Perspectives is on the Road Again

We’re on the road again!

This time, we're headed to Erie, Pennsylvania to the United Way of Pennsylvania State Conference. For those of you also headed to Erie, we’d like to invite you to our revamped “Positioning Your United Way for 2020: What You Must Plan & Start Doing Today” presentation.

Our presentation will discuss common communication, resource development, and marketing/engagement challenges faced by United Ways of all sizes. Our presentation will also help you to create a call to action that can be used with all of your stakeholders, think about the long-term future of your United Way, and lay the groundwork for the most important decision that your United Way will make before 2020.

We last presented this session at the Great Rivers 2017 Conference, where the session received rave reviews from attendees.

Fantastic! Promoted change and growth!
— 2017 Great Rivers Conference Attendee
Thanks so much – I needed you last summer as we are only now finishing our strategic plan!
— 2017 Great Rivers Conference Attendee
Excellent session! Engaging and dedicated to United Ways!
— 2017 Great Rivers Conference

If you’ll be in Erie this week, we’d love for you to attend our session! And, if you won’t be in Pennsylvania but our session sounds interesting to you – you’re still in luck! While we’re sorry that we won’t get to see you, we do offer this presentation as a recorded webinar, which you can find here.

However, you view it – whether at the conference or online – we are excited to share this presentation with you!

That said, we wish safe travels to all that are headed to Erie this week. We can’t wait to teach, learn, and share alongside you all!

The Strategic Plan You Have Is Not the One You Need

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In 1976, Eastman Kodak owned the market for photographic film when it was estimated that over 90% of all photographic film sold was Kodak film. Sales continued to grow year-after-year until 1996 when Kodak’s sales reached a high of $16 billion. Sales started to drop in 1997, and it took just 16 years for Kodak’s sales to disintegrate until they were forced to file bankruptcy in 2012. Even the most casual observer would be quick to say that Kodak was too reliant on selling photographic film in a declining market that had moved on to digital cameras.

Was Kodak blind to these new technologies? Not at all – because in 1975 Kodak invented the digital camera. That’s right, Kodak invented the product that led to the demise of their company. Kodak invented the digital camera at the worst possible time – when they were fat and happy with their 90% market share for photographic film. There was little need for Kodak to sell digital cameras when photographic film was their cash cow. Kodak is not the only company to fail due to complacency – think about Blockbuster Video, Borders bookstores, or Atari videogames. 

Several weeks ago, I was talking with a new, first-time, United Way president who had been on the job for about six months. He inherited a United Way with a shrinking workplace campaign and reduced funding to partner agencies. I suggested that it might be time to consider changing direction and consider adopting an issue focus, as their United Way was very active in early childhood initiatives. The response from the president was “We have a plan to move ahead increasing our resources.” I am betting his plan is to find more donors to support United Way, so their United Way can continue doing what they have always done.

This United Way is not alone. I would estimate approximately half of all United Ways have developed a strategic plan. Although every United Way is unique, their strategic plans include statements about how they will increase the amount of money they raise, such as “We have established an aggressive goal to grow revenue to $30 million by 2016” or “Grow capacity for raising more funds and increasing revenue; increase the campaign at least 10% year over year” or “Increase to $7 million total annual revenue with $6 million in resources under management.”

If you read United Way strategic plans carefully, you will find nearly all of them also share another thing in common – their United Ways are planning to continue doing what they have always done. They will be trying to raise more money by asking donors to support what their United Ways have always done. United Ways often use terms like “community impact,” “collective impact,” and “collaborative efforts” to describe their work, but their strategic plan does not outline any substantial changes to their work or outcomes. I wonder if these United Ways are continuing to sell their version of “photographic film?”

We call strategic plans that set goals to increase revenues without changing what United Way is doing “plus one” plans. Plus one strategic plans are based on taking what United Way did the year before and doing one more than the year before, or one level better than the year before. If the goal of a United Way is to raise as much money as they can to fund partner agencies and programs, then setting a goal to increase revenues makes a lot of sense. But, without considering if donors want to support an organization that raises money to fund partner agencies and programs, a goal of increasing revenues may be unachievable.

This is not the kind of strategic plan your United Way needs.

Your strategic plan must answer the question “Why does your United Way exist?” An alternate version of this question is “What do your donors want your United Way to accomplish?” The foundation of a successful strategic plan is based on your United Way offering a service that donors and the community value and are willing to support. Your United Way needs a strategic plan built upon answering “Why does your United Way exist?” with a laser-focused direction and purpose that your donors and community value and are willing to support.

Answering the question “Why does your United Way exist?” comes down to deciding if your United Way will be fundraising-focused or issue-focused. This is your strategic planning first step. Until you answer this question, your United Way cannot develop a strategic plan because you do not know what direction you are heading or what you are trying to accomplish.

Even after working with United Ways for over 25 years, I cannot tell you “Why your United Way exists” or whether your United Way should be fundraising-focused or issue-focused. But, I can help you and your board figure out the answer with our Introduction to an Issue Focus Board Retreat. This half-day board retreat clearly explains the concept of fundraising-focused and issue-focused United Ways, what fundraising and issue-focused United Ways look like and how they operate, and the advantages and disadvantages of a fundraising focus and an issue focus. This is essential information to deciding the future of your United Way, and we frequently hear executive directors say “I wish you could have talked with our board and staff three years ago.” Following our Introduction to an Issue Focus Board Retreat, your board will be able to answer the question “Why does your United Way exist?”

With their significant work in the area of early childhood initiatives, the United Way I was talking about earlier may already have their “digital camera” if they are willing to look beyond what they have always done and transform their work by becoming issue-focused. Perhaps your United Way has an opportunity to transform your work too, but unless you start by answering the question “Why does your United Way exist?” you may never see the opportunity.

In these challenging times, your United Way needs a strategic plan that is built on answering the question “Why does your United Way exist?” and focuses all your efforts on achieving your purpose.

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Quote of the Month: October 2017

Our October Quote of the Month comes from physicist Albert Einstein:

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“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

This quote has two implications for United Ways. First, if United Ways want to succeed in the future, they cannot be using the “same thinking” of the past. We find that many United Ways develop strategic plans that merely propagate the present – for example, increase campaign revenue by 10% or add 20 new workplace campaigns. This “same thinking” might have worked in the 1970s or 1980s but it is not going to solve the problems of the 2010s. Second, note that Einstein said “we created” the problems. Many United Ways blame their challenges on the economy or increasing competition, when in fact, United Ways have, by their inaction, created their own problems. The good news about creating the problems is that United Ways can also create the solutions. Before your United Way develops your next strategic plan, take a look at how your United Way can conquer your challenges with an issue focus. We can help your United Way use new thinking to impact your community and strengthen your United Way. It all starts by looking at an issue focus and having an honest conversation about the relevance and future of your United Way with our Introduction to an Issue Focus Board Retreat.

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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What Are You Afraid Of?


Recently, during a conversation with the CEO of a United Way who had adopted an issue focus, I asked him what advice he would give a United Way that was considering becoming issue-focused. I expected him to say something along the line of “Becoming issue-focused will change your United Way for the better” or “I wish we did this years ago.” But, he completely caught me off-guard when he said his advice would be to ask them “What are you afraid of?”

I have worked with United Ways since 1989, and there are more challenges facing United Ways now than ever. In many cases, these challenges are outside the direct control of a United Way. In the past 30 years, challenges brought about by the economy, changing workplaces, shifting corporate ownership, technology, media, demographics, and society have made the work of United Ways significantly more difficult. United Ways struggle to deal with these challenges, and solutions are few and far between.

Whenever things are challenging, I am reminded of a quote that goes something like this “Focus on the things you can control.” Despite the uncertainty of the economy, workplaces, corporate ownership, technology, media, and society, United Ways are still in complete control of their work. Every day you can decide how your United Way is going to change your community, and the methods it will use to do that work.

There cannot be many, if any, organizations that have been around for as long as United Way and not changed what they do, or at least how they do it. Think about organizations like Western Union, Ford Motor Company, or General Electric, and you can see significant changes in what they do now, and especially how they do it, from years ago. The question is not “Will United Way change?,” the questions are “When will United Way change?” and “How will United Way change?”

United Way CEOs often tell me they are afraid of changing what they are doing. They are concerned that if they change what they are doing they might lose donors, their partner agencies might be offended, or something else bad might happen. After saying “What are you afraid of?” the CEO I was talking to said “If you're afraid of losing donors, it's already too late. You're already losing donors. Just do it!” Change can be scary, but what are you more afraid of – the uncertainty of what will happen to your United Way if you do nothing, or changing your United Way to take control of your future?  

Making a change like transforming your United Way to an issue focus is not easy. However, when you make the change to become issue-focused, you are focusing on the things you can control. From our years of experience helping United Ways become issue-focused, we have found that having the right information from using our Direction-Setting process and carefully planning your transformation to an issue focus using our Strategic Planning process eliminates a lot of the uncertainty.  

Take a moment to think about the future of your United Way, and reflect on the words of a United Way CEO that has transformed his United Way into an issue-focused United Way: “What are you afraid of?”


You Only Need One Compass

One of my fondest memories of being a Boy Scout was orienteering at Scout camp. Orienteering is the technical name for using a map and compass to navigate from point to point, through diverse and unfamiliar terrain, to locate and visit control points in sequence. At Scout camp, it was using a map and compass to find your way through the woods, finding a sequence of small hidden letters which spelled a word when completed. Scouts would each “run” the orienteering course individually, find all the letters, and the Scout that did it in the quickest time would be the winner.

There was nothing terribly complicated about orienteering. You need to know how to read a map and use a compass, you should be good at avoiding poison ivy and bears (I never actually saw a bear while orienteering because I was really good at avoiding them), and you must have enough stamina to hike up and down hills through the woods. My success at orienteering came from being able to read a map and compass with a modicum of proficiency.

You only need one compass to participate in orienteering. You can only head in one direction at a time, and the next point you are trying to reach can be easily determined using one compass. There is no need, nor is there any benefit, to using more than one compass or having a variety of different compasses.

When I think about most United Ways, I see a lot of compasses. Many United Ways have a financial compass, which points in the direction of their campaign goal. These same United Ways also have an education compass, which points in the direction of increasing the graduation rate as an example. Another compass is their income compass, which points in the direction of reducing poverty as an example. Finally, they also have a health compass, which points in the direction of improving the infant mortality rate as an example. I have even seen a few United Ways with enough compasses to equip an entire troop of Boy Scouts.

When a United Way has many compasses, it raises a lot of questions. Does every staff member follow every compass, or do staff members only need to be concerned with their compass? What happens when there are not enough resources to follow all of the compasses at the same time? Is United Way successful when it reaches one compass’ destination, but does not reach the destination of the other compasses?

United Ways that are issue-focused have only one compass – pointed in one direction, to reach one destination. Whether that direction is reducing poverty, increasing the graduation rate, or ending homelessness, there is only one compass at an issue-focused United Way and everyone is following that compass. United Way staff are all working to reach the destination. Donors easily understand the one direction United Way is heading. People give, advocate, and volunteer for United Way to help get closer to the destination.

When your United Way has many different compasses, you are not moving in a single direction. It is impossible to reach your destination when you have several destinations, each with their own compass. As you think about your work this year, think about how many compasses there are at your United Way. You only need one compass - not three, four, five or more.