One afternoon this past week, I was working with the board of a United Way in Ohio to explore the next steps in their journey toward community impact. My favorite part of working with a board is answering their questions because even after working with United Way boards for 25 years, there is always a question or two that makes me stop and think.
This week’s thought-provoking question concerned the idea of a United Way focusing their efforts on a single issue, such as: hunger, homelessness, or poverty. One of the board members asked, “Donors don’t want us to be picking the issue, so how can a United Way focus on addressing a single issue?” Fortunately, the board member talked for another minute or so, before pausing to allow me to answer her question because I needed every precious second to think about the question she posed.
My response to her question involved three ideas. First, United Way volunteers have always picked the issues to be addressed. When an allocations committee selects the programs to be funded, they are, by default, selecting the issues to be addressed. Not every program gets funded; therefore, not every issue is addressed. If a United Way chooses to use categories like education, income, and health, then the issues are related to education, income, and health.
Second, donors want United Way to pick the issue. Our research with United Way donors has consistently found that donors expect United Way to identify and address the most critical issues facing their community. In fact, knowing the most important issues facing the community and the issues United Way is addressing, is more important to donors than knowing what organizations United Way funds, or even the campaign goal.
Third, there is an undeniable simplicity of a single issue focus for United Ways. It is far easier for a United Way to say to donors “we address hunger” than to explain to donors all of the issues addressed by dozens of funded programs. One United Way we recently worked with addressed 23 issues, by our count, through all of their funded programs. Even the best marketing or communication expert in the world couldn’t effectively communicate 23 different issues to a donor.
I think my response answered the board member’s question, since she did not ask a follow-up question and the conversation moved on to other topics. As your United Way journeys to community impact, perhaps you want to ask yourself a slightly modified version of the board member’s question: “Do our donors know what issue or issues our United Way is addressing?”