The Difference Between Auto Manufacturers and United Ways


What if automobile manufacturers sold cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give?

Imagine if Ford said: “Our goal at Ford is to sell three million cars and trucks this year. So, please buy a Ford and help us meet our goal.” Does this move you to purchase a Ford? Of course not! This is no different than United Ways saying, “Our goal at United Way is to raise $3 million dollars this year.” Our research with United Way donors has found that United Way’s campaign goals do not motivate donors to give, nor do they increase, in the slightest, the amount donors contribute.

Imagine if Toyota said: “Please buy a Toyota because we have six manufacturing plants in the United States.” I am not sure any of you are running out to buy a Toyota because of their number of manufacturing plants. This is no different than United Ways saying, “Give to United Way because we have three investment panels or four allocation committees.” Talking about the number of investment panels or allocation committees is like talking about how cars are manufactured – no one really cares and no one is inspired to invest when they learn about your production process.

Imagine if General Motors said: “Please buy a General Motors car or truck because we use over 70 suppliers to manufacture our cars and trucks.” Using suppliers may be necessary for manufacturing cars and trucks, but it certainly does not supply me with the motivation to buy a General Motors car or truck. This is no different than United Ways saying, “We fund 36 partner agencies and 42 programs.” Knowing how many partner agencies or programs are funded by a United Way does not motivate donors to give. There may be some donors who might be motivated by knowing which partner agencies and what programs a United Way funds. But, I am willing to bet that if we told a United Way donor that last year we funded 36 partner agencies, and this year we funded 39 partner agencies (or even 32 partner agencies), that it would not change the amount of their contribution one bit.

Imagine if BMW said: “Buy a BMW because it takes 40 hours to manufacture each BMW.” Are you driven to buy your BMW knowing this? This is no different than United Ways saying, “Over one hundred volunteers met eight times over the past three months to determine what partner agencies and programs will be funded this year.” I have had United Ways tell me that donors want to know that United Ways hold their partner agencies and funded programs accountable, and sharing the number of people and time spent on the allocation process is one way to demonstrate this to donors. But, the number of people and time spent does not demonstrate accountability. Accountability for donors is simple – show donors what United Way accomplished with their contribution.

Imagine if Honda said: “Our cars and trucks have four wheels, seats, a steering wheel, and headlights.” I am sure you almost feel offended that Honda would feel the need to tell you this. This is no different than United Ways saying, “We help people, advance the common good, and bring people and communities together.” United Way are not unique here – every nonprofit does these things. The difference is that other nonprofits talk about the issue they address, how they make a difference in the community, and the results of their efforts. Our research with United Way donors is clear on this point – donors want and need to know: the issue you are addressing, how you are addressing the issue, and the results you have achieved.

Going back to the opening question, I suspect that if automobile manufacturers sold cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give, sales of cars and trucks would be on the decline. Thankfully for us in Michigan, a state highly dependent on the success of the auto industry, automobile manufacturers do not ask people to buy their cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give.

The way most United Ways communicate does not motivate people to donate to United Way. These examples of automobile manufacturers asking people to buy their cars and trucks in same way United Ways ask people to give illustrates this challenge. Over the next week or two, think about what your United Way is saying to donors. This is a challenge that must be solved.

P.S. In my next blog post, I’ll share with you the solution to this challenge.

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Quote of the Month: July 2018

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This month’s quote is commonly attributed to both Agatha Christie and Mark Twain,  but its origin is likely an anonymous speaker before both Twain and Christie's times.

"The secret to getting ahead is getting started."

The world of philanthropy is changing. From shifting donor demographics to the rollout of Philanthropy Cloud, United Ways have to work hard to keep on top of changing trends and evolving donor expectations. As United Way workplace campaigns across the country continue their slow decline, it’s obvious that something has to change. If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we cannot expect the world to suddenly change for us; we must adapt to the world.

In the face of a necessary change, the next step is intimidating. Venturing into a world unknown is challenging, yet it is essential our continued evolution and existence. To stay ahead of the national pattern of decline, United Ways need to start transforming. 

We know organizational change is scary, and that’s why we provide a guiding hand to United Ways across the country. Learn how our Introduction to an Issue Focus Board Retreat can get your United Way started on the  journey to become a more relevant, sustainable, and impactful organization that is ahead of the workplace campaign decline.

If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at

Perspectives is on the Road Again

We’re on the road again!

This time, we're headed to Erie, Pennsylvania to the United Way of Pennsylvania State Conference. For those of you also headed to Erie, we’d like to invite you to our revamped “Positioning Your United Way for 2020: What You Must Plan & Start Doing Today” presentation.

Our presentation will discuss common communication, resource development, and marketing/engagement challenges faced by United Ways of all sizes. Our presentation will also help you to create a call to action that can be used with all of your stakeholders, think about the long-term future of your United Way, and lay the groundwork for the most important decision that your United Way will make before 2020.

We last presented this session at the Great Rivers 2017 Conference, where the session received rave reviews from attendees.

Fantastic! Promoted change and growth!
— 2017 Great Rivers Conference Attendee
Thanks so much – I needed you last summer as we are only now finishing our strategic plan!
— 2017 Great Rivers Conference Attendee
Excellent session! Engaging and dedicated to United Ways!
— 2017 Great Rivers Conference

If you’ll be in Erie this week, we’d love for you to attend our session! And, if you won’t be in Pennsylvania but our session sounds interesting to you – you’re still in luck! While we’re sorry that we won’t get to see you, we do offer this presentation as a recorded webinar, which you can find here.

However, you view it – whether at the conference or online – we are excited to share this presentation with you!

That said, we wish safe travels to all that are headed to Erie this week. We can’t wait to teach, learn, and share alongside you all!

Quote of the Month: May 2018

Our May Quote of the Month comes from OnTrack Greenville, United Way of Greenville County and partners:

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“Students are the priority – Collaboration is the strategy – Change is the reality” – OnTrack Greenville (United Way of Greenville County and partners)

At the Southeast Regional Conference, I attended a session led by Sabrina Miller, from the United Way of Greenville County. Sabrina was wearing a t-shirt with this quote, which relates to their OnTrack Greenville efforts. OnTrack Greenville is a place-based initiative focusing on middle school grades in the public schools. This short quote answers all your questions about OnTrack Greenville and United Way of Greenville County. Who are they helping? Students. How are they helping? Collaboration. What are the results? Change. If you are looking for more information, or more detail, they can provide it. There is no question that United Way of Greenville County is attracting interest with this quote, and interest is the first step to developing a meaningful relationship with your donors and potential donors. If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at

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Thank You to the Trailblazers

scenic chairlift - Ober Gatlinburg

When the Southeast Regional Conference ended last week, Gary and I headed up the scenic chairlift on Mount Harrison. We were headed toward what we had been promised was “the greatest view in the Smokies that you can get without hiking.” 

If you look at the photo to the right, you can see that it is no short climb to top of Mount Harrison. Moreover, that photo was taken after we had already enjoyed a ten-minute cable car ride up the mountain and nearly half of our peak-bound chairlift trip.

Although Mount Harrison is 2,200 feet above Gatlinburg, our journey to the top was pretty easy. As we went up though, I thought about the first trailblazer to climb to the top of Mount Harrison.

That first trailblazer – whoever they were – had to make it to the top of the mountain through uncharted forest, river, wildlife, and other hazards. Getting to the top before the addition of cable cars, chairlifts, and maps of the mountain was no easy feat. 

And that’s the thing about blazing a trail; it isn’t easy. You might have some idea of what lies at the end of your journey, but there’s little guarantee that you’ll end up exactly where you expect. And while you might have some idea of your final destination, you don’t know what hazards you may run into while you work your way there. 

But, when you finally reach the end of your journey, you can come back down the mountain and tell others that they too can get to the top of the mountain. Then they will climb the mountain and return with their own ideas of how to improve the journey to the top. That cycle continues until the day when getting to the top of the mountain is easy, and there are cable cars, chair lifts, and mountain maps. 

Trailblazing isn’t easy, but its thanks to the trailblazers of this world that we are able to know that we can reach the peaks of mountains and that together was can improve the journey to the top for those who follow. 

That’s why it’s such an honor to be able to participate in United Way conferences. Conferences facilitate the exchange of ideas and experience, which ultimately makes everyone’s journey up whatever mountain they’re facing just a little bit easier. 

We are thankful that we had the opportunity not just to share our Issue Focus expertise at SERC 2018, but also that we had the chance to hear and learn from so many United Ways that are changing their communities in creative, new ways. We’re grateful to have spent last week hearing and sharing stories of paths forged and mountains conquered.

Of course, we are especially grateful for Anita Barker of United Way of North Carolina. SERC 2018 would not have been possible without all of her hard work in organizing such a great conference. Anita, thank you for creating a space for United Ways to trailblaze together.