Does Your United Way Have Silos?


In our part of southwest Michigan, you don’t need to drive very far to see a farm with silos next to the barn. The barns and silos that dot the rural southwest Michigan landscape look like they have been there forever, like the tallest oaks and maple trees. The round silo has been a fixture on American farms for well over 100 years, and the number of silos in this country grew dramatically in the early 1900’s with the growth of livestock farming. As an aside, if you are curious about why all silos are round, there are several good answers on the Google.

Silos are a more recent addition to the United Way landscape, gaining popularity in the early 2000’s. Silos at United Ways are easily recognizable by their names. Some United Ways call their silos “Education,” “Income,” and “Health” while other United Ways have more exotic names for their silos like “Safety Net,” Youth Success,” or “Seniors.” Some United Ways have smaller farms, with a mere 2 or 3 silos, while other United Ways run major commercial farming operations with seven or more silos.

Instead of corn or grain, United Ways store all their funded programs, and in some cases, their partner agencies, in their silos. Everything fits into a silo – as United Ways have built their three, or four, or seven silos so that everything fits. United Ways have also found silos to be modern marvels of communication, as it can be easier to talk about a couple of silos then it is to talk about all their funded programs.

However, silos also present a variety of challenges for United Ways. First, donors have a hard time understanding what is in the silo, for example, what should a donor expect to find inside a silo named “Income?” If you look inside “Income” silos at a variety of United Ways, you can find programs like GED training, homeless shelters, food banks, legal aid, disaster relief, domestic violence counseling, and mental health. From one United Way to another, the same program can be found in silos of different names. Since United Ways interpret the names of the silos differently, it makes sense that donors don’t understand what is in each silo either.

Second, the “build the silos and they will come” approach isn’t as perfect as it seems, as most United Ways end up with an allocation or investment committee for each silo – four silos mean four allocation or investment committees. And when there are multiple committees, the board or staff are required to make an arbitrary decision about how much money will be available to each committee to allocate or invest in programs for each silo. I am aware of several United Ways that have torn down one or more of their silos because they were allocating limited funds to the silo and had a hard time finding worthy programs to fund.

To silo or not to silo, that is the question.

If the purpose of your United Way is to raise money for a variety of partner agencies and funded programs, then YES it may be worthwhile to have silos. For example, a United Way that funds 30 partner agencies and 45 programs will find it easier to talk about three silos then talking about so many partner agencies and programs.

If the purpose of your United Way is to make measurable impact in your community, then NO you don’t need silos. For example, a United Way with the goal of lifting 15,000 families out of poverty by 2030, should determine if a program gets funding by evaluating how effectively the program lifts families out of poverty compared to other programs. There is no need for silos to group programs artificially when the standard for evaluating a program is lifting families out of poverty. Issue-focused United Ways with these types of bold goals also have a very simple message such as “Giving to United Way lifts families out of poverty” which would only be more complicated if they had to message about a variety of silos as well.

If your United Way has silos, think carefully about the advantages and disadvantages of having silos. Not every farm has a silo, and perhaps your United Way does not need them either.