I Am Not Sure We Are Changing Things

Recently, Kasey and I were facilitating a board retreat for a local United Way. During a discussion about the future of their United Way, one of the board members said “Right now we are helping people, but I am not sure we are changing things.” Let’s consider what this statement means for the future of your United Way.

Many United Ways struggle with being able to tell donors what was accomplished with their contribution. For a board member to say “Right now we are helping people” suggests that even board members, who have intimate knowledge of all aspects of United Way work, struggle with being able to state exactly how their United Way is making a difference. The phrase “helping people” is generic enough that it would apply to every human services organization. “Right now we are helping people” is a statement that board members at many United Ways would make throughout the United States.

The second part of the statement, “but I am not sure we are changing things” goes to the core of why United Way exists. Does United Way exist to “help people” or to “change things?” If United Way exists to help people, then changing things is not necessarily the goal. But, if United Way exists to change things, then this board member is calling into question whether their United Way is changing anything at all. 

Should your United Way be “changing things?” As United Ways wrestle with relevance, a goal of changing things may make your United Way more relevant to your donors. In our experience, United Ways that adopt an issue focus become more relevant to donors. Our donor research finds that donors at issue-focused United Ways understand what their United Way accomplishes, and have a better opinion of their United Way. Designations at issue-focused United Ways decrease as donors more clearly understand why giving to their United Way makes a difference, rather than using United Way to pass-through their contributions. Total resources increase at issue-focused United Ways as additional funds are secured from diversified funding sources interested in changing the issue.

Is “helping people” enough to engage your donors and make your United Way relevant – or should your United Way by “changing things?”