Posts in Communicating
The Three Words Every Donor Needs to Hear

When your donors think of your United Way, what words come to mind? We frequently ask donors this question, and it will come as no surprise that donors name hundreds of different words to describe their United Way. Hundreds of words reaffirm the fact that most donors do not understand what your United Way does.

Hands-down, the most commonly used word to describe United Way is helpful. Helpful, helping the community, helps organizations, helps people – when people think of United Ways, they think helpful. Helpful, although a positive word, is not the word we want people to use to describe United Way.

Why? Because every nonprofit organization is helpful. Helpful is woven into the genetic code of nonprofit organizations. Calling a nonprofit organization helpful is like saying a restaurant has good food. Studies have found that donors don’t support charities just because they are helpful. Donors often support a charity because they want to make a difference in their community or have an impact on an issue. Helpful does not suggest to a donor how they could make an impact on an issue or how they could impact their community.

Although helpful is not the word United Ways should be known for, there are three words that every donor needs to associate with your United Way.

First, people should think of your United Way as local. While United Way is a national charity, it is so in name only, as each local United Way addresses local issues and does so in a manner appropriate for their local community. One common misperception about United Way is that United Ways are not local – that money given to United Way goes somewhere else. It is essential for your community and donors to recognize that your United Way raises and invests money locally. If your United Way serves a county, then local will mean your county. Larger United Ways may need to express local by showing how your work impacts many local communities.

Second, people should associate your United Way with a local issue you address. If your United Way has adopted community impact and you have selected a limited number of critical issues to address, then your United Way should be known for those issues. If your United Way addresses hunger, then people should use the word hunger when describing your United Way. Donors should be able to clearly associate your United Way with the issue you address, so that a donor who wants to address hunger in your community will know their contribution to United Way will be used to reduce hunger locally.

If your United Way has adopted an issue focus, you will be communicating your issue, such as poverty or the graduation rate. If your United Way has divided your impact into categories, then you will be communicating your categories, such as education, income, and health. Our donor research has found that most donors cannot associate their United Way with more than three issues. Do not try to communicate every issue you are working on, instead select no more than three issues you want to be known for.

Third, although each United Way serves a different locality and addresses specific local issues, there is one word that applies to every United Way – united. United Ways convene volunteers, donors, partner agencies, governments, etc. to address the needs of the community. Uniting everyone is how United Way makes an impact. Your United Way should demonstrate to donors that when they contribute to United Way they are united in a larger effort to make a meaningful difference in their community.

It takes a long time to change how people think about and perceive your United Way. We have worked with United Ways that have spent four to six years to change the perception of their United Way in a meaningful way. Used consistently and effectively, your words will improve understanding of your United Way, as well as focus your efforts internally. In fact, you’ll find that these three words will be infinitely more helpful to your United Way than the word helpful.

How to Remain Resolute in Your Resolutions

We make our New Year’s resolutions with the intention to better ourselves. If we know that our resolutions are in our best interest, why are they so hard to keep? We explore this question as a follow-up to our last blog post, Three New Year’s Resolutions Your United Way Should Keep. In our last blog post, Gary laid out three ambitious resolutions for your United Way to consider adopting in 2019:

  1. Stop using jargon: Keep words like “allocations process,” “collective impact,” and “core service investments” out of your communications with donors and community members. To more clearly communicate with your stakeholders, use fewer words and phrases that require their own sentences to explain their meaning.

  2. Help your donors succeed: Make sure that donors are able to clearly understand the impact their contributions have on social issues in your community. To help your donors to get excited about contributing to your United Way, stop reporting progress toward your campaign goal and start discussing the change their donations make possible.

  3. Understand why your United Way exists: Decide if your United Way exists to fundraise on behalf of other local organizations or to make measurable change as a community convener. To clarify your purpose, simply your messaging, and streamline your use of staff time, decide if your United Way’s top priority is raising as much money as possible or creating as much measurable change in the community as possible.

Breaking old habits is tough, and unfortunately, many United Ways have been speaking jargon, measuring progress according to campaign thermometers, and juggling competing senses of purpose for years. Tackling these bad habits in one fell swoop can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. Take a look at our four tips below to see how you can help your United Way stick to its 2019 resolutions:

  1. Find your motivation: You should never change just because someone (we) told you that you should. Before you begin your journey toward change, take time to write down what you want to get out of your resolutions. Do you want your United Way to be better understood? For your donors to be more highly motivated? For your staff to have a clear sense of purpose? Know what your end goals are so that you can remain motivated when keeping your resolutions becomes challenging.

  2. Start small: Breaking deeply ingrained habits and defining your purpose takes time. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to make all your resolutions happen at once. Instead, break each resolution into small, achievable pieces. For example, don’t rewrite all your marketing materials from scratch; as the year progresses, update them one by one to remove jargon. As you become more comfortable talking about what your United Way does in simple terms, the easier it will be to use that language in all your communications with stakeholders.

  3. Ask your friends for help: Seek help from others who have been where you are now. The power of the United Way network is that you have the ability to learn from more than 1,200 other organizations. Utilize LISTSERVs or network at conferences to learn how other United Ways have simplified the way they talk to their community, transitioned away from campaign thermometers, and clarified their purpose.

  4. Seek professional help: While the advice of friends can be helpful, every United Way is different; sometimes it’s helpful to receive advice from an outside specialist. If you want to see the clearest path forward to achieve your United Way’s 2019 resolutions, consider reaching out to us . Whether you’re interested in clarifying your purpose or transitioning from thermometers to measurable community impact, we can help.

Change is always hard, but as donor expectations and the nonprofit landscape continue to evolve, change is essential for United Ways that want to remain relevant, sustainable, and impactful players in their communities. As we move in to 2019, take the time to assess how your United Way needs to change in order to put itself in a stronger position for 2020. Whether your United Way adopts our suggested resolutions or creates its own, make 2019 a year of intentional, strategic change.

Three New Year’s Resolutions Your United Way Should Keep
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Tis the season! It’s that time of year again when, with ample confidence and overwhelming exuberance, we prepare our New Year’s resolutions. As you contemplate your personal New Year’s resolutions for 2019, there is no reason not to prepare a New Year’s resolution or three for your United Way as well. In the spirit of holiday giving and sharing, we have three resolutions that your United Way should keep.

1. Stop Using Jargon. Why put it off any longer? You know jargon is bad for you, your donors, your community, and your United Way. Make 2019 the year you put an end to using words and phrases that confuse, bemuse, and bewilder anyone outside of your office walls. United Ways are so effusive in their use of jargon that we had a jargon contest in 2016 just to see if United Way staff could tell “real” United Way jargon from “computer generated” United Way jargon.

While words like “allocations process,” “collective impact,” and “core service investments” may cause excitement that borders on hysteria among your staff, your community and donors have no idea what these words mean. Their eyes glaze over at the sound of “fund distribution,” “investment products,” and “key influence sectors.” Using these words outside of the office only serves to push donors and the community further away. You can – and must – tell your United Way story without jargon.

In 2019, make it your United Way’s New Year’s resolution to stop using jargon outside the office. Appoint someone to be your office “Jargon-Buster” responsible for ensuring that your campaign brochures, emails, website, and other communication materials are jargon-free.

2. Help Your Donors Succeed. You would hardly think United Ways need this resolution, until you realize that many United Ways go out of their way to make it difficult for their donors to succeed. When donors succeed, they feel like they have made their community a better place.

Do donors support your United Way because of how much money it raises? No, so examples like thermometers don’t help donors succeed and have got to go.

Instead, show donors how they make a difference by contributing to United Way. Donors will succeed when United Ways share the issue they address, the actions they are taking to address the issue, and the results they are achieving.

When you allow donors to designate their contribution, what does that mean for United Way? It means that other nonprofit organizations are doing a better job at making your donors successful.

Our research has found that there are donors in every community who designate but would consider supporting United Way instead if they understood what United Way accomplishes. Focus the message of your United Way so that donors will successfully recognize the opportunities to make a difference in your community.

In 2019, examine everything your United Way does to make sure it helps your donors succeed. Stop doing what doesn’t help donors succeed and start doing what donors need to succeed. After a year of helping your donors succeed, we can talk about more mundane resolutions like losing weight.

3. Understand Why Your United Way Exists. The eternal, existential question of why your United Way exists is a question you must be able to answer to know when you are successful.

Sadly, most United Way boards cannot tell you why their United Way exists or the purpose of their United Way. Well, let me refine that a little. If you ask a board of 20 people why United Way exists, you are likely to get 20 different answers. On a single board, it is not uncommon for board members to offer a variety of reasons for why their United Way exists, including: to help people, to raise money for local organizations, to provide donors a single place to make their charitable contribution, to make sure local nonprofits are accountable and effective, to understand and address the community’s needs, to help families, to end homelessness, to halt hunger. The list of purposes board members might identify goes on endlessly.

If boards of directors express such a diversity of belief as to why their United Way exists, is it any surprise when donors or the community do not know what their local United Way does? The reason your United Way exists could be entirely different from the United Way in the next county, which makes it even more important to be able to clearly articulate your answer. For your United Way to succeed, your board must have a clear consensus as to why your United Way exists.

Make understanding why your United Way exists one of your resolutions for 2019. What you will find, once your board agrees on why your United Way exists, is an incredible focus in your work. Your board will be able to go out and talk with one voice about why people should give, advocate, and volunteer at your United Way. Your staff will understand what the board values and expects United Way to accomplish. Your donors will support United Way knowing what their contribution will be enabling. Your community will understand how United Way fits into the larger fabric of the nonprofit and social service organizations in your area.  

Those are the three resolutions that we think your United Way should keep in 2019. However, we know that sticking to resolutions isn’t always easy, so our next blog post will share with you our guide for staying resolute in your resolutions.

We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Best wishes for a successful and rewarding 2019! Now, go get a head start on those resolutions!

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