Partner agencies

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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The Difference Between Auto Manufacturers and United Ways

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What if automobile manufacturers sold cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give?

Imagine if Ford said: “Our goal at Ford is to sell three million cars and trucks this year. So, please buy a Ford and help us meet our goal.” Does this move you to purchase a Ford? Of course not! This is no different than United Ways saying, “Our goal at United Way is to raise $3 million dollars this year.” Our research with United Way donors has found that United Way’s campaign goals do not motivate donors to give, nor do they increase, in the slightest, the amount donors contribute.

Imagine if Toyota said: “Please buy a Toyota because we have six manufacturing plants in the United States.” I am not sure any of you are running out to buy a Toyota because of their number of manufacturing plants. This is no different than United Ways saying, “Give to United Way because we have three investment panels or four allocation committees.” Talking about the number of investment panels or allocation committees is like talking about how cars are manufactured – no one really cares and no one is inspired to invest when they learn about your production process.

Imagine if General Motors said: “Please buy a General Motors car or truck because we use over 70 suppliers to manufacture our cars and trucks.” Using suppliers may be necessary for manufacturing cars and trucks, but it certainly does not supply me with the motivation to buy a General Motors car or truck. This is no different than United Ways saying, “We fund 36 partner agencies and 42 programs.” Knowing how many partner agencies or programs are funded by a United Way does not motivate donors to give. There may be some donors who might be motivated by knowing which partner agencies and what programs a United Way funds. But, I am willing to bet that if we told a United Way donor that last year we funded 36 partner agencies, and this year we funded 39 partner agencies (or even 32 partner agencies), that it would not change the amount of their contribution one bit.

Imagine if BMW said: “Buy a BMW because it takes 40 hours to manufacture each BMW.” Are you driven to buy your BMW knowing this? This is no different than United Ways saying, “Over one hundred volunteers met eight times over the past three months to determine what partner agencies and programs will be funded this year.” I have had United Ways tell me that donors want to know that United Ways hold their partner agencies and funded programs accountable, and sharing the number of people and time spent on the allocation process is one way to demonstrate this to donors. But, the number of people and time spent does not demonstrate accountability. Accountability for donors is simple – show donors what United Way accomplished with their contribution.

Imagine if Honda said: “Our cars and trucks have four wheels, seats, a steering wheel, and headlights.” I am sure you almost feel offended that Honda would feel the need to tell you this. This is no different than United Ways saying, “We help people, advance the common good, and bring people and communities together.” United Way are not unique here – every nonprofit does these things. The difference is that other nonprofits talk about the issue they address, how they make a difference in the community, and the results of their efforts. Our research with United Way donors is clear on this point – donors want and need to know: the issue you are addressing, how you are addressing the issue, and the results you have achieved.

Going back to the opening question, I suspect that if automobile manufacturers sold cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give, sales of cars and trucks would be on the decline. Thankfully for us in Michigan, a state highly dependent on the success of the auto industry, automobile manufacturers do not ask people to buy their cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give.

The way most United Ways communicate does not motivate people to donate to United Way. These examples of automobile manufacturers asking people to buy their cars and trucks in same way United Ways ask people to give illustrates this challenge. Over the next week or two, think about what your United Way is saying to donors. This is a challenge that must be solved.

P.S. In my next blog post, I’ll share with you the solution to this challenge.

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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?