Lessons Learned in 25 Years

This year marks the 25th year Perspectives has worked with United Ways throughout the United States. We worked with our first United Way in 1989, and since then, we have worked with dozens of United Ways, providing training, research, and planning services to empower the mission and focus the vision of United Ways. Throughout this year, we’ll share some of the lessons we have learned from working with United Ways.

Lesson Three: Over half of all non-donors have given to United Way previously

One meaningful change, one which cannot be ignored, concerns donors – or more specifically, former donors to United Ways. When we survey people who do not contribute to their local United Way, one of the questions we ask them is “Have you ever donated to United Way?” On every survey where we have asked this question since 2008, over half of all people who do not currently donate to United Way HAVE DONATED previously. Yes, you read that correctly, over half of all people who do not support United Way today, did support United Way at some point in the past. In fact, simple math tells us that there are actually more people who previously donated to United Way than there are who are currently donating to United Way.

It was not always this way. Back in the early 1990s, when we were first conducting these types of surveys for United Ways, the percentage of non-donors who had contributed previously was significantly lower – in the 30% range. Now, we see percentages of non-donors who contributed previously as high as 57%. For most of you, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise; rather, it reinforces what you have known intuitively all along. When the number of donors supporting your United Way decreases, that means there are more former donors.

There are many reasons why people no longer give to United Way when they gave previously. One of the most common is that these former donors are no longer being asked to give. For example, many retirees may have supported United Way for decades, but no longer support United Way because they have left the workforce and are no longer being asked to give. Do retirees want to continue supporting United Way? Absolutely. Most retirees who used to give to United Way are still willing to give to United Way if asked.

Another large group of former donors are people who no longer work at an organization with a workplace campaign. Whether the employees leave an organization with a workplace campaign for employment at an organization without a workplace campaign, or an organization with a workplace campaign closes, the net effect is the same. There are United Way donors relegated to non-donor status because they are no longer exposed to the workplace campaign. Do these former donors still want to continue supporting United Way? Many do, if they were only asked.

The imperative for United Ways is clear – reclaim former donors. How? The answer is simple - by asking them to give. The challenge comes in the execution. United Ways need to move past reliance on the workplace campaign as the primary way people are asked to give to United Way. There are many methods that can be used to ask people to give including mail or e-mail, events, affinity groups, etc. The focus needs to move from the workplace to the donor – something we call becoming donor-centric. Our free webinar “Becoming More Donor-Centric: Three Things You Should Start Doing Tomorrow” explains this idea in more detail.

Becoming donor-centric is the way your United Way can stop saying goodbye to your donors.