Issues

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.

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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Newspapers and United Ways

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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?