Issues

Three New Year’s Resolutions Your United Way Should Keep

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Tis the season! It’s that time of year again when, with ample confidence and overwhelming exuberance, we prepare our New Year’s resolutions. As you contemplate your personal New Year’s resolutions for 2019, there is no reason not to prepare a New Year’s resolution or three for your United Way as well. In the spirit of holiday giving and sharing, we have three resolutions that your United Way should keep.

1. Stop Using Jargon. Why put it off any longer? You know jargon is bad for you, your donors, your community, and your United Way. Make 2019 the year you put an end to using words and phrases that confuse, bemuse, and bewilder anyone outside of your office walls. United Ways are so effusive in their use of jargon that we had a jargon contest in 2016 just to see if United Way staff could tell “real” United Way jargon from “computer generated” United Way jargon.

While words like “allocations process,” “collective impact,” and “core service investments” may cause excitement that borders on hysteria among your staff, your community and donors have no idea what these words mean. Their eyes glaze over at the sound of “fund distribution,” “investment products,” and “key influence sectors.” Using these words outside of the office only serves to push donors and the community further away. You can – and must – tell your United Way story without jargon.

In 2019, make it your United Way’s New Year’s resolution to stop using jargon outside the office. Appoint someone to be your office “Jargon-Buster” responsible for ensuring that your campaign brochures, emails, website, and other communication materials are jargon-free.

2. Help Your Donors Succeed. You would hardly think United Ways need this resolution, until you realize that many United Ways go out of their way to make it difficult for their donors to succeed. When donors succeed, they feel like they have made their community a better place.

Do donors support your United Way because of how much money it raises? No, so examples like thermometers don’t help donors succeed and have got to go.

Instead, show donors how they make a difference by contributing to United Way. Donors will succeed when United Ways share the issue they address, the actions they are taking to address the issue, and the results they are achieving.

When you allow donors to designate their contribution, what does that mean for United Way? It means that other nonprofit organizations are doing a better job at making your donors successful.

Our research has found that there are donors in every community who designate but would consider supporting United Way instead if they understood what United Way accomplishes. Focus the message of your United Way so that donors will successfully recognize the opportunities to make a difference in your community.

In 2019, examine everything your United Way does to make sure it helps your donors succeed. Stop doing what doesn’t help donors succeed and start doing what donors need to succeed. After a year of helping your donors succeed, we can talk about more mundane resolutions like losing weight.

3. Understand Why Your United Way Exists. The eternal, existential question of why your United Way exists is a question you must be able to answer to know when you are successful.

Sadly, most United Way boards cannot tell you why their United Way exists or the purpose of their United Way. Well, let me refine that a little. If you ask a board of 20 people why United Way exists, you are likely to get 20 different answers. On a single board, it is not uncommon for board members to offer a variety of reasons for why their United Way exists, including: to help people, to raise money for local organizations, to provide donors a single place to make their charitable contribution, to make sure local nonprofits are accountable and effective, to understand and address the community’s needs, to help families, to end homelessness, to halt hunger. The list of purposes board members might identify goes on endlessly.

If boards of directors express such a diversity of belief as to why their United Way exists, is it any surprise when donors or the community do not know what their local United Way does? The reason your United Way exists could be entirely different from the United Way in the next county, which makes it even more important to be able to clearly articulate your answer. For your United Way to succeed, your board must have a clear consensus as to why your United Way exists.

Make understanding why your United Way exists one of your resolutions for 2019. What you will find, once your board agrees on why your United Way exists, is an incredible focus in your work. Your board will be able to go out and talk with one voice about why people should give, advocate, and volunteer at your United Way. Your staff will understand what the board values and expects United Way to accomplish. Your donors will support United Way knowing what their contribution will be enabling. Your community will understand how United Way fits into the larger fabric of the nonprofit and social service organizations in your area.  

Those are the three resolutions that we think your United Way should keep in 2019. However, we know that sticking to resolutions isn’t always easy, so our next blog post will share with you our guide for staying resolute in your resolutions.

We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Best wishes for a successful and rewarding 2019! Now, go get a head start on those resolutions!

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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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