What Are You Afraid Of?


Recently, during a conversation with the CEO of a United Way who had adopted an issue focus, I asked him what advice he would give a United Way that was considering becoming issue-focused. I expected him to say something along the line of “Becoming issue-focused will change your United Way for the better” or “I wish we did this years ago.” But, he completely caught me off-guard when he said his advice would be to ask them “What are you afraid of?”

I have worked with United Ways since 1989, and there are more challenges facing United Ways now than ever. In many cases, these challenges are outside the direct control of a United Way. In the past 30 years, challenges brought about by the economy, changing workplaces, shifting corporate ownership, technology, media, demographics, and society have made the work of United Ways significantly more difficult. United Ways struggle to deal with these challenges, and solutions are few and far between.

Whenever things are challenging, I am reminded of a quote that goes something like this “Focus on the things you can control.” Despite the uncertainty of the economy, workplaces, corporate ownership, technology, media, and society, United Ways are still in complete control of their work. Every day you can decide how your United Way is going to change your community, and the methods it will use to do that work.

There cannot be many, if any, organizations that have been around for as long as United Way and not changed what they do, or at least how they do it. Think about organizations like Western Union, Ford Motor Company, or General Electric, and you can see significant changes in what they do now, and especially how they do it, from years ago. The question is not “Will United Way change?,” the questions are “When will United Way change?” and “How will United Way change?”

United Way CEOs often tell me they are afraid of changing what they are doing. They are concerned that if they change what they are doing they might lose donors, their partner agencies might be offended, or something else bad might happen. After saying “What are you afraid of?” the CEO I was talking to said “If you're afraid of losing donors, it's already too late. You're already losing donors. Just do it!” Change can be scary, but what are you more afraid of – the uncertainty of what will happen to your United Way if you do nothing, or changing your United Way to take control of your future?  

Making a change like transforming your United Way to an issue focus is not easy. However, when you make the change to become issue-focused, you are focusing on the things you can control. From our years of experience helping United Ways become issue-focused, we have found that having the right information from using our Direction-Setting process and carefully planning your transformation to an issue focus using our Strategic Planning process eliminates a lot of the uncertainty.  

Take a moment to think about the future of your United Way, and reflect on the words of a United Way CEO that has transformed his United Way into an issue-focused United Way: “What are you afraid of?”