Posts in Issues
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.

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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Are the Times Changing?
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One of the most common refrains I hear from United Ways is that the times are changing. Society is changing, technology is changing, the economy is changing, and even competition for charitable giving is changing.

Just consider this headline from an article in the New York Times: “United Way, Faced With Fewer Donors, Is Giving Away Less.”  You can easily attribute the downward trend in the number of donors to changes in society, technology, the economy, and competition – among other reasons. As you would expect, the article talks about corporate downsizing, increasing competition for charitable dollars, and donors choosing to designate their contribution or just by-pass United Way and give directly.

There are a variety of United Way directors quoted in the article saying things like “There is a disconnect between what United Ways do and what people think they do and the reason for that disconnect is our ineptness at explaining what we do” or “We drive the agencies nuts because they don’t know from year to year what they will get.”

The article also shares some of the strategies being used by United Ways to counteract this trend. For example, United Ways are focusing on growing leadership giving, which according to the article presents a new challenge: “United Way is now competing more with its member agencies to raise money from the wealthiest people.” Another strategy mentioned in the article for stemming the downward trend in the number of donors is allowing donors to give to charities of their choice – designations.

If all this sounds strangely familiar, it should. The New York Times article I am referring to was published on November 9, 1997. No, that is not a typo. The year was 1-9-9-7 or just over 21 years ago. Nearly everything that was mentioned in the article still applies today – over the past 21 years the challenges mentioned in the article have not gone away – they have become the new reality.

Solutions to these external changes are not easy. Instead of being on the receiving end of all these changes, what if United Ways led change? United Ways can change conditions in their community, but that change will not be measured by the number of donors or how much money is given away. United Ways that exist to impact their communities, what we refer to as issue-focused United Ways, are creating change in community conditions by reducing the number of homeless or increasing the number of high school graduates, as examples.

Issue-focused United Ways exist to measurably change a critical issue in their community. Their success comes from measuring lives changed, not from how much money was raised or distributed to partner agencies. An issue focus is one solution to the changes facing United Ways today. Does it make changes in society, technology, the economy, or competition go away? Of course not, but an issue focus allows United Ways to be relevant, sustainable, and impactful in spite of these changes. You can learn more about the Issue Focus Model on our website and learn more about how one issue-focused United Way is relevant, sustainable, and impactful in their community.

It may not be surprising that the New York Times article still applies today, but it is probably disappointing. We all hope that the New York Times will be able to write a different article about United Ways 20 years from now, but that will require United Ways to lead change rather than be crushed by change.