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The Strategic Plan You Have Is Not the One You Need
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In 1976, Eastman Kodak owned the market for photographic film when it was estimated that over 90% of all photographic film sold was Kodak film. Sales continued to grow year-after-year until 1996 when Kodak’s sales reached a high of $16 billion. Sales started to drop in 1997, and it took just 16 years for Kodak’s sales to disintegrate until they were forced to file bankruptcy in 2012. Even the most casual observer would be quick to say that Kodak was too reliant on selling photographic film in a declining market that had moved on to digital cameras.

Was Kodak blind to these new technologies? Not at all – because in 1975 Kodak invented the digital camera. That’s right, Kodak invented the product that led to the demise of their company. Kodak invented the digital camera at the worst possible time – when they were fat and happy with their 90% market share for photographic film. There was little need for Kodak to sell digital cameras when photographic film was their cash cow. Kodak is not the only company to fail due to complacency – think about Blockbuster Video, Borders bookstores, or Atari videogames. 

Several weeks ago, I was talking with a new, first-time, United Way president who had been on the job for about six months. He inherited a United Way with a shrinking workplace campaign and reduced funding to partner agencies. I suggested that it might be time to consider changing direction and consider adopting an issue focus, as their United Way was very active in early childhood initiatives. The response from the president was “We have a plan to move ahead increasing our resources.” I am betting his plan is to find more donors to support United Way, so their United Way can continue doing what they have always done.

This United Way is not alone. I would estimate approximately half of all United Ways have developed a strategic plan. Although every United Way is unique, their strategic plans include statements about how they will increase the amount of money they raise, such as “We have established an aggressive goal to grow revenue to $30 million by 2016” or “Grow capacity for raising more funds and increasing revenue; increase the campaign at least 10% year over year” or “Increase to $7 million total annual revenue with $6 million in resources under management.”

If you read United Way strategic plans carefully, you will find nearly all of them also share another thing in common – their United Ways are planning to continue doing what they have always done. They will be trying to raise more money by asking donors to support what their United Ways have always done. United Ways often use terms like “community impact,” “collective impact,” and “collaborative efforts” to describe their work, but their strategic plan does not outline any substantial changes to their work or outcomes. I wonder if these United Ways are continuing to sell their version of “photographic film?”

We call strategic plans that set goals to increase revenues without changing what United Way is doing “plus one” plans. Plus one strategic plans are based on taking what United Way did the year before and doing one more than the year before, or one level better than the year before. If the goal of a United Way is to raise as much money as they can to fund partner agencies and programs, then setting a goal to increase revenues makes a lot of sense. But, without considering if donors want to support an organization that raises money to fund partner agencies and programs, a goal of increasing revenues may be unachievable.

This is not the kind of strategic plan your United Way needs.

Your strategic plan must answer the question “Why does your United Way exist?” An alternate version of this question is “What do your donors want your United Way to accomplish?” The foundation of a successful strategic plan is based on your United Way offering a service that donors and the community value and are willing to support. Your United Way needs a strategic plan built upon answering “Why does your United Way exist?” with a laser-focused direction and purpose that your donors and community value and are willing to support.

Answering the question “Why does your United Way exist?” comes down to deciding if your United Way will be fundraising-focused or issue-focused. This is your strategic planning first step. Until you answer this question, your United Way cannot develop a strategic plan because you do not know what direction you are heading or what you are trying to accomplish.

Even after working with United Ways for over 25 years, I cannot tell you “Why your United Way exists” or whether your United Way should be fundraising-focused or issue-focused. But, I can help you and your board figure out the answer with our Introduction to an Issue Focus Board Retreat. This half-day board retreat clearly explains the concept of fundraising-focused and issue-focused United Ways, what fundraising and issue-focused United Ways look like and how they operate, and the advantages and disadvantages of a fundraising focus and an issue focus. This is essential information to deciding the future of your United Way, and we frequently hear executive directors say “I wish you could have talked with our board and staff three years ago.” Following our Introduction to an Issue Focus Board Retreat, your board will be able to answer the question “Why does your United Way exist?”

With their significant work in the area of early childhood initiatives, the United Way I was talking about earlier may already have their “digital camera” if they are willing to look beyond what they have always done and transform their work by becoming issue-focused. Perhaps your United Way has an opportunity to transform your work too, but unless you start by answering the question “Why does your United Way exist?” you may never see the opportunity.

In these challenging times, your United Way needs a strategic plan that is built on answering the question “Why does your United Way exist?” and focuses all your efforts on achieving your purpose.

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Why Before How

Most United Ways spend a lot of time and effort talking about how they do what they do. There are campaign brochures, campaign videos, campaign posters, and campaign kick-offs, which promote how to give to the workplace campaign. There are Web pages and annual reports that explain how hundreds of volunteers are involved in the allocation or investment process. There are community impact reports or outcomes reports which detail how partner agencies are held accountable for results of their funded programs.

Workplace campaigns, investment processes, and holding funded programs accountable are important work that United Ways do, but they are all “HOW” your United Way does what you do. Talking about how you do your work is a very easy and natural thing because you are personally connected to your work. Resource development staff can easily explain how their workplace campaigns are organized, the topics to be covered in an employee meeting, and what envelopes should be used to return pledge forms by what date, because they deal with the “how” of workplace campaigns each and every day. Community impact staff can easily explain the requirements to submit a grant, the steps of the evaluation process, and how often the investment council volunteers will meet, because they deal with the “how” of community impact each and every day.

How you do your work is very important to the staff of a United Way who live and breathe it every day. But, far more important to your donors and community is why your United Way does this work. Your donors and your community are asking questions like: “Why is United Way trying to raise $3 million (or whatever your campaign goal might be)?” and “Why are these programs and partner agencies receiving funding, but not other local nonprofits?” Our donor and community research is clear on this point – your donors and community have heard of your workplace campaigns and that you fund lots of local nonprofit organizations – what they don’t know and understand is “WHY” your United Way does these things.

So, why does your United Way raise money and fund programs? I know many United Ways will say they raise money and fund programs to help people or help the community. I am sure this is true, however, every social service organization in your community can legitimately claim they help people. A better answer will come from the results of your work, such as: reducing poverty, increasing the graduation rate, halting hunger, eliminating homelessness, etc. If you can clearly demonstrate impact on a significant social issue in your community, this will be your “why.” Compare these two statements:

Give to your workplace campaign and help United Way raise $3 million.

By donating to United Way, you are reducing poverty.   

The first statement talks about the workplace campaign and the “how” of raising $3 million. The second statement is far more powerful for your donors and community because it speaks to the “why” of supporting United Way. Another way to look at this question of “why” is through your goal. If the goal of your United Way is to raise $3 million, then you have a “how” goal. If the goal of your United Way is to reduce poverty, then you have a “why” goal. To be successful, I believe every United Way must have a “why” goal, or at a minimum be able to clearly state their “why.”

Your donors and community want and need to know why your United Way does what you do, before they need to know how you do it. If you only tell your donors and community one thing – it must be “why” your United Way does what it does.


The Issue

One afternoon this past week, I was working with the board of a United Way in Ohio to explore the next steps in their journey toward community impact. My favorite part of working with a board is answering their questions because even after working with United Way boards for 25 years, there is always a question or two that makes me stop and think.

This week’s thought-provoking question concerned the idea of a United Way focusing their efforts on a single issue, such as: hunger, homelessness, or poverty. One of the board members asked, “Donors don’t want us to be picking the issue, so how can a United Way focus on addressing a single issue?” Fortunately, the board member talked for another minute or so, before pausing to allow me to answer her question because I needed every precious second to think about the question she posed.

My response to her question involved three ideas. First, United Way volunteers have always picked the issues to be addressed. When an allocations committee selects the programs to be funded, they are, by default, selecting the issues to be addressed. Not every program gets funded; therefore, not every issue is addressed. If a United Way chooses to use categories like education, income, and health, then the issues are related to education, income, and health.

Second, donors want United Way to pick the issue. Our research with United Way donors has consistently found that donors expect United Way to identify and address the most critical issues facing their community. In fact, knowing the most important issues facing the community and the issues United Way is addressing, is more important to donors than knowing what organizations United Way funds, or even the campaign goal.

Third, there is an undeniable simplicity of a single issue focus for United Ways. It is far easier for a United Way to say to donors “we address hunger” than to explain to donors all of the issues addressed by dozens of funded programs. One United Way we recently worked with addressed 23 issues, by our count, through all of their funded programs. Even the best marketing or communication expert in the world couldn’t effectively communicate 23 different issues to a donor.

I think my response answered the board member’s question, since she did not ask a follow-up question and the conversation moved on to other topics. As your United Way journeys to community impact, perhaps you want to ask yourself a slightly modified version of the board member’s question: “Do our donors know what issue or issues our United Way is addressing?”

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