The Only Two Strategies for United Ways

After working with United Ways for over 20 years now, it is clear to me that there are only two successful strategies used by United Ways. These two strategies are in use by United Ways of all sizes, from Metro 1s on down, and by United Ways located throughout the country, from the coasts to the heartland.

I call the first strategy “Fundraising-Focused.” Everything that a Fundraising-Focused United Way does starts with raising money. The fundraising process is the heart of a Fundraising-Focused United Way. While there may be plenty of other things going on at a Fundraising-Focused United Way, raising money is what brings life to the rest of the organization. Fundraising-Focused United Ways use their campaign goal and number of donors to measure their “heart’s” performance, like you and I measure our heart rate and blood pressure. Rarely have I found a Fundraising-Focused United Way that actively measures anything other than fundraising.

The distribution of the funds raised at a Fundraising-Focused United Way is based on how much money was raised and who applied for the funds. The allocation panels are given an amount to distribute, which is based on the amount raised. When partner agencies apply for funds at a Fundraising-Focused United Way, their goal is to secure as much funding as possible from United Way. A Fundraising-Focused United Way may have different allocation panels for categories like education, income, and health, but the allocations made by those panels are limited to the funds available, which are distributed to the partner agencies that apply.

Donors to a Fundraising-Focused United Way contribute knowing that their United Way will raise a lot of money from people like themselves, and will allocate their contribution to worthwhile organizations in the community. A Fundraising-Focused United Way is like a mutual fund for charitable giving, allowing donors to invest in a variety of local organizations without having to personally select those organizations.

Most United Ways are Fundraising-Focused, a result of the long history of United Ways as fundraising organizations.

The second strategy is “Issue-Focused.” An Issue-Focused United Way is most concerned about addressing a limited number of significant social issues in their community.

These issues drive everything that an Issue-Focused United Way does, including fundraising, allocations, and communication. The financial goal of an Issue-Focused United Way is not their campaign goal, but the financial resources necessary to address their issues. This financial support comes from a variety of sources, such as the workplace campaign, private foundations, government programs, etc., and the Issue-Focused United Way dedicates the staff and resources necessary to secure those funds from the appropriate sources.

The allocation process at an Issue-Focused United Way determines what programs and services are needed to address the social issues. It is only after the programs and services are determined that organizations are sought to deliver those programs and services. In some cases, United Ways create organizations or deliver necessary programs or services themselves, if there is not a partner agency or local organization capable or willing to provide the programs and services.

Communication at an Issue-Focused United Way revolves around making sure donors and the community understand how United Way is addressing the social issues. The message may involve both communicating the importance and prevalence of the issue, as well as sharing stories and examples of results addressing the issues. The limited number of social issues at an Issue-Focused United Way are clearly communicated  throughout all media, from campaign materials to annual reports.

The primary measures of success at an Issue-Focused United Way are related to the social issues, such as the number of people helped, reduction of the prevalence of the issue, or measures specific to resolving the social issues. An Issue-Focused United Way may also have some financial measures, but they are related to addressing the issues.

Donors to an Issue-Focused United Way contribute because they are concerned about the social issue being addressed by United Way. They want to see that issue addressed in their community and believe their United Way is impacting the issue in a meaningful way.

Far fewer United Ways are Issue-Focused, as many United Ways have only recently started to adopt the concepts of issue-based community impact in a holistic manner.

Both of these strategies work, as there are plenty of United Ways that are successful Fundraising-Focused United Ways, and there are United Ways that are successful Issue-Focused United Ways. But, most United Ways I see that are struggling now are trying to bridge the gap between Fundraising-Focused and Issue-Focused, and there is no middle ground between these strategies. Successful United Ways are clear about their strategy, either Fundraising-Focused or Issue-Focused. If your United Way is not clearly Fundraising-Focused or clearly Issue-Focused, then your highest priority is to choose one strategy for your United Way.