Does Your United Way Have Vision?

A quick Google search easily finds hundreds of United Ways have a vision statement posted on their website, and each vision statement is unique. Some vision statements are all about the United Way:

United Way of ______ is the premier organization for charitable giving in __________.

To be the most effective United Way in the most caring community.

Some vision statements talk about how the United Way will get things done:

United Way of _________ will be the leader in bringing partners and resources together to address priority needs and provide solutions that strengthen our community.

To meet current and emerging needs in _____ County that are best met through voluntarism by uniting contributors, providers and users of human services in a voluntary and cooperative effort through fund raising campaigns, programs, planning and evaluation, and distribution of funds to participating agencies.

And some vision statements express great hope for everyone in the community:

A _____ County where everyone can succeed in school, work and life.

United Way of _________ envisions a community where all individuals and families achieve their full potential.

To build a caring community of neighbors helping neighbors which empowers people to improve the quality and dignity of life.

Since there is such diversity in vision statements, it is worth taking a moment to examine the definition of a vision statement. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a vision statement is defined as “A statement of what a company or organization would like to achieve in the future.” The Business Dictionary defines a vision statement as “An aspirational description of what an organization would like to achieve or accomplish in the mid-term or long-term future.” I will concede that there are other definitions for vision statements, which primarily come from the corporate world. A vision statement for a United Way should not be based on corporate norms, which is why I chose these definitions of a vision statement as examples.

Over the years, I have seen a lot of vision statements from United Ways, and most probably meet these definitions. However, just because a vision statement meets the definition does not make it useful or beneficial. This begs the question “Why would a United Way want a vision statement?”

Donors have always struggled to understand how their contribution makes a difference, which can be resolved with a carefully crafted vision statement. Notice how I qualified this benefit of a vision statement with the words “carefully crafted.” Looking at the vision statement examples listed earlier, you will find that several of them are not written for the donor – they are written for the United Way board and staff. A donor is never going to give to a United Way because they want United Way to be the “premier organization for charitable giving.” What donors will support is a United Way with a vision like “To end chronic and veteran homelessness in ____” because they can clearly understand the impact of their contribution.

Your vision must appeal to the donor, and be written for the donor. Donors care about the results of their contribution, and not the particular details of how the United Way achieves those results. A vision statement like “_____ United Way inspires a community of participation that identifies, evaluates and provides funding for community needs” talks about how this United Way works through identifying, evaluating, and funding. The donor just wants to know the results – what did the identifying, evaluating, and funding accomplish? Who was helped? How is the community better?

Another reason why your United Way needs a carefully crafted vision statement is to focus the work of your staff and volunteers. I am not suggesting that United Way staff are unfocused, but with a vision statement like “We will be champions of our community, empowering individuals and improving lives, while striving for ideals that facilitate lasting, positive change” staff would be doing absolutely anything and everything. Contrast that with a vision statement like “Help 5,000 ____ County residents develop a pathway to financial success by 2025” and you can see how the staff at this United Way know precisely what they are trying to accomplish each and every day.

Furthermore, when you have a carefully crafted vision statement, your impact or investment volunteers can make informed funding decisions. With a vision statement like “To be the primary community solutions leader for human services,” investment volunteers could choose to fund nearly any requested program. On the other hand, a vision statement like “Our vision is to end poverty in _____ one family at a time” tells investment volunteers they should be funding programs that end poverty at the family level in their community.

At an issue-focused United Way, their vision is their bold goal. For example, the vision of United Way of Wayne & Holmes Counties (Wooster, Ohio) is their bold goal of “10,000 out of poverty by 2025.” Everyone who donates to United Way of Wayne & Holmes Counties understands clearly from their vision that their contribution is helping move people out of poverty. This clarity not only motivates donors, it also guides the work of the staff. The entire staff of United Way of Wayne & Holmes Counties comes to work every day to move people out of poverty. Their programmatic investments and initiatives are solely focused on moving people out of poverty.

Issue-focused United Ways always have a clear vision, as they are focused on only addressing a single issue with a single bold goal. The challenge for many United Ways is that they are trying to be many things to many people, which results in a broad and general mission statement, such as “To be the primary community solutions leader for human services,” which does not inspire a donor to support United Way. Clarity in focus and message is just one of the many benefits of becoming issue-focused. For more information on how your United Way could become issue-focused, check out:

A vision statement that clearly and concisely explains what your United Way would like to achieve in the future is essential to your success. As you think about your vision statement, consider this biblical passage:

Where there is no vision, the people perish” - Proverbs 29:18