Community Impact

Quote of the Month: August 2018

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Our August Quote of the Month comes from Ken Toll, President/CEO of United Way of Jackson County, Jackson, Michigan:

“It is more work to try to do everything and not know where you are going” – Ken Toll, President/CEO, United Way of Jackson County

Three-years ago United Way of Jackson County adopted an issue focus around the issue of financial stability and adopted a bold goal of “Help 5,000 Jackson County residents develop a pathway to financial success by 2025.”  I recently asked Ken if it was hard work to address an issue like financial stability, and he quickly responded that it was harder to do everything for everyone.  United Way of Jackson County is no longer trying to do everything, because they now have a clear direction to impact financial stability and achieve their bold goal. It is important to know where your United Way is going, because once you have a clear direction, the work becomes easier, more impactful, and more rewarding. If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at gary@perspectives4uw.com

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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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Why United Way?

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In the past couple of weeks, several articles and editorials with ominous titles like “Do we still need the United Way?” have once again questioned the relevance of United Ways.

These articles reference all the challenges facing United Ways, such as: declining workplace campaigns, changing demographics, increasing competition, tax law changes, donor advised funds, technological opportunities for charitable giving, lack of understanding of United Way’s work, etc. Several decades ago, United Ways played an integral role in the charitable giving landscape but, with all of these new challenges, it is a role that is no longer needed if you believe these articles.

There is no question in my mind that United Ways are needed now more than ever before. But, the answer to the existential question of why United Ways are needed is dramatically different today. The role United Ways must play now is one of uniting communities to make change.

The goal can no longer be how much money is raised. The goal now must be community change such as increasing the number of high school graduates, reducing the number of homeless, or halting hunger. United Ways have the unique capability to convene their community, donors, volunteers, nonprofits, workplaces, governments, schools, and religious organizations to make measurable change.

We refer to the new role for United Ways as issue-focused. Issue-focused United Ways address a single issue, with a long-term bold goal for how they will change the issue. For example, a United Way focusing on the issue of early childhood education may have a bold goal such as “All children enter kindergarten ready to learn.”

For most United Ways, change is inevitable. It is not a question of if your United Way will need to change, but how your United Way will change. The challenges facing United Ways cannot be overcome by doing more of what United Ways have always done. Organizing more workplace campaigns will not mitigate the fact that workplace campaigns are declining – they will continue to decline. The change must start with a transformation of the role of United Way.

Our communities still need United Way to bring us together, to focus our time and money on addressing a critical community issue, and making measurable and long-lasting change. When United Ways unite communities to make change, no one will question the need for United Ways.

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