Community Impact

In Defense of Designations

The issue of designations can be controversial. While some United Ways promote designations as a way to encourage donors to give, others discourage designations by placing restrictions on which organizations can be designated to or by requiring a minimum designation amount. Still, there are other United Ways that do not allow designations in any form.

While some United Ways insist that allowing designations runs in opposition to the spirit of the United Way movement, others insist that promoting designations embodies the historical roots of the United Way movement.

The reality is that every United Way and every community served by a United Way is unique. Therefore, there is no single, definitive answer for how all United Ways should handle designations.

With that in mind, there are three tenets that a United Way must consider when determining how to address donor designations: 

  • Donor designations are not inherently good or bad.

  • The value of designations depends on the individual United Way’s priorities and community.

  • Therefore, United Ways should select their approach to designations based on their unique situation.

These three points may not seem ground-breaking, but they are essential in determining whether or not designations are right for your United Way. Take for instance the question of whether or not your United Way should allow designations to any 501(c)3 in your community.

It’s easy to understand why a United Way might not want to allow designations to any local nonprofit. A United Way that accepts designations of this type has no control over where those donated dollars are invested in the community. Not only that, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to process donations when donors are designating to everything from the regional food bank to local churches.

If designations of this type limit a United Way’s ability to make strategic investments in the community and cuts into already limited staff time, when would a United Way want to consider allowing donors to make designations to any local nonprofit agency?

Allowing such designations makes sense when – above all else – a local United Way sees itself as a fundraiser. If a United Way prioritizes mobilizing as many dollars as possible during campaign, the best way to do that is to allow donors to give to whatever local nonprofits they want.

In the United States, there are examples of United Ways that have double and tripled their campaigns by encouraging donors to do all of their charitable giving – including church tithing – through United Way! For United Ways that define success according to the amount raised during campaign, there is no better way to maximize success than by allowing donations to be directed to any local nonprofit.

Of course, not every United Way defines success according to campaign. For United Ways that determine success according to measurable impact made in the community, the investment of staff time to process designations is likely not the most effective way to support impact work.

Every United Way is unique, so there is no single right answer when it comes to handling designations. Whether your United Way allows designations with no questions asked, places restrictions on designation amounts or recipients, or bans designations completely, your United Way needs to make the choice that best supports your goals.

If your United Way is focused on implementing community impact, you should assess whether or not staff time currently spent processing designations could be better spent working on impact initiatives. If your United Way wants to raise as much money as possible, you will be well-served to consider redirecting staff efforts to encouraging designations.

Whatever your United Way’s priorities, it is worth looking at your relationship with designations and assessing whether or not that relationship supports your United Way’s goals.

How to Survive Philanthropy Cloud

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I’m worried about Philanthropy Cloud.

Not as it exists now – available exclusively to United Ways. I am worried about what will happen to United Ways when Philanthropy Cloud is made available to all nonprofits.

Here’s why: Philanthropy Cloud has the potential to put United Ways at odds with not just their vetted partner agencies and programs but every other charitable cause too. When Philanthropy Cloud is made available to all nonprofits, the easy and exclusive access to workplaces that United Ways once enjoyed will be eradicated, and fundraising will be every organization for itself.

When Philanthropy Cloud is adopted by workplace campaigns and the platform is open to nonprofits other than United Way and its partner agencies, the Philanthropy Cloud platform will have commandeered the traditional benefits of giving through United Way. When Philanthropy Cloud is open to all nonprofits, United Way will no longer be the easiest way for employees to donate to a wide variety of local nonprofit organizations – with just a few clicks of the button, Philanthropy Cloud will allow employees to give to whichever organizations or causes they choose. When workplaces adopt Philanthropy Cloud, United Way will no longer be the only way to ensure donations go to worthy organizations – with its integration with GuideStar, Philanthropy Cloud will put the power to vet nonprofits at donors’ fingertips.

If United Ways are no longer the easiest way to give to many worthy causes or the easiest way to ensure donations go to worthy organizations, how will United Ways be able to sell themselves?

The conversation about the benefits of giving to United Way will have to fully shift away from the process of giving to United Way to the outcomes of giving to United Way. United Ways utilizing Philanthropy Cloud will need to clearly articulate their relevance in terms of the good they do in their communities.

However, this brings us to another challenge.

The current reality is that when many United Ways report results, they’re reporting the outcomes of partner programs – not their own work. Any remotely astute donor recognizes that all the summer meals or after-school programs or mental health interventions their United Way references in an annual report are really the result of another agency’s work. With increasing awareness of overhead, many donors are left wondering why they wouldn’t make their donations directly to the organizations “actually doing the work.”

Of course, no United Way is going to stop providing funds to partner programs and start only providing direct services. So, the question becomes: How can United Ways that lack their own unique programming restructure their relationships with their partner programs and agencies in order to have their own results?

For many United Ways, the solution will be fully and truly implementing community impact.

Since 2003, United Ways throughout the system have been adopting and experimenting with community impact. The central tenants of community impact are clear and familiar, and adopting community impact allows the focus on United Ways’ work to shift from the funding United Ways provide local programs to the work United Ways do to develop and implement impact strategies in partnership with others. Convening and guiding collaboration and partnerships to identify new solutions is a result that resonates with donors. Donors like knowing that their donations fund innovative partnerships that produce impactful results.

While implementing community impact can be a significant departure from what some United Ways are currently doing and therefore require a significant investment of effort by staff and board members to reset the priorities of their United Way, I can see no other downsides.

Transitioning to community impact allows United Ways to secure more grants, more deeply impact their community, and – most importantly in the world of Philanthropy Cloud – help United Ways ensure their long-term relevance by giving them their own results to sell.

To survive when Philanthropy Cloud is available to all nonprofits, United Ways will need to strengthen the products they have to sell. Although this will certainly be challenging for many United Ways, stronger products will mean making investments more strategically and will therefore mean greater local impact.  

For all my worries about Philanthropy Cloud, I think the looming challenges of an open Philanthropy Cloud platform will ultimately lead to the start of a more impactful and relevant chapter for United Ways.

How to Remain Resolute in Your Resolutions

We make our New Year’s resolutions with the intention to better ourselves. If we know that our resolutions are in our best interest, why are they so hard to keep? We explore this question as a follow-up to our last blog post, Three New Year’s Resolutions Your United Way Should Keep. In our last blog post, Gary laid out three ambitious resolutions for your United Way to consider adopting in 2019:

  1. Stop using jargon: Keep words like “allocations process,” “collective impact,” and “core service investments” out of your communications with donors and community members. To more clearly communicate with your stakeholders, use fewer words and phrases that require their own sentences to explain their meaning.

  2. Help your donors succeed: Make sure that donors are able to clearly understand the impact their contributions have on social issues in your community. To help your donors to get excited about contributing to your United Way, stop reporting progress toward your campaign goal and start discussing the change their donations make possible.

  3. Understand why your United Way exists: Decide if your United Way exists to fundraise on behalf of other local organizations or to make measurable change as a community convener. To clarify your purpose, simply your messaging, and streamline your use of staff time, decide if your United Way’s top priority is raising as much money as possible or creating as much measurable change in the community as possible.

Breaking old habits is tough, and unfortunately, many United Ways have been speaking jargon, measuring progress according to campaign thermometers, and juggling competing senses of purpose for years. Tackling these bad habits in one fell swoop can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. Take a look at our four tips below to see how you can help your United Way stick to its 2019 resolutions:

  1. Find your motivation: You should never change just because someone (we) told you that you should. Before you begin your journey toward change, take time to write down what you want to get out of your resolutions. Do you want your United Way to be better understood? For your donors to be more highly motivated? For your staff to have a clear sense of purpose? Know what your end goals are so that you can remain motivated when keeping your resolutions becomes challenging.

  2. Start small: Breaking deeply ingrained habits and defining your purpose takes time. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to make all your resolutions happen at once. Instead, break each resolution into small, achievable pieces. For example, don’t rewrite all your marketing materials from scratch; as the year progresses, update them one by one to remove jargon. As you become more comfortable talking about what your United Way does in simple terms, the easier it will be to use that language in all your communications with stakeholders.

  3. Ask your friends for help: Seek help from others who have been where you are now. The power of the United Way network is that you have the ability to learn from more than 1,200 other organizations. Utilize LISTSERVs or network at conferences to learn how other United Ways have simplified the way they talk to their community, transitioned away from campaign thermometers, and clarified their purpose.

  4. Seek professional help: While the advice of friends can be helpful, every United Way is different; sometimes it’s helpful to receive advice from an outside specialist. If you want to see the clearest path forward to achieve your United Way’s 2019 resolutions, consider reaching out to us . Whether you’re interested in clarifying your purpose or transitioning from thermometers to measurable community impact, we can help.

Change is always hard, but as donor expectations and the nonprofit landscape continue to evolve, change is essential for United Ways that want to remain relevant, sustainable, and impactful players in their communities. As we move in to 2019, take the time to assess how your United Way needs to change in order to put itself in a stronger position for 2020. Whether your United Way adopts our suggested resolutions or creates its own, make 2019 a year of intentional, strategic change.