When your donors think of your United Way, what words come to mind? We frequently ask donors this question, and it will come as no surprise that donors name hundreds of different words to describe their United Way. Hundreds of words reaffirm the fact that most donors do not understand what your United Way does.
Hands-down, the most commonly used word to describe United Way is helpful. Helpful, helping the community, helps organizations, helps people – when people think of United Ways, they think helpful. Helpful, although a positive word, is not the word we want people to use to describe United Way.
Why? Because every nonprofit organization is helpful. Helpful is woven into the genetic code of nonprofit organizations. Calling a nonprofit organization helpful is like saying a restaurant has good food. Studies have found that donors don’t support charities just because they are helpful. Donors often support a charity because they want to make a difference in their community or have an impact on an issue. Helpful does not suggest to a donor how they could make an impact on an issue or how they could impact their community.
Although helpful is not the word United Ways should be known for, there are three words that every donor needs to associate with your United Way.
First, people should think of your United Way as local. While United Way is a national charity, it is so in name only, as each local United Way addresses local issues and does so in a manner appropriate for their local community. One common misperception about United Way is that United Ways are not local – that money given to United Way goes somewhere else. It is essential for your community and donors to recognize that your United Way raises and invests money locally. If your United Way serves a county, then local will mean your county. Larger United Ways may need to express local by showing how your work impacts many local communities.
Second, people should associate your United Way with a local issue you address. If your United Way has adopted community impact and you have selected a limited number of critical issues to address, then your United Way should be known for those issues. If your United Way addresses hunger, then people should use the word hunger when describing your United Way. Donors should be able to clearly associate your United Way with the issue you address, so that a donor who wants to address hunger in your community will know their contribution to United Way will be used to reduce hunger locally.
If your United Way has adopted an issue focus, you will be communicating your issue, such as poverty or the graduation rate. If your United Way has divided your impact into categories, then you will be communicating your categories, such as education, income, and health. Our donor research has found that most donors cannot associate their United Way with more than three issues. Do not try to communicate every issue you are working on, instead select no more than three issues you want to be known for.
Third, although each United Way serves a different locality and addresses specific local issues, there is one word that applies to every United Way – united. United Ways convene volunteers, donors, partner agencies, governments, etc. to address the needs of the community. Uniting everyone is how United Way makes an impact. Your United Way should demonstrate to donors that when they contribute to United Way they are united in a larger effort to make a meaningful difference in their community.
It takes a long time to change how people think about and perceive your United Way. We have worked with United Ways that have spent four to six years to change the perception of their United Way in a meaningful way. Used consistently and effectively, your words will improve understanding of your United Way, as well as focus your efforts internally. In fact, you’ll find that these three words will be infinitely more helpful to your United Way than the word helpful.