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.

In Defense of Designations

The issue of designations can be controversial. While some United Ways promote designations as a way to encourage donors to give, others discourage designations by placing restrictions on which organizations can be designated to or by requiring a minimum designation amount. Still, there are other United Ways that do not allow designations in any form.

While some United Ways insist that allowing designations runs in opposition to the spirit of the United Way movement, others insist that promoting designations embodies the historical roots of the United Way movement.

The reality is that every United Way and every community served by a United Way is unique. Therefore, there is no single, definitive answer for how all United Ways should handle designations.

With that in mind, there are three tenets that a United Way must consider when determining how to address donor designations: 

  • Donor designations are not inherently good or bad.

  • The value of designations depends on the individual United Way’s priorities and community.

  • Therefore, United Ways should select their approach to designations based on their unique situation.

These three points may not seem ground-breaking, but they are essential in determining whether or not designations are right for your United Way. Take for instance the question of whether or not your United Way should allow designations to any 501(c)3 in your community.

It’s easy to understand why a United Way might not want to allow designations to any local nonprofit. A United Way that accepts designations of this type has no control over where those donated dollars are invested in the community. Not only that, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to process donations when donors are designating to everything from the regional food bank to local churches.

If designations of this type limit a United Way’s ability to make strategic investments in the community and cuts into already limited staff time, when would a United Way want to consider allowing donors to make designations to any local nonprofit agency?

Allowing such designations makes sense when – above all else – a local United Way sees itself as a fundraiser. If a United Way prioritizes mobilizing as many dollars as possible during campaign, the best way to do that is to allow donors to give to whatever local nonprofits they want.

In the United States, there are examples of United Ways that have double and tripled their campaigns by encouraging donors to do all of their charitable giving – including church tithing – through United Way! For United Ways that define success according to the amount raised during campaign, there is no better way to maximize success than by allowing donations to be directed to any local nonprofit.

Of course, not every United Way defines success according to campaign. For United Ways that determine success according to measurable impact made in the community, the investment of staff time to process designations is likely not the most effective way to support impact work.

Every United Way is unique, so there is no single right answer when it comes to handling designations. Whether your United Way allows designations with no questions asked, places restrictions on designation amounts or recipients, or bans designations completely, your United Way needs to make the choice that best supports your goals.

If your United Way is focused on implementing community impact, you should assess whether or not staff time currently spent processing designations could be better spent working on impact initiatives. If your United Way wants to raise as much money as possible, you will be well-served to consider redirecting staff efforts to encouraging designations.

Whatever your United Way’s priorities, it is worth looking at your relationship with designations and assessing whether or not that relationship supports your United Way’s goals.