Community Impact

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.

Are the Times Changing?

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One of the most common refrains I hear from United Ways is that the times are changing. Society is changing, technology is changing, the economy is changing, and even competition for charitable giving is changing.

Just consider this headline from an article in the New York Times: “United Way, Faced With Fewer Donors, Is Giving Away Less.”  You can easily attribute the downward trend in the number of donors to changes in society, technology, the economy, and competition – among other reasons. As you would expect, the article talks about corporate downsizing, increasing competition for charitable dollars, and donors choosing to designate their contribution or just by-pass United Way and give directly.

There are a variety of United Way directors quoted in the article saying things like “There is a disconnect between what United Ways do and what people think they do and the reason for that disconnect is our ineptness at explaining what we do” or “We drive the agencies nuts because they don’t know from year to year what they will get.”

The article also shares some of the strategies being used by United Ways to counteract this trend. For example, United Ways are focusing on growing leadership giving, which according to the article presents a new challenge: “United Way is now competing more with its member agencies to raise money from the wealthiest people.” Another strategy mentioned in the article for stemming the downward trend in the number of donors is allowing donors to give to charities of their choice – designations.

If all this sounds strangely familiar, it should. The New York Times article I am referring to was published on November 9, 1997. No, that is not a typo. The year was 1-9-9-7 or just over 21 years ago. Nearly everything that was mentioned in the article still applies today – over the past 21 years the challenges mentioned in the article have not gone away – they have become the new reality.

Solutions to these external changes are not easy. Instead of being on the receiving end of all these changes, what if United Ways led change? United Ways can change conditions in their community, but that change will not be measured by the number of donors or how much money is given away. United Ways that exist to impact their communities, what we refer to as issue-focused United Ways, are creating change in community conditions by reducing the number of homeless or increasing the number of high school graduates, as examples.

Issue-focused United Ways exist to measurably change a critical issue in their community. Their success comes from measuring lives changed, not from how much money was raised or distributed to partner agencies. An issue focus is one solution to the changes facing United Ways today. Does it make changes in society, technology, the economy, or competition go away? Of course not, but an issue focus allows United Ways to be relevant, sustainable, and impactful in spite of these changes. You can learn more about the Issue Focus Model on our website and learn more about how one issue-focused United Way is relevant, sustainable, and impactful in their community.

It may not be surprising that the New York Times article still applies today, but it is probably disappointing. We all hope that the New York Times will be able to write a different article about United Ways 20 years from now, but that will require United Ways to lead change rather than be crushed by change.

Community Impact is More Than Collective Impact

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Donors – especially younger donors – have increasingly high expectations of the charitable organizations they support. Donors want to feel confident that the dollars they donate go to organizations that significantly impact their community.

In response to changing donor expectations, many United Ways have begun to explore community impact as a means to ensure their local investments produce maximum impact. Unfortunately, while many United Ways want to fully adopt the community impact approach, doing so can seem daunting. 

After wrestling with what it meant to become a community impact organization, many United Ways began to pursue collective impact as their means achieve community impact. The unfortunate reality of this is that community impact is the most complex means by which a United Way can pursue community impact. Transitioning from a fundraising model to a collective impact model is challenging even for well-funded United Ways.

If large United Ways struggle to make the transition to collective impact, how can non-Metro 1 United Ways hope to effectively achieve community impact?

Fortunately, there are several alternatives to collective impact that are accessible and viable for United Ways of all sizes.

In total, there are six methods that United Ways use to achieve community impact. These methods range in complexity from specialized RFPs and in-house initiatives to collective impact. While collective impact remains the most complex of these methods, there are other methods that you could easily implement in your next funding cycle.  

On November 27, we will be hosting our webinar “Six Methods to Maximize Your Impact.” This webinar will explore the six methods that United Ways use to achieve community impact, the strengths and weaknesses of each method, as well as provide practical suggestions for how you can begin to implement these methods at your United Way. If you are interested in learning more about this webinar and the other topics this webinar will cover, please visit our webinar information page here.

While this webinar is relevant to United Ways that are on the community impact journey, we will be offering a total of nine webinars in the coming months that will cover other relevant topics in impact and investment, marketing and engagement, and resource development. To see a full list of our upcoming webinars and the topics we will cover, please visit our website here.