The Difference Between Auto Manufacturers and United Ways


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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Who Cares?


Your donors do NOT care about . . .

  •  The number of partner agencies that receive funding from your United Way
  •  The number of programs funded by your United Way
  •  The number of hours spent by volunteers to determine your allocations
  •  Your number of Facebook likes or Twitter followers
  •  The number of priority areas of investment or targeted goals at your United Way
  •  How many of your workplace campaigns had 100% participation
  •  Your total number of donors and the average amount contributed by your donors
  •  How much donors designated to other nonprofit organizations
  •  How many people used your volunteer connection website
  •  The number of people in your leadership giving society and how much they contributed
  •  How much money was invested in each of your priority areas of investment
  •  How much money was raised at your social fundraising event
  •  The amounts contributed by your top 20 workplace campaigns
  •  How many people are on your board of directors
  •  Your campaign goal

. . . because none of these things tell a donor why they should give to your United Way.

Your donors care about . . .

1)  What issue does your United Way address?

2)  What is your United Way doing to impact your issue?

3)  What results has your United Way achieved to impact your issue?

. . . because when your donors know these three things, they will know why they should contribute to your United Way. Learn more about the power of one issue and one bold goal to attract donors by becoming issue-focused on our website here.

Successful United Ways tell donors what they want and need to know.

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Remaining Relevant is Hard

The world is changing faster than ever. Shifting demographics, emerging technology, and evolving best practices keep United Ways on their toes as they work to remain relevant in their communities.

Remaining relevant is, of course, critical to the survival of United Ways, and therefore critical to the ability of United Ways to continue to positively impact their communities.

But, it’s hard.

Remaining relevant is especially difficult because all the changes that keep United Ways on their toes can make it challenging for United Way staff to know how best to communicate with and engage donors, volunteers, and community members in their work.

We have been working with United Ways for 28 years, so we intimately understand the importance of each United Way cultivating a positive and persistent presence in its community. We also understand the role effective communication and engagement play in cultivating that presence. 

As the world continues to rapidly change, we want to help United Ways continue to be able to positively impact and interact with their donors, volunteers, and community members.

That is why I would like to invite you to join us for our upcoming “Positioning Your United Way for 2020: What You Must Plan & Start Doing Today” webinar. Join us to learn more about how progressive United Ways across the country are changing the way they offer engagement opportunities, call their communities to action, and interact with audiences on social media.

To learn more about our upcoming webinar, please visit


Encouraging Supporters to Share Their Story

Is your United Way sharing stories on your website? If so, are they stories about your United Way or your partner agencies?

Many United Ways struggle with finding and sharing stories about their United Way. Most commonly, United Ways share stories about how community members have been helped by their partner agencies’ programs or about how those organizations are making an impact in the community. However, the problem with only sharing partner agencies’ stories is that your donors and community members will learn about what your partner agencies are doing, but not what your United Way is doing, and may therefore choose to contribute directly to your partner agencies instead of your United Way. This is why it is absolutely essential that you share stories about your United Way.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "I would share a story about our United Way if we had one, but we only have partner agency stories to share because we don’t offer any direct services." Or you may be thinking, "We already are sharing one really great story about someone who was helped by one of our United Way programs, but it is really difficult to find more stories we are able to share."

In our work with United Ways across the country, I have heard United Way staff members make comments like these, and I completely understand the struggle to tell your own story. However, the advice I give to these staff members is to share stories of people who "Live United" (people who give, advocate, volunteer, or serve on your board). Even if you don’t have stories to share of people who have been helped by your United Way, you should be able to share stories of donors, volunteers, or board members who have helped people in your community through their involvement with your United Way.

United Way of Greater Portland (Portland, ME) does a great job telling stories and they share stories of people who "Live United" on their website and on social media. Check out their amazing "LIVE UNITED storytelling library (LUbrary)" here and a previous blog post I wrote about them here.

One United Way that is promoting storytelling this month is United Way of Genesee County (Flint, MI). They have a webpage called "Love What Matters" on their website and they are asking community members who support their United Way through giving, volunteering, or serving to share their story.


United Way of Genesee County is then sharing the stories they receive throughout the month of February on social media and in their e-newsletter.

Consider doing what United Way of Greater Portland or United Way of Genesee County is doing, and share stories of people who are involved with your United Way. Your community will enjoy seeing and hearing about fellow community members who are helping to make a difference, and will be more likely to contribute once they learn about the impact of contributing to your United Way. Remember to tell stories about how your United Way is helping, and if you do talk about partner agencies’ programs, connect them back to your United Way.

If your United Way decides to become issue-focused, it will make storytelling a lot simpler. You will have one issue to communicate about and you will be able to explain how your United Way is making an impact on this issue in your community. Also, people want to know about results, not processes, so if you become issue-focused, your United Way will be able to communicate results about the progress you are making addressing the issue in your community. If you are interested in learning more about an issue focus, visit:


Where Did Your Donors Go?


Many United Ways have faced the challenge of decreasing numbers of donors. Frequently, United Ways tell us that their donor rolls have dwindled over the years, no matter how hard they try to attract and retain new donors.

So, if you are asking “Where did your donors go?” you would not be alone. The simple answer is that your donors have not gone anywhere. Our research has found that over half of all people who did not give to United Way this year, have given to United Way in the past. Think about that for a moment. When you walk down the street, visit the mall, or attend a sporting event, one out of every two people you see will have given to United Way in the past. Your donors, or former donors, are all around you.

While your donors are still in your community, they may not be where you last left them. Many of these former donors are no longer employed at companies where you are running workplace campaigns. Some of these donors have retired, have left the workplace, and are no longer supporting United Way. Some of these donors are now employed at organizations that do not have a workplace campaign, and are no longer supporting United Way. In fact, our research has found that one of the top reasons former donors do not give to United Way is that they were not asked.

To get these former donors back, you will need to offer your donors an opportunity to engage with your United Way outside of the workplace campaign. You must reach out to your former donors and ask them to engage with your United Way through affinity groups, special events, volunteerism, and alternative giving opportunities. These engagement efforts must be more than putting a “Donate” button on your Web site and hoping former donors find it. Providing opportunities for donors to engage with your United Way is intentional and deliberate work. You must put the same intentional and deliberate effort into reaching out to donors in your community as you do to organizing and conducting workplace campaigns.

But, while our research has found that some former donors no longer give because they are not asked, even more former donors do not give because they prefer other charities. If a donor has given to United Way in the past, and no longer gives to United Way because they prefer other charities, what went wrong? The answer from our research is that most United Way donors do not understand the impact of their contribution, they do not know what their contribution accomplished – in short, they do not know what United Way did with their contributions.

Attracting these former donors back will require United Way to articulate a simple value proposition, such as “When you give to United Way you are reducing poverty” or “Giving to United Way ends homelessness.” Value propositions like these make it clear to a donor what their contribution will accomplish, but the ability to articulate these kind of value propositions requires that your United Way has a clear focus.

An issue-focused United Way has a clear focus. Issue-focused United Ways address a single issue like poverty, hunger, early childhood education, homelessness, or the graduation rate as examples. They have a bold goal like “By 2025, reduce poverty by 50%” or “90% of all children ready for Kindergarten by 2020.” By focusing on one issue with a single bold goal, issued-focused United Ways are easily able to articulate a value proposition which attracts and engages donors.

Engagement opportunities like affinity groups, special events, volunteerism, and alternative giving opportunities are not new to United Ways, and many United Ways are already doing these things. But, the difference is issue-focused United Ways form affinity groups to reduce poverty, or hold special events to end homelessness for example. Issue-focused United Ways provide opportunities for people to volunteer to increase the graduation rate, and provide alternative giving opportunities to end hunger just to name a few. Issue-focused United Ways offer former donors opportunities to engage with United Way and donate to impact an issue in their community.

It is not difficult to find your former donors; they are all around you. Starting an affinity group or holding a special event outside of the workplace campaign will not bring your former donors back by themselves. It is essential to have a clear value proposition so that your donors will know what their contribution will accomplish. The challenge is finding your clear focus that resonates with donors.

Becoming issue-focused has many other benefits for United Ways, including reduced designations, diversified resources, and engaging the younger generation. Find out if an issue focus is right for your United Way with our Introduction to an Issue Focus Board Retreat or give us a call and we’ll talk.