Newspapers and United Ways


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?


Quote of the Month: January 2018

Our January Quote of the Month comes from Julie Capaldi, President of United Way of Pickens County in Easley, South Carolina:

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“It used to be money drives the work, now work drives the money” – Julie Capaldi, President, United Way of Pickens County

This quote from Julie encapsulates the most profound change in United Ways over the past couple of decades. We refer to United Ways where the money drives the work as fundraising-focused United Ways, and several decades ago all United Ways were fundraising-focused. At fundraising-focused United Ways, the money comes from the workplace campaigns, which United Ways use to drive the work by investing that money into programs provided by partner agencies. The change Julie is talking about seems simple – just switch the order so the work drives the money. But this switch is anything but simple as issue-focused United Ways must start by clearly identifying their work – addressing a single issue, such as reducing poverty, increasing the graduation rate, or ending homelessness. Only after identifying their work, can an issue-focused United Way go out and successfully ask for the money to support the work. This quote should be a reminder to all United Ways that changing times require United Ways to change with the times. If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at

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Quote of the Month: May 2017

Our May Quote of the Month comes from our good friend Pamela Beckford at United Way of Wells County. Pamela has used this quote for years:

If you try to be everything to everybody, you're nothing to anybody.

– Pamela Beckford, Executive Director, United Way of Wells County

There are plenty of United Ways that try to be everything to everybody. For example, “everything” is funding dozens of programs, while “everybody” is trying to fund every nonprofit organization in the community. “Everything” is also trying to address education, income, health, safety net, etc., while “everybody” is trying to appeal to every possible donor. As Pamela notes, when a United Way tries to be everything to everybody, the results are quite the opposite. Our donor research for United Ways finds that upwards of half of all United Way donors do not know what issues their United Way addresses, and over one-third of United Way donors do not know the results of their contribution. We know from our donor research that the vast majority of donors do not want United Way to be everything to everybody. It is far better for your United Way to do one thing, and be known for doing one thing, than trying to be everything to everybody.

A big thank you to Pamela for sharing her quote this month! If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at:


Quote of the Month: April 2017

Everyone has their favorite quotes. You might find one in a good book, on a bumper sticker or T-shirt, or even on the internet. Over the years, Kasey and I have accumulated some favorite quotes, including some of our own, which we will share monthly on our blog. Here is our April 2017 Quote of the Month, which comes from yours truly:

Change which is known is manageable. Change which is unknown is paralyzing.

–  Gary Goscenski

How often does your United Way change? For many United Ways, change does not happen very often, but when it does, it is significant. To successfully change, it is essential to carefully plan and communicate the change to your stakeholders. Frequently, United Ways get into trouble when they change their partner agency funding. Partner agencies tend to feel a sense of entitlement when United Ways have funded their programs for 10, 15, or even 20 or more years. To successfully change your partner agency funding, you need to let your partner agencies know exactly what will change, how it will change, and when it will change – far in advance. When partner agencies know about the change, they can prepare for it and manage it. If you simply tell partner agencies change is coming, without specifying what will change, how it will change, and when it will change, it will paralyze your partner agencies. This paralysis manifests itself when your partner agency directors feel they need to adopt a fighting attitude to ensure the survival of their organization. This is one of those lessons I have learned more than once, always make sure change is known so that it can be managed.

If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at:


One Tough Job

This afternoon, Kasey and I spoke to a public relations class at Western Michigan University, our alma mater. The professor asked us to talk about public relations in nonprofit organizations, and specifically, public relations at United Ways. We both have a background in public relations, and a ton of experience with United Ways, so we were excited to share our knowledge with future public relations professionals.

When preparing our talk, we quickly came to this conclusion: public relations at United Ways is one tough job. This is not to say that public relations is ever easy, but that public relations at United Ways is really difficult. Three of the challenges that make public relations at United Ways more difficult than at other nonprofit organizations include: many stakeholders, finding the story, and limited resources.

Compared to most nonprofit organizations, there are significantly more “publics” who need public relations at United Ways, such as: donors, community, board, partner agencies, workplaces, and even clients for United Ways that provide direct services. Each of these publics has a unique relationship with United Way, making it impossible to have a one-size-fits-all public relations approach. Maintaining public relations with this many publics is one tough job.

Most nonprofit organizations have a straightforward story to tell, compared to a United Way. A United Way’s story is, at a minimum, complex and more often downright convoluted with a language all its own. For some United Ways, the story is not just a story of United Way, but a story of partner agencies and programs funded by United Way. All these stories make it incumbent on public relations to simplify, edit, filter, and distill in order to communicate the message effectively to all of the publics. Figuring out the public relations message for a United Way is one tough job.

Finally, the budget and resources available for public relations at many United Ways is very limited. At smaller United Ways, public relations is just one of the many responsibilities of the executive director or president, which means there is limited time for public relations. Smaller and mid-size United Ways rarely have the budget to outsource public relations services. In fact, many United Ways with the resources to be able to hire someone dedicated to public relations are conflicted when it comes to spending money on anything other than funding programs. Limited time makes public relations one tough job.

Combine more publics than you can shake a stick at, with a message that often requires a decoder ring, and just a couple of minutes at the end of the day to get the job done, and it is easy to see why public relations at a United Way is one tough job.

Kasey and I pulled no punches when we explained the challenge of public relations at United Ways to the students. We made certain the students understood the need for public relations at United Ways, despite the challenges. And before we walked out of the lecture hall, we explained to the students how effective public relations at a United Way impacts lives and the community.