Can Your Board Answer This Question?

Your board of directors has a variety of different roles and responsibilities. Beyond approval of the minutes and the budget, board members may be called upon to determine what programs get funded through the allocation process, to seek donations, or to share the United Way message at meetings and workplace campaigns. All of these roles and responsibilities are important; however, there is one role and responsibility that rests solely on the shoulders of your board – a role and responsibility that cannot be delegated to staff or to other volunteers.

It is your board’s primary responsibility to answer the question “Why does our United Way exist?”  The board bears the responsibility for wrestling with answering this philosophical question – expressed in another form as “What is the purpose of our United Way?” According to John Carver, the proponent and evangelist for policy governance, the most important work of any governing board is to create and recreate the reason for organizational existence.

In my experience, most United Way boards cannot answer these questions. They cannot tell you why United Way exists or the purpose of United Way. Well, let me refine that a little. They can tell you why they think United Way exists, but if you ask a board of 20 people why United Way exists, you are likely to get 20 different answers. United Ways exist, according to board members: to help people, to raise money for local organizations, to provide donors a single place to make their charitable contribution, to make sure local nonprofits are accountable and effective, to understand and address the community’s needs, to help families, to end homelessness, to halt hunger, and the list goes on - endlessly.

If the board of directors of United Way expresses such a diversity of response and belief as to why United Way exists, is it any surprise when donors or the community do not know what United Way does? Is one of the reasons why support from the younger generation has diminished over the years because they do not understand what United Way does? Perhaps the reasons why United Way existed several generations ago are no longer the reasons why United Way exists now? And what if United Way has changed, but the perceptions of why United Way exists have not?

These questions must be answered clearly and concisely by your board of directors. At least once a year, at one of your board meetings, the questions “Why does our United Way exist?” or “What is the purpose of United Way?” should be asked and answered by your board. This is not necessarily a difficult conversation, but more likely a conversation that has never occurred. Don’t set any boundaries on the conversation, let board members dialogue about why United Way exists and what United Way does.

There is not a singular, uniform, wrap-it-up-in-a-bow kind of answer to the question “Why does our United Way exist?” Recognizing that the reason why your United Way exists could be entirely different from the United Way in the next county makes it even more important to be able to articulate your answer. What you will find, once your board decides why United Way exists, is an incredible focus in your work. Your board will be able to go out and talk with one voice about why people should give, advocate, and volunteer at your United Way. Your staff will understand what the board values and expects United Way to accomplish. Your donors will support United Way knowing what their contribution will be enabling. Your community will understand how United Way fits into the larger fabric of the nonprofit and social service organizations in your area.