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The Communication Challenge Facing United Ways

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In my most recent blog post, The Difference Between Auto Manufacturers and United Ways, I asked the question “What if automobile manufacturers sold cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give?”

As I noted in my previous blog post, many United Ways communicate information like their campaign goal, number of investment panels, number of funded partner agencies, and how many volunteer hours it took to determine the allocations – but, this information does not motivate donors to give.  

The communication challenge facing many United Ways is sharing a message that resonates with donors. Fundraising-focused United Ways, which exist to raise money to fund local nonprofits and programs, share a lot of information about their processes – like their campaign goal and number of funded programs – but this does not motivate donors. Some fundraising-focused United Ways share stories about people that were impacted by funded programs. Donors appreciate stories about how their contribution changed lives, but when the story is about a funded program, it strengthens the connection between the donor and the funded program, rather than the donor’s connection to United Way.

One solution to this challenge is to redefine the purpose of United Way. We are helping United Ways across the United Ways to adopt an issue focus, which redefines the purpose of United Way. Issue-focused United Ways exist to measurably change in an issue in their communities and then raise money to impact the issue. For example, issue-focused United Ways are reducing poverty, increasing the graduation rate, and lowering obesity in their communities.

What we know from our donor research is that the three things donors want and need to know to be able to support United Way are:

•  What issue is United Way addressing?
•  What actions is United Way taking to address that issue?
•  What results have United Way achieved addressing that issue?

Issue-focused United Ways focus all their efforts addressing a single issue. Therefore, issue-focused United Ways communicate messages that resonate with donors because the issue, actions, and results of that United Way are clear.

Issue-focused United Ways can share messages about the results of giving to United Way, not the processes used by United Way. Issue-focused United Ways do not communicate about their campaign goal, number of investment panels, number of funded partner agencies, and how many volunteer hours it took to determine the allocations. Instead, issue-focused United Ways communicate messages like “Donating to United Way reduces poverty” and “We are halfway to our goal of a 90% high school graduation rate . . . from 59% in 2005 to 76% in 2014!”

I realize that not every United Way will be able to adopt an issue focus, so this is not a solution that will work for every United Way. I would encourage you to consider the potential of an issue focus at your United Way not only because it offers a simpler message that resonates with donors but for many other benefits including maximizing your impact and diversifying your resources.

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The Difference Between Auto Manufacturers and United Ways

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What if automobile manufacturers sold cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give?

Imagine if Ford said: “Our goal at Ford is to sell three million cars and trucks this year. So, please buy a Ford and help us meet our goal.” Does this move you to purchase a Ford? Of course not! This is no different than United Ways saying, “Our goal at United Way is to raise $3 million dollars this year.” Our research with United Way donors has found that United Way’s campaign goals do not motivate donors to give, nor do they increase, in the slightest, the amount donors contribute.

Imagine if Toyota said: “Please buy a Toyota because we have six manufacturing plants in the United States.” I am not sure any of you are running out to buy a Toyota because of their number of manufacturing plants. This is no different than United Ways saying, “Give to United Way because we have three investment panels or four allocation committees.” Talking about the number of investment panels or allocation committees is like talking about how cars are manufactured – no one really cares and no one is inspired to invest when they learn about your production process.

Imagine if General Motors said: “Please buy a General Motors car or truck because we use over 70 suppliers to manufacture our cars and trucks.” Using suppliers may be necessary for manufacturing cars and trucks, but it certainly does not supply me with the motivation to buy a General Motors car or truck. This is no different than United Ways saying, “We fund 36 partner agencies and 42 programs.” Knowing how many partner agencies or programs are funded by a United Way does not motivate donors to give. There may be some donors who might be motivated by knowing which partner agencies and what programs a United Way funds. But, I am willing to bet that if we told a United Way donor that last year we funded 36 partner agencies, and this year we funded 39 partner agencies (or even 32 partner agencies), that it would not change the amount of their contribution one bit.

Imagine if BMW said: “Buy a BMW because it takes 40 hours to manufacture each BMW.” Are you driven to buy your BMW knowing this? This is no different than United Ways saying, “Over one hundred volunteers met eight times over the past three months to determine what partner agencies and programs will be funded this year.” I have had United Ways tell me that donors want to know that United Ways hold their partner agencies and funded programs accountable, and sharing the number of people and time spent on the allocation process is one way to demonstrate this to donors. But, the number of people and time spent does not demonstrate accountability. Accountability for donors is simple – show donors what United Way accomplished with their contribution.

Imagine if Honda said: “Our cars and trucks have four wheels, seats, a steering wheel, and headlights.” I am sure you almost feel offended that Honda would feel the need to tell you this. This is no different than United Ways saying, “We help people, advance the common good, and bring people and communities together.” United Way are not unique here – every nonprofit does these things. The difference is that other nonprofits talk about the issue they address, how they make a difference in the community, and the results of their efforts. Our research with United Way donors is clear on this point – donors want and need to know: the issue you are addressing, how you are addressing the issue, and the results you have achieved.

Going back to the opening question, I suspect that if automobile manufacturers sold cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give, sales of cars and trucks would be on the decline. Thankfully for us in Michigan, a state highly dependent on the success of the auto industry, automobile manufacturers do not ask people to buy their cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give.

The way most United Ways communicate does not motivate people to donate to United Way. These examples of automobile manufacturers asking people to buy their cars and trucks in same way United Ways ask people to give illustrates this challenge. Over the next week or two, think about what your United Way is saying to donors. This is a challenge that must be solved.

P.S. In my next blog post, I’ll share with you the solution to this challenge.

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Quote of the Month: July 2018

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This month’s quote is commonly attributed to both Agatha Christie and Mark Twain,  but its origin is likely an anonymous speaker before both Twain and Christie's times.

"The secret to getting ahead is getting started."

The world of philanthropy is changing. From shifting donor demographics to the rollout of Salesforce.org Philanthropy Cloud, United Ways have to work hard to keep on top of changing trends and evolving donor expectations. As United Way workplace campaigns across the country continue their slow decline, it’s obvious that something has to change. If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we cannot expect the world to suddenly change for us; we must adapt to the world.

In the face of a necessary change, the next step is intimidating. Venturing into a world unknown is challenging, yet it is essential our continued evolution and existence. To stay ahead of the national pattern of decline, United Ways need to start transforming. 

We know organizational change is scary, and that’s why we provide a guiding hand to United Ways across the country. Learn how our Introduction to an Issue Focus Board Retreat can get your United Way started on the  journey to become a more relevant, sustainable, and impactful organization that is ahead of the workplace campaign decline.

If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at sarah@perspectives4uw.com.