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Is Your United Way Successful?

Recently, I saw an interesting editorial from a United Way CEO about how their United Way is changing the way it addresses social issues in their community. The editorial explained some of the social issues and needs in the community and outlined the role of United Way in addressing those needs. What caught my attention, though, was not what the United Way is going to do to address those needs, but how they are going to measure their success.

Before I share their measurement of success, it will be helpful to look at two of the most common ways United Ways measure success. For many years, measuring success revolved around how much money a United Way raised – the campaign goal. The campaign goal was often represented by thermometers that would spring up all over town during campaign season. You can read more about campaign goals and thermometers in these blog posts.

In the past 20 years or so, United Ways have turned to measuring success by the number of people who have been helped. For example, a representative of United Way of the Alberta Capital Region was talking about leaving the campaign goal behind and said, “So instead of bringing forward a financial target, I ask … how many do you want to help in our community?” United Ways that measure success in this way will often include information about the number of people helped by funded programs, or the will make a broader statement like “7,418 children, individuals and families participated in United Way funded programs last year.” This evolution in measuring success is largely the result of United Ways adopting some form of community impact.

The quote that caught my attention comes from the United Way of Tarrant County’s president and CEO, who said in an editorial article, “Central to our beliefs, we know it is time to measure our results not by the number of people we’ve helped, but by the number of people who no longer need help.”

On the surface, measuring success by the number of people who no longer need help does not seem like such a big deal because United Way of Tarrant County is still counting people. But, if you look at the people helped by a local organization, like a food pantry for example, people may be returning to the food pantry every month. Until their underlying challenges have been addressed, they will continue to need help. When you count the number of people who no longer need help, your success becomes the number of lives that have been changed.

We have been helping United Ways transition to measuring their success by counting people who no longer need help for years. We call these United Ways issue-focused, and we help them to set goals like “United, we will lift 15,000 families out of poverty by 2028” (United Way of Pierce County) or “By 2025, all Skagit children entering kindergarten are ready to learn” (United Way of Skagit County). These United Ways and many others are focused on changing conditions in their communities, so people no longer need help.

If you are looking at how you define and measure success for your United Way, consider the possibility of measuring the number of people who no longer need help. United Ways that are issue-focused are not only changing their communities in powerful ways, but they are changing their United Ways as well.

When issue-focused United Ways measure the number of people who no longer need help, they become more relevant to their donors and community. When issue-focused United Ways measure the number of people who no longer need help, they become more sustainable as they grow and diversify resources. When issue-focused United Ways measure the number of people who no longer need help, they become more impactful as they change lives in their community.

If your United Way is interested in the possibility of defining success by measuring the number of people who no longer need help in your community, let us know. Our Challenges and Opportunities Retreat or our Introduction to an Issue Focus Retreat will help your United Way to decide how best to measure your success and you can learn more about how we transform United Ways to an issue focus here.

Is This Question Hard to Answer?

Why does your United Way hold workplace campaigns? At first, this will seem like an easy question to answer. But, I would ask you to think about it at a deeper level – beyond raising money or because United Ways have always held workplace campaigns.

For some United Ways, holding workplace campaigns is about providing funding for local partner agencies and programs. United Ways promote the results of the funded programs to attract people to give to their workplace campaigns, and partner agencies use United Way funding to operate the programs that provide these results. There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between these United Ways and their partner agencies. Local partner agencies and programs rely on United Way to organize workplace campaigns to provide part of their funding. United Way relies on the partner agencies to provide results that are used to attract people to support the workplace campaigns. United Ways and partner agencies need each other to succeed.

Other United Ways might answer the question by saying they hold workplace campaigns to impact the education, income, and health needs of their community. The money raised from workplace campaigns allows United Way to invest in programs that will reduce poverty, increase the graduation rate, help the hungry, or provide mental health counseling as examples. These United Ways do not hold workplace campaigns to fund programs, but to impact or change conditions in their community. These United Ways ask people to support their workplace campaigns because of the issues or categories they address and not because of the partner agencies they support.

While there are plenty of United Ways that would give one of these two answers when asked why they hold workplace campaigns, can you see what is missing in these two answers? Neither of these two answers mention donors. These answers are all about partner agencies or impact, rather than about the donor. If your United Way is going to have effective workplace campaigns, your donors must be the primary reason why your United Way holds workplace campaigns, as they are the ones who are making the contributions.

Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to think of workplace campaigns as an invisible connector between your donors and what your donors what to accomplish. Your workplace campaigns give your donors the opportunity to support partner agencies, impact an issue in their community, or even to support a local nonprofit they care about by designating their contribution. Your workplace campaigns allow your donors to fulfill their desire to give back, help people, change someone’s life, feel good about themselves, and/or make the community a better place.

Based on our donor research, few donors give to United Way simply because it is an easy and efficient method of charitable giving. Donors have other choices for giving if they are looking for an easy and efficient method of charitable giving such as the internet, GoFundMe, and Facebook fundraisers. Your donors are the reason your United Way holds workplace campaigns, and donors give to your workplace campaign because of what they can achieve by doing so.

As you plan for your upcoming workplace campaigns, start with your donors. Be sure that your workplace campaigns connect donors to what they want to do and help your donors feel like they made a difference. Make your workplace campaign all about your donors – not all about United Way.

When you start thinking about holding workplace campaigns to meet the needs and desires of your donors, you will start to think much differently about your campaign brochure. Our next Master Class webinar, “Get Them to Give: Designing Your Campaign Brochure” on Tuesday, April 9th addresses the topic of what donors want and expect in your campaign brochure. Consider joining us for this one-hour webinar and we will show you how to design a campaign brochure that allows your donors to fulfill their needs and desires.

The Other Half
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For nearly 30 years, we have been conducting donor and community research for local United Ways throughout the United States. Over time, the questions we ask have changed – for example, we now ask about social media usage, but we no longer ask if people use email.

One of the questions we have consistently asked is: “If you did not give to United Way this past year, have you ever given to United Way?” We have found that the percentage of people who did not give to United Way this year but have given to United Way previously has increased over time. In every survey we have conducted since 2014, at least 50% of all people who did not give to United Way in the past year had given to United Way previously.

Here is a sobering thought: Half of all people who did not give to your United Way this year have given to United Way previously. When you walk down the sidewalk or through a store, take a moment and think that one out of every two people you see has probably given to United Way at some point in their lives but did not give to your United Way this year. It makes you want to grab them by the collar and ask them “Why aren’t you supporting United Way?” doesn’t it?

But, it is not their fault – you can’t blame them. The reality of the situation is that most of those people don’t give because they are no longer asked to give by their United Way. Perhaps they retired and are no longer exposed to a workplace campaign, or maybe they changed employment and now work at a company that does not have a workplace campaign.

The vast majority of people who did not give to United Way this year but have given previously did not give for any reason other than they were not asked to give. How do we know? Because when we asked them, most community members who have previously supported United Way indicated they would support United Way again if asked. This is especially true with retirees.

I can already hear some of you thinking “Hey! We give people an opportunity to give online on our website.” While this may be true, the challenge with providing an online giving opportunity is that your potential donors need to “find” the giving opportunity. Workplace campaigns reach out to potential donors by bringing the giving opportunity to the donor. Most charitable giving occurs because the charity brings the giving opportunity to the potential donor through direct mail, social media, a golf tournament, or even cookie sales. Online giving portals fail to do this.

For all of the United Ways that are wrapping up their workplace campaigns, it is now time to start working on reaching the other half of your donors. What giving opportunities can your United Way provide to engage your former donors such as special events, affinity groups, or alternative giving opportunities? There are United Ways that we have worked with that raise up to one-third of their total resources from these types of activities.

We are not suggesting that United Ways eliminate their workplace campaigns. Instead, we are suggesting that they actively seek to attract donors outside of the workplace campaign. Based on our research and the increasing percentage of people who have given to United Way previously, reaching donors outside of the workplace campaign will be essential to long-term success.

If attracting former donors is a priority for your United Way, let us know and we can help you explore potential opportunities for reaching donors and develop a plan based on the most effective and efficient methods for your United Way.

The other half of your donors are waiting. Now is the time to begin the other half of your fundraising.

P.S. Be sure to join us at 2:00 p.m. EST next Monday, February 4th for our webinar “Get Your Board Onboard: Secrets of the Engaged Board.” You can learn more about “Get Your Board Onboard: Secrets of the Engaged Board” and all our webinars here.