You Only Need One Compass

One of my fondest memories of being a Boy Scout was orienteering at Scout camp. Orienteering is the technical name for using a map and compass to navigate from point to point, through diverse and unfamiliar terrain, to locate and visit control points in sequence. At Scout camp, it was using a map and compass to find your way through the woods, finding a sequence of small hidden letters which spelled a word when completed. Scouts would each “run” the orienteering course individually, find all the letters, and the Scout that did it in the quickest time would be the winner.

There was nothing terribly complicated about orienteering. You need to know how to read a map and use a compass, you should be good at avoiding poison ivy and bears (I never actually saw a bear while orienteering because I was really good at avoiding them), and you must have enough stamina to hike up and down hills through the woods. My success at orienteering came from being able to read a map and compass with a modicum of proficiency.

You only need one compass to participate in orienteering. You can only head in one direction at a time, and the next point you are trying to reach can be easily determined using one compass. There is no need, nor is there any benefit, to using more than one compass or having a variety of different compasses.

When I think about most United Ways, I see a lot of compasses. Many United Ways have a financial compass, which points in the direction of their campaign goal. These same United Ways also have an education compass, which points in the direction of increasing the graduation rate as an example. Another compass is their income compass, which points in the direction of reducing poverty as an example. Finally, they also have a health compass, which points in the direction of improving the infant mortality rate as an example. I have even seen a few United Ways with enough compasses to equip an entire troop of Boy Scouts.

When a United Way has many compasses, it raises a lot of questions. Does every staff member follow every compass, or do staff members only need to be concerned with their compass? What happens when there are not enough resources to follow all of the compasses at the same time? Is United Way successful when it reaches one compass’ destination, but does not reach the destination of the other compasses?

United Ways that are issue-focused have only one compass – pointed in one direction, to reach one destination. Whether that direction is reducing poverty, increasing the graduation rate, or ending homelessness, there is only one compass at an issue-focused United Way and everyone is following that compass. United Way staff are all working to reach the destination. Donors easily understand the one direction United Way is heading. People give, advocate, and volunteer for United Way to help get closer to the destination.

When your United Way has many different compasses, you are not moving in a single direction. It is impossible to reach your destination when you have several destinations, each with their own compass. As you think about your work this year, think about how many compasses there are at your United Way. You only need one compass - not three, four, five or more.