Posts in Donors
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.

Is This Question Hard to Answer?
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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.

In Defense of Designations

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.