Are We There Yet?

When my children were younger, one of the most frequent questions I would get while driving was “Are we there yet?” I am not sure whether it was my off-key singing along to 80’s hits, or just too long in the car, but for some reason my children regularly questioned “Are we there yet?”


For United Ways, it has been a long journey toward community impact. For over a decade now, United Ways have struggled with community impact – first trying to understand what community impact was, and then trying to figure out how to implement community impact. And after a decade of working toward community impact, perhaps your board members have even exclaimed “Are we there yet?”

At most United Ways the answer is “No, we are not there yet.” It is my opinion that approximately 85% of all United Ways are not there yet. My belief that 85% of all United Ways are not there yet is based on observation, and not any type of scientific survey. I am exposed to hundreds of United Ways every year through my work and speaking, and my conversations and observations suggest that about 85% of all United Ways have not fully implemented community impact yet.

While it is disappointing that so many United Ways have not fully implemented community impact, what troubles me far more is that most local United Way staff will state that their United Way has adopted community impact, and that their United Way is “there,” when in fact they are not. I think of it the same way as the fact that most people rate themselves better drivers than other people.

There has got to be a large percentage of those “great” drivers that are completely oblivious to the fact that they are worst drivers on the road. And the same holds true for United Ways. A large percentage of those local United Way staff that think their United Way should be held up as a poster-child for community impact are the ones that have done the least.

Many United Ways that think they have successfully implemented community impact have done nothing more than group all of their funded programs into the categories of education, income, and health. These United Ways list their funded programs in these three categories (or similar categories) and consider that community impact. Grouping funded programs into three categories may make your fund distribution process simpler or easier, but it is not community impact.

A United Way that has successfully implemented community impact will clearly demonstrate that they have completed all five steps toward community impact:

1. Identify community needs and concerns
2. Choose a limited number of critical issues
3. Develop strategies to address the critical issues
4. Implement the strategies with your partner agencies
5. Measure results, refine, and repeat

These steps have clear outcomes – people can see when you have achieved each step:

Your United Way can demonstrate how it identified community needs and concerns, perhaps through a needs assessment or similar process.

Your United Way has a clear focus on one, two, or three issues based on your community needs and concerns. There is a direct connection between community needs and concerns and the limited number of critical issues selected.

Your United Way uses strategies to address and improve the critical issues. There is a direct connection between the strategies you are using and the critical issues your United Way has selected.

Your funded programs are providing the strategies necessary to address the critical issues you have selected. Not just any program your partner agency provides, but specific programs and strategies to address your critical issues.
Your United Way can show results of the strategies that have improved the critical issues in your community.

You can say your United Way has adopted community impact when you have achieved all five of the steps. Most local United Way staff that say they have adopted community impact are not close to completing even one or two of these steps, let alone all five steps.

Community impact offers great potential and opportunities for United Ways to be successful in every community. Admitting that you are not there yet may well be the first step.