Posts in Market & Communicate
The Communication Challenge Facing United Ways

In my most recent blog post, The Difference Between Auto Manufacturers and United Ways, I asked the question “What if automobile manufacturers sold cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give?”

As I noted in my previous blog post, many United Ways communicate information like their campaign goal, number of investment panels, number of funded partner agencies, and how many volunteer hours it took to determine the allocations – but, this information does not motivate donors to give.  

The communication challenge facing many United Ways is sharing a message that resonates with donors. Fundraising-focused United Ways, which exist to raise money to fund local nonprofits and programs, share a lot of information about their processes – like their campaign goal and number of funded programs – but this does not motivate donors. Some fundraising-focused United Ways share stories about people that were impacted by funded programs. Donors appreciate stories about how their contribution changed lives, but when the story is about a funded program, it strengthens the connection between the donor and the funded program, rather than the donor’s connection to United Way.

One solution to this challenge is to redefine the purpose of United Way. We are helping United Ways across the United Ways to adopt an issue focus, which redefines the purpose of United Way. Issue-focused United Ways exist to measurably change in an issue in their communities and then raise money to impact the issue. For example, issue-focused United Ways are reducing poverty, increasing the graduation rate, and lowering obesity in their communities.

What we know from our donor research is that the three things donors want and need to know to be able to support United Way are:

•  What issue is United Way addressing?
•  What actions is United Way taking to address that issue?
•  What results have United Way achieved addressing that issue?

Issue-focused United Ways focus all their efforts addressing a single issue. Therefore, issue-focused United Ways communicate messages that resonate with donors because the issue, actions, and results of that United Way are clear.

Issue-focused United Ways can share messages about the results of giving to United Way, not the processes used by United Way. Issue-focused United Ways do not communicate about their campaign goal, number of investment panels, number of funded partner agencies, and how many volunteer hours it took to determine the allocations. Instead, issue-focused United Ways communicate messages like “Donating to United Way reduces poverty” and “We are halfway to our goal of a 90% high school graduation rate . . . from 59% in 2005 to 76% in 2014!”

I realize that not every United Way will be able to adopt an issue focus, so this is not a solution that will work for every United Way. I would encourage you to consider the potential of an issue focus at your United Way not only because it offers a simpler message that resonates with donors but for many other benefits including maximizing your impact and diversifying your resources.

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Too Complicated?

Nearly every United Way struggles with the challenge of trying to explain to their donors and community what exactly it is that United Way does. Even the tallest buildings in the world are not tall enough for most United Ways to be able to finish their elevator speech before reaching the top floor. You don’t have to look far to find proof of how challenging it is to explain what United Ways do, as there are several United Ways that have elevator speeches that fill an entire page.

We are frequently asked by United Ways to help them develop a shorter, simpler, and clearer elevator speech. They explain how their United Way funds dozens of programs and operates several initiatives in multiple areas of focus, each with several goals, which are measured with endless lists of indicators, monitored by scores of volunteers, funded from hundreds of campaigns, with support from year-round special events, all overseen by a staff of experienced experts. How on earth do you create an elevator speech from all that?

The solution to the challenge of the elevator speech is simple. If what your United Way does is too complicated, too comprehensive, and all-encompassing that you can’t easily explain what your United Way does, then simplify what your United Way does. Please understand that I am not suggesting that United Ways are not doing good work - in fact, quite the opposite. Most United Ways are trying to do too much good work, which makes their work too complicated, too comprehensive, and all-encompassing in a way that it is impossible to communicate in an elevator speech, and quite frankly, impossible to do everything efficiently and effectively. Not a month goes by that I don’t hear a United Way say something to the effect of “We do this really well, but we haven’t figured out how to do that well yet.”

The ability to explain the work of your United Way in a short, simple, and clear elevator speech is a test that every United Way should be able to pass. If you can articulate your elevator speech in a short, simple, and clear manner, then it is likely that your United Way is focused in your mission, vision, and goals. However, if it is impossible to develop a short, simple, and clear elevator speech for your United Way, take a close look at how focused you are in your mission, vision, and goals. Simplifying your work may not only allow you to develop a meaningful elevator speech, but may also result in greater accomplishments achieved in a more efficient and effective manner. You might want to consider adopting an issue focus, which is an ideal way to simplify your work.

If you can’t easily explain what your United Way does, simplify what your United Way does.


Investing in the Future

When I talk about marketing with most United Ways, the focus is generally on workplace campaign and the annual report. For the months leading up to campaign, marketing staff are focused on preparing their campaign brochure, pledge cards, and campaign video – all of which are essential marketing activities for an effective workplace campaign. And the day after all of the marketing materials are complete for the workplace campaigns, marketing staff turn their attention to preparing the annual report.

Most United Ways spend their entire marketing budget promoting their workplace campaign and preparing an annual report. In some United Ways, marketing does not include an annual report; it is simply focused on what needs to be done to promote the workplace campaign. The workplace campaign and the annual report are the two ways that United Ways communicate to their donors what they are doing. The challenge, however, is that communicating through the workplace campaign and sending an annual report to donors is only effective in reaching donors.

We know from our research how important it is to communicate with donors. Donors want to know what your United Way is accomplishing with their contribution, and our research has found that donors are more likely to increase their contribution when they know the impact of their contribution. United Ways tell me all the time that their number of donors is shrinking and that often their campaign only grows because existing donors increase their contributions, which makes communicating with donors even more important now than ever. 

But, when you focus all of your marketing activities and marketing budget solely on reaching your donors, everyone else is in the dark about your United Way. Two groups that should know about your United Way and be invited to give, advocate, and/or volunteer for your United Way are the younger generation and retirees. Marketing needs to reach beyond donors to engage the younger generation.

Investing in marketing to reach the younger generation will result in more volunteers for your United Way today, and once they volunteer, more donors for your United Way tomorrow. Investing in marketing to retirees will re-engage former donors, many of whom probably gave for decades before retiring, and have stopped supporting United Way solely because they are no longer asked to support United Way.

As United Ways look to diversify resources beyond the workplace campaign, many are now holding special events to raise money. Investing in marketing to promote United Way and why people should participate in these special events is essential to the success of the special events. Holding a special event is not enough to get someone to participate – a special event is not one of those “build it and they will come” type of things. Marketing is necessary for people to understand what your United Way accomplishes and why participating in the special event will help accomplish even more in their community.

Investing in marketing beyond the workplace campaign and annual report may not have been necessary 30 or 40 years ago, but it is now mission critical. The success of your United Way long-term will be dependent on marketing and communicating to not only your current donors but your future donors as well. Investing in marketing now is like the Greek proverb that says “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”