Stop Using Thermometers!

Let me start with a confession – every morning, one of the first things I do is peer out of my bedroom window at a thermometer to see what the temperature is outside. The practical reason I pay attention to the thermometer is because I go running in the morning and I want to make sure that I am dressed appropriately for the weather conditions. I have a need to know the temperature so that I survive my run, which as anyone who runs outside year-round in Michigan knows, “survive” is not an exaggeration. So, clearly I value my thermometer.

But, let me be perfectly clear and direct. United Ways must STOP using thermometers! If you have heard me speak at a conference or state association meeting, you will know of my passionate distain of United Ways using thermometers. I am on a mission to put an end to thermometers at United Ways. Let me share with you just a few of the reasons why no United Way should be using a thermometer.

First, donors do not care about the campaign goal. Our research with United Way donors has repeatedly found that very, very few donors care about the amount of the campaign goal. The campaign goal does not motivate donors to give or to give more. There is no reason for a thermometer to measure what donors do not care about.

Second, a thermometer reinforces that United Ways are fundraisers. A thermometer measuring the campaign goal only reinforces that United Way is a fundraiser – it does not send any other message. A thermometer is an effective graphic representation of United Way as a fundraiser, despite claims to the contrary like “United Way is more than a fundraiser.” Using a thermometer only reinforces a message you don’t want reinforced about United Ways.

Third, a thermometer is measuring the wrong thing. I think many United Ways use a thermometer because they do not know what they should be measuring. If United Way has adopted community impact, then it should be measuring change in the community, or the results of addressing social issues in the community. Donors want to know what United Ways accomplish with their contributions. United Ways should be sharing the results of investing contributions, not the amount of contributions raised using a thermometer.

Fourth, the scale of the thermometer does not give any information about how to act. What should a person do when the thermometer reads 40% or 60%? The percentage of the campaign goal provides no meaningful information that a local resident or donor can use. In contrast, when a thermometer reads 30 degrees, you know to dress differently than when the thermometer reads 80 degrees.

Fifth, most thermometers are not located where a donor could act on the information. For example, if a thermometer is placed in front of a local business, it is not a place where a potential donor could act on the provided information. If you are driving down the road and see a billboard for a fast food restaurant and you are hungry, you can drive to the fast food restaurant. If you are driving down the road and see a thermometer for United Way and you want to donate, where do you go?

There is no reason why United Ways need a thermometer – none. If your United Way is using thermometers now, please take them down immediately. Replace them with a sign that says “Donating to United Way _____ _______ ________” and fill-in the blanks with something like “helps reduce hunger” or “helps kids graduate.” This is exactly what your donors want to know.