To Designate or Not to Designate, Why is the Question


I recently read a newspaper article about a United Way that had to cut-back their allocations to partner agencies because too many donors designated their contributions. When asked about the cut-back, the president of the United Way blamed those donors who designated their contribution. Blaming donors for having to cut-back allocations is not only bad public relations, it is just plain wrong. The blame for increased designations lies with the United Way.

It may come as a surprise to some United Way presidents, but two of the most common reasons why your donors designate are the direct result of what your United Way does, or rather what it does not do. Our research for local United Ways has found many donors designate because they have no idea what their United Way does or they do not trust their local United Way.

Your donors make the ultimate decision about whether or not to designate their contribution, but they make that decision based on their understanding and trust of your United Way. If you are not clearly articulating what your United Way does, then you are encouraging your donors to designate. When donors do not understand what is accomplished with their contributions, they will designate to local nonprofits because they know exactly what Goodwill, the local Boys and Girls Club, or the Boy Scouts do. If you are not demonstrating that donors can trust your United Way, then you are encouraging your donors to designate. When donors think United Way misspends or doesn’t account for their contribution, then they will designate to a local nonprofit they trust. You must make the case to donors how their contribution makes a difference in your community, and that your United Way can be trusted to be accountable for their contribution.

It may be impossible to convince every donor to stop designating; however, every United Way can reduce their level of designations by communicating impact and reinforcing trust. You can learn more about communicating impact from our webinar IAR – Three Letters for Simple & Effective Community Impact and learn more about building trust with your donors from our webinar SST – Three Letters for Successful United Way Campaigns and Communication.

There are many things that may be beyond the control of your United Way, like the economy or unemployment, but designations are not one of them. Take control of your designations by making it clear to every donor exactly what your United Way does and build a trusting relationship with your donors. 

Gary First name Sig GREEN.png

One Way to Make Designations Disappear

In years of research with United Way donors, we have identified a variety of reasons why people designate their contributions to United Way. Some of the reasons people designate are not things that United Ways can easily control; for example, a donor who personally benefitted from a local nonprofit organization may want to direct their contribution to that nonprofit.

But, one of the most commonly mentioned reasons why United Way donors designate their contributions is because they do not know what their local United Way accomplishes. Quotes like “It’s important to me to direct the impact of my dollars” and “So I know exactly where the dollars go” suggest that donors do not understand what their local United Way accomplishes with their contributions. How common is this? In some United Ways we have worked with, nearly half of their donors designated because they did not know what their local United Way accomplished.

If your United Way wants to turn around increasing levels of designations, your first step should be to make sure that donors understand what you are accomplishing with their contributions. This means more than just telling donors what programs and partner agencies you funded in the past year. For donors to understand what you have accomplished with their contributions, you must tell them three things: what issues your United Way is addressing, what actions you are taking to address those issues, and what results you have achieved.

Workplace campaign presentations are a great opportunity to share the issues your United Way addresses, the actions you are taking, and the results you have achieved. But, most donors expect year-round communication from their United Way – just telling them what you accomplished with their contribution at the time you are asking for another contribution is not good enough. Be sure to communicate your issues, actions, and results with donors several times a year.

You can reduce the designation rate at your United Way by making sure your donors know what is being accomplished with their contributions. In fact, not only will your designation rate decrease, but by letting donors know what is being accomplished with their contributions, they are more likely to increase their contributions as well.

For more information about issues, actions, and results, check out our webinar: IAR - Three Letters for Simple and Effective Community Impact at