There was an interesting talk show on NPR several weeks ago about the demise of the printed newspaper. For nearly three decades, newspaper circulation has declined every single year. On a yearly basis, the decline in circulation was never very large, but it has been consistent. As a result, nearly 2,000 newspapers have closed or merged in the past 15 years.
Several newspaper executives participated in the show, and their consistent theme was that if newspapers are going to survive, they must no longer think of themselves as publishers of a printed newspaper, but rather as news content providers. Because when you look closely at the statistics, you will find that people still want to read their news, but now they do so online. This presents an entirely new challenge for newspaper publishers turned content providers - how to make money providing content online.
Does any of this sound familiar?
The reason why newspapers exist has not changed over time. People still want to be informed about the news of the day. What has changed is how newspaper publishers provide the news.
I believe that United Ways have an even bigger challenge than newspaper publishers. Although many workplace campaigns are declining, I am not sure that donors are looking for a more technologically advanced way to give to United Way. The challenge facing United Ways is one of relevance – why would a donor want to give to United Way?
No one buys a newspaper because the newspaper publisher has a goal of selling 35,000 copies of the newspaper. Similarly, we know from our research with United Way donors that no one donates to United Way because they have a campaign goal of $3 million.
Newspaper publishers figured out that their “why” is obtaining and distributing news. For many years, how they distributed the news was via a printed newspaper. United Ways need to figure out their “why.” Workplace campaigns are not why a United Way exists. Workplace campaigns are how United Ways accomplish their “why.”
There are two primary reasons why a United Way exists. Some United Ways exist to fund deserving programs provided by local nonprofit organizations – these are fundraising-focused United Ways. Other United Ways exist to make long-term measurable change on a social issue – these are issue-focused United Ways.
The “why” for many fundraising-focused United Ways is funding deserving programs provided by local nonprofit organizations. Perhaps part of the reason why workplace campaigns are declining is that donors no longer value and need their United Way to provide funding to deserving programs provided by local nonprofit organizations. The younger generation may never truly value or need their United Way to provide funding to deserving programs provided by local nonprofit organizations.
For issue-focused United Ways, examples of their “why” include reducing poverty, increasing the graduation rate, and all children enter kindergarten ready to learn. Donors to issue-focused United Ways donate because they value and need their United Way to reduce poverty, increase the graduation rate, or have all children enter kindergarten ready to learn. Our research has found that most United Way donors prefer the “why” of an issue focus over the “why” of a fundraising focus - especially the younger generation.
Newspaper publishers and United Ways are both facing challenging times. Newspaper publishers are on the path to future success because they understand their “why” and have changed their “how” accordingly. For United Ways to succeed in the future, it will be essential to look beyond the “how” of the workplace campaign and consider why United Ways exist.
If this topic interests you, you may want to check out these previous blog posts I have written about the existential question of why United Ways exist: Why Before How and Can Your Board Answer This Question?