Being a board member for a local United Way can be a challenging job. One of the most challenging parts of the job is making changes to the partner agencies or programs that receive funding. A common refrain from board members is: “We can’t stop funding ________ (partner agency) or _______ (program) because our community needs this partner agency or program and they will go away without our funding.”
Two thoughts come to mind immediately when I hear this refrain.
First, how much support is United Way providing to these partner agencies and programs? I always ask to see a listing of all of the partner agencies and programs, including how much each partner agency and program is receiving from United Way, and also the total budget of the partner agency or program. In most cases, United Way is funding a minor percentage of the total budget of any partner agency or program. One United Way provided me a list with one program that was totally funded by United Way, and the remaining programs were funded at between 3% and 33% of the total program budget. For the one program that was completely funded by United Way, it would probably cease to exist if United Way stopped funding the program. For all of the other programs, United Way funding was no more than one-third of the total program budget, and as little as 3% of the program budget. Would a program receiving 3% of their budget from United Way cease to exist if United Way stopped funding that program? Probably not.
This list of partner agencies and programs, with their United Way funding and total funding, is something every board member should be provided when it is time to discuss or approve what partner agencies or programs receive funding, or if there will be changes to the funding levels. The reality is that there are very few partner agencies or programs that would cease to exist if United Way made changes to their funding.
Second, by funding the same partner agencies and the same programs at the same levels, one could conclude that the needs in the community have not changed. One United Way told me that they had funded the same partner agencies and nearly the same programs for 20 years. I would find it impossible to believe the needs in their community are the same as they were 20 years ago. Perhaps the same needs still exist in the community, but perhaps there are different partner agencies or programs available now to address these issues or new issues in the community. Even the idea that the funded programs are as effective now as they were 20 years ago makes me wonder.
The responsibility for determining what partner agencies and programs receive funding must look at the needs and issues in the community and how effectively partner agencies and programs are addressing those needs. If your impact council or allocation committee is recommending the same partner agencies and the same programs for funding this time around as last time, there should be some type of review or evaluation that shows that the issues and needs addressed by these partner agencies and programs are still the issues and needs that should be addressed by United Way, that these partner agencies and programs are the best possible way to address these issues and needs, and that no better alternatives exist within the community.
The decision to make changes in funding for partner agencies and programs is not easy, but it can clearly demonstrate to your donors and the community that United Way is making decisions that reflect changing issues and needs, and is selecting the most effective partner agencies and programs. To make change for the sake of change is not the goal – the goal is to make sure funding decisions best address the needs and issues in your community, by funding the most effective partner agencies and programs to make change happen in your community.