Simple Math?

If you are one of those people who hears the word “math” and runs away screaming because math is not your thing, bear with me for a paragraph or two. There is no question that math itself can be complicated and complex, but mathematics can allow us to quantify and simplify complex ideas and concepts. Let’s see if math can help us understand the role and purpose of United Way.

Here is a simple equation we might use to help understand the role and purpose of United Way:

Donor + United Way = X

The obvious question is: What happens when a donor makes a contribution to your United Way? If we used this equation for Goodwill, as an example, it would look like this:

Donor + Goodwill = Helps create jobs

But, unlike Goodwill, every United Way is different, so instead of being able to say “helps create jobs,” we have to use a placeholder like the letter “X” to represent all of the different possibilities. There are several possibilities for what “X” could be at your United Way. If you have adopted issue-focused community impact, your “X” might be:

Donor + United Way = Reduce poverty by 50% by 2025

Donor + United Way = Increase the graduation rate to 90% by 2018

Donor + United Way = Halt hunger

Perhaps your “X” could come from your mission statement. If you have a well-crafted mission statement, your equation might be:

Donor + United Way = Improving lives and building a strong community

Donor + United Way = Permanently break the cycle of poverty for our most vulnerable neighbors: families, children, veterans, and the homeless

Many donors struggle to see what “X” is at their local United Way. When we conduct research with donors, many donors are unable to tell us how their contribution makes a difference or how their contribution changed their community for the better.

It is absolutely imperative that you are able to clearly and concisely complete this equation with an “X” that is meaningful to your donors. At your next staff meeting, take a moment and have each staff member try to complete this equation. Compare your results and see if there is a clear, concise, and consistent equation among all staff. For a real challenge, ask your board members to do the same at their next board meeting. I can predict that your board members will come up with about as many equations as there are board members.

But, defining “X” for your United Way is only the first of the two questions you need to answer. The second question is: How does including United Way in the equation make “X” greater? You must be able to demonstrate the value your United Way adds to the equation, or donors will not see the need to be a part of the equation.

The inability to describe the value of United Way is why a lot of donors designate their contribution. We have done enough research with local United Ways to find that lack of understanding about what United Way brings to the equation is the number one or number two reason why donors designate at most United Ways.

The United Ways that struggle the most are the ones that think their value is to raise a lot of money. Their equations look a lot like this:

Donors + $6.8 million = X

Our research with donors clearly shows that very few donors care about the total amount raised by United Way. An equation based on the total raised by a workplace campaign is meaningless to most donors. The equation is most effective when you can list what United Way does in order to achieve your “X.” For example:

Donors + United Way that convenes and leads the entire community to reduce poverty by identifying and implementing effective poverty-reduction programs with demonstrated success = Reduce the number of people living in poverty by 25,000 by 2025

This type of equation answers both questions, so that donors can see why their contribution plus their United Way results in a better community. The equation does not need to talk about every last thing that United Way does – it would be much too complicated and complex. Make a list of the value that your United Way adds to a donor’s contribution and then pick one or two key benefits and plug them into your equation.

This equation really is simple math, involving the addition of just two items. But, it is not a simple equation for most United Ways to solve. If it has been a long time since you had to do math, then ease back into math by tackling “X” this month and your value as a United Way next month. By the end of the year, you will be solving this equation.

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