, or alternative giving opportunities? There are United Ways that we have worked with that raise up to one-third of their total resources from these types of activities.

We are not suggesting that United Ways eliminate their workplace campaigns. Instead, we are suggesting that they actively seek to attract donors outside of the workplace campaign. Based on our research and the increasing percentage of people who have given to United Way previously, reaching donors outside of the workplace campaign will be essential to long-term success.

If attracting former donors is a priority for your United Way, let us know and we can help you explore potential opportunities for reaching donors and develop a plan based on the most effective and efficient methods for your United Way.

The other half of your donors are waiting. Now is the time to begin the other half of your fundraising.

P.S. Be sure to join us at 2:00 p.m. EST next Monday, February 4th for our webinar “Get Your Board Onboard: Secrets of the Engaged Board.” You can learn more about “Get Your Board Onboard: Secrets of the Engaged Board” and all our webinars here.

We’re coming for you, Wisconsin!

It’s the coldest time of the year, so our Midwestern friends all know what that means – it’s time to head to snowy Milwaukee, Wisconsin for Great Rivers 2019!

We are honored and excited to announce that we are presenting two sessions on the first day of the 2019 Great Rivers Conference, and we look forward to seeing you there!

Our first session, Growing and Diversifying RUM: What You Need to Know, will be from 1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday, February 19. We’ve created this session in recognition of the fact that as workplace giving continues to decline system-wide, many United Ways feel pressure to find other avenues to grow their total resources under management (RUM) through methods such as planned giving, grants, and special events. In this session, we will discuss why it is so difficult to grow RUM using these methods within the confines of a typical United Way’s business model. We will also highlight how best to leverage the relationship between RUM growth, measurable impact, investing intentionally, and simple calls to action.

Our second session, Your Marketing Challenges Require More Than Marketing, will be from 3:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 19. Through this session, we are inviting you to join us for an honest conversation about the common marketing challenges facing United Ways today that will never be solved by marketing alone. We will dissect why it is difficult for people to understand what United Ways do and investigate why it is impossible to create a simple United Way message.

If you’re not planning on attending Great Rivers, we’d encourage you to think again (and not just because we’re going to be there). Conferences offer unparalleled opportunities to network with other United Ways throughout the system. With increasing competition for donors’ attention, changing donor demographics, and evolving donor expectations, it is now more important than ever to share resources and best practices with one another. If your United Way struggled during campaign this year or had a rough go with partner agencies, consider your attendance at Great Rivers 2019 as an investment into a stronger future. It’s entirely impossible to leave a Great Rivers conference without having learned something that will help your United Way to operate more smoothly, remain relevant in the community, or grow your total resources under management.

Early bird registration for the conference ends this Friday, January 18, so you should register soon to receive the discounted rate! The conference begins Tuesday, February 19 and runs until Friday, February 22.

We look forward to seeing you in Milwaukee!