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?

 

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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Who Cares?

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Your donors do NOT care about . . .

  •  The number of partner agencies that receive funding from your United Way
  •  The number of programs funded by your United Way
  •  The number of hours spent by volunteers to determine your allocations
  •  Your number of Facebook likes or Twitter followers
  •  The number of priority areas of investment or targeted goals at your United Way
  •  How many of your workplace campaigns had 100% participation
  •  Your total number of donors and the average amount contributed by your donors
  •  How much donors designated to other nonprofit organizations
  •  How many people used your volunteer connection website
  •  The number of people in your leadership giving society and how much they contributed
  •  How much money was invested in each of your priority areas of investment
  •  How much money was raised at your social fundraising event
  •  The amounts contributed by your top 20 workplace campaigns
  •  How many people are on your board of directors
  •  Your campaign goal

. . . because none of these things tell a donor why they should give to your United Way.

Your donors care about . . .

1)  What issue does your United Way address?

2)  What is your United Way doing to impact your issue?

3)  What results has your United Way achieved to impact your issue?

. . . because when your donors know these three things, they will know why they should contribute to your United Way. Learn more about the power of one issue and one bold goal to attract donors by becoming issue-focused on our website here.

Successful United Ways tell donors what they want and need to know.

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Quote of the Month: December 2017

Our December Quote of the Month comes from the former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela:

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“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” – Nelson Mandela

When you think about what your United Way will accomplish next year, do you think about the stark realities of campaign, or do you think about how many people your United Way will help become self-sufficient or enter kindergarten ready to learn? United Ways have the power to change their communities like no other nonprofit organization, but only when they are focused on the hopefulness of changing lives. With 2018 right around the corner, think about what your United Way could accomplish next year if you measured how many lives were changed, and not how much money was raised. Every choice an issue-focused United Way makes changes people’s lives. We hope that your United Way experiences the hopefulness that comes from changing lives in 2018!

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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