Why Before How

Most United Ways spend a lot of time and effort talking about how they do what they do. There are campaign brochures, campaign videos, campaign posters, and campaign kick-offs, which promote how to give to the workplace campaign. There are Web pages and annual reports that explain how hundreds of volunteers are involved in the allocation or investment process. There are community impact reports or outcomes reports which detail how partner agencies are held accountable for results of their funded programs.

Workplace campaigns, investment processes, and holding funded programs accountable are important work that United Ways do, but they are all “HOW” your United Way does what you do. Talking about how you do your work is a very easy and natural thing because you are personally connected to your work. Resource development staff can easily explain how their workplace campaigns are organized, the topics to be covered in an employee meeting, and what envelopes should be used to return pledge forms by what date, because they deal with the “how” of workplace campaigns each and every day. Community impact staff can easily explain the requirements to submit a grant, the steps of the evaluation process, and how often the investment council volunteers will meet, because they deal with the “how” of community impact each and every day.

How you do your work is very important to the staff of a United Way who live and breathe it every day. But, far more important to your donors and community is why your United Way does this work. Your donors and your community are asking questions like: “Why is United Way trying to raise $3 million (or whatever your campaign goal might be)?” and “Why are these programs and partner agencies receiving funding, but not other local nonprofits?” Our donor and community research is clear on this point – your donors and community have heard of your workplace campaigns and that you fund lots of local nonprofit organizations – what they don’t know and understand is “WHY” your United Way does these things.

So, why does your United Way raise money and fund programs? I know many United Ways will say they raise money and fund programs to help people or help the community. I am sure this is true, however, every social service organization in your community can legitimately claim they help people. A better answer will come from the results of your work, such as: reducing poverty, increasing the graduation rate, halting hunger, eliminating homelessness, etc. If you can clearly demonstrate impact on a significant social issue in your community, this will be your “why.” Compare these two statements:

Give to your workplace campaign and help United Way raise $3 million.

By donating to United Way, you are reducing poverty.   

The first statement talks about the workplace campaign and the “how” of raising $3 million. The second statement is far more powerful for your donors and community because it speaks to the “why” of supporting United Way. Another way to look at this question of “why” is through your goal. If the goal of your United Way is to raise $3 million, then you have a “how” goal. If the goal of your United Way is to reduce poverty, then you have a “why” goal. To be successful, I believe every United Way must have a “why” goal, or at a minimum be able to clearly state their “why.”

Your donors and community want and need to know why your United Way does what you do, before they need to know how you do it. If you only tell your donors and community one thing – it must be “why” your United Way does what it does.