The issue of designations can be controversial. While some United Ways promote designations as a way to encourage donors to give, others discourage designations by placing restrictions on which organizations can be designated to or by requiring a minimum designation amount. Still, there are other United Ways that do not allow designations in any form.
While some United Ways insist that allowing designations runs in opposition to the spirit of the United Way movement, others insist that promoting designations embodies the historical roots of the United Way movement.
The reality is that every United Way and every community served by a United Way is unique. Therefore, there is no single, definitive answer for how all United Ways should handle designations.
With that in mind, there are three tenets that a United Way must consider when determining how to address donor designations:
Donor designations are not inherently good or bad.
The value of designations depends on the individual United Way’s priorities and community.
Therefore, United Ways should select their approach to designations based on their unique situation.
These three points may not seem ground-breaking, but they are essential in determining whether or not designations are right for your United Way. Take for instance the question of whether or not your United Way should allow designations to any 501(c)3 in your community.
It’s easy to understand why a United Way might not want to allow designations to any local nonprofit. A United Way that accepts designations of this type has no control over where those donated dollars are invested in the community. Not only that, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to process donations when donors are designating to everything from the regional food bank to local churches.
If designations of this type limit a United Way’s ability to make strategic investments in the community and cuts into already limited staff time, when would a United Way want to consider allowing donors to make designations to any local nonprofit agency?
Allowing such designations makes sense when – above all else – a local United Way sees itself as a fundraiser. If a United Way prioritizes mobilizing as many dollars as possible during campaign, the best way to do that is to allow donors to give to whatever local nonprofits they want.
In the United States, there are examples of United Ways that have double and tripled their campaigns by encouraging donors to do all of their charitable giving – including church tithing – through United Way! For United Ways that define success according to the amount raised during campaign, there is no better way to maximize success than by allowing donations to be directed to any local nonprofit.
Of course, not every United Way defines success according to campaign. For United Ways that determine success according to measurable impact made in the community, the investment of staff time to process designations is likely not the most effective way to support impact work.
Every United Way is unique, so there is no single right answer when it comes to handling designations. Whether your United Way allows designations with no questions asked, places restrictions on designation amounts or recipients, or bans designations completely, your United Way needs to make the choice that best supports your goals.
If your United Way is focused on implementing community impact, you should assess whether or not staff time currently spent processing designations could be better spent working on impact initiatives. If your United Way wants to raise as much money as possible, you will be well-served to consider redirecting staff efforts to encouraging designations.
Whatever your United Way’s priorities, it is worth looking at your relationship with designations and assessing whether or not that relationship supports your United Way’s goals.