To Designate or Not to Designate, Why is the Question


I recently read a newspaper article about a United Way that had to cut-back their allocations to partner agencies because too many donors designated their contributions. When asked about the cut-back, the president of the United Way blamed those donors who designated their contribution. Blaming donors for having to cut-back allocations is not only bad public relations, it is just plain wrong. The blame for increased designations lies with the United Way.

It may come as a surprise to some United Way presidents, but two of the most common reasons why your donors designate are the direct result of what your United Way does, or rather what it does not do. Our research for local United Ways has found many donors designate because they have no idea what their United Way does or they do not trust their local United Way.

Your donors make the ultimate decision about whether or not to designate their contribution, but they make that decision based on their understanding and trust of your United Way. If you are not clearly articulating what your United Way does, then you are encouraging your donors to designate. When donors do not understand what is accomplished with their contributions, they will designate to local nonprofits because they know exactly what Goodwill, the local Boys and Girls Club, or the Boy Scouts do. If you are not demonstrating that donors can trust your United Way, then you are encouraging your donors to designate. When donors think United Way misspends or doesn’t account for their contribution, then they will designate to a local nonprofit they trust. You must make the case to donors how their contribution makes a difference in your community, and that your United Way can be trusted to be accountable for their contribution.

It may be impossible to convince every donor to stop designating; however, every United Way can reduce their level of designations by communicating impact and reinforcing trust. You can learn more about communicating impact from our webinar IAR – Three Letters for Simple & Effective Community Impact and learn more about building trust with your donors from our webinar SST – Three Letters for Successful United Way Campaigns and Communication.

There are many things that may be beyond the control of your United Way, like the economy or unemployment, but designations are not one of them. Take control of your designations by making it clear to every donor exactly what your United Way does and build a trusting relationship with your donors. 

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