Community Impact

Is Your United Way Successful?

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Recently, I saw an interesting editorial from a United Way CEO about how their United Way is changing the way it addresses social issues in their community. The editorial explained some of the social issues and needs in the community and outlined the role of United Way in addressing those needs. What caught my attention, though, was not what the United Way is going to do to address those needs, but how they are going to measure their success.

Before I share their measurement of success, it will be helpful to look at two of the most common ways United Ways measure success. For many years, measuring success revolved around how much money a United Way raised – the campaign goal. The campaign goal was often represented by thermometers that would spring up all over town during campaign season. You can read more about campaign goals and thermometers in these blog posts.

In the past 20 years or so, United Ways have turned to measuring success by the number of people who have been helped. For example, a representative of United Way of the Alberta Capital Region was talking about leaving the campaign goal behind and said, “So instead of bringing forward a financial target, I ask … how many do you want to help in our community?” United Ways that measure success in this way will often include information about the number of people helped by funded programs, or the will make a broader statement like “7,418 children, individuals and families participated in United Way funded programs last year.” This evolution in measuring success is largely the result of United Ways adopting some form of community impact.

The quote that caught my attention comes from the United Way of Tarrant County’s president and CEO, who said in an editorial article, “Central to our beliefs, we know it is time to measure our results not by the number of people we’ve helped, but by the number of people who no longer need help.”

On the surface, measuring success by the number of people who no longer need help does not seem like such a big deal because United Way of Tarrant County is still counting people. But, if you look at the people helped by a local organization, like a food pantry for example, people may be returning to the food pantry every month. Until their underlying challenges have been addressed, they will continue to need help. When you count the number of people who no longer need help, your success becomes the number of lives that have been changed.

We have been helping United Ways transition to measuring their success by counting people who no longer need help for years. We call these United Ways issue-focused, and we help them to set goals like “United, we will lift 15,000 families out of poverty by 2028” (United Way of Pierce County) or “By 2025, all Skagit children entering kindergarten are ready to learn” (United Way of Skagit County). These United Ways and many others are focused on changing conditions in their communities, so people no longer need help.

If you are looking at how you define and measure success for your United Way, consider the possibility of measuring the number of people who no longer need help. United Ways that are issue-focused are not only changing their communities in powerful ways, but they are changing their United Ways as well.

When issue-focused United Ways measure the number of people who no longer need help, they become more relevant to their donors and community. When issue-focused United Ways measure the number of people who no longer need help, they become more sustainable as they grow and diversify resources. When issue-focused United Ways measure the number of people who no longer need help, they become more impactful as they change lives in their community.

If your United Way is interested in the possibility of defining success by measuring the number of people who no longer need help in your community, let us know. Our Challenges and Opportunities Retreat or our Introduction to an Issue Focus Retreat will help your United Way to decide how best to measure your success and you can learn more about how we transform United Ways to an issue focus here.

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.

How to Survive Philanthropy Cloud

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I’m worried about Philanthropy Cloud.

Not as it exists now – available exclusively to United Ways. I am worried about what will happen to United Ways when Philanthropy Cloud is made available to all nonprofits.

Here’s why: Philanthropy Cloud has the potential to put United Ways at odds with not just their vetted partner agencies and programs but every other charitable cause too. When Philanthropy Cloud is made available to all nonprofits, the easy and exclusive access to workplaces that United Ways once enjoyed will be eradicated, and fundraising will be every organization for itself.

When Philanthropy Cloud is adopted by workplace campaigns and the platform is open to nonprofits other than United Way and its partner agencies, the Philanthropy Cloud platform will have commandeered the traditional benefits of giving through United Way. When Philanthropy Cloud is open to all nonprofits, United Way will no longer be the easiest way for employees to donate to a wide variety of local nonprofit organizations – with just a few clicks of the button, Philanthropy Cloud will allow employees to give to whichever organizations or causes they choose. When workplaces adopt Philanthropy Cloud, United Way will no longer be the only way to ensure donations go to worthy organizations – with its integration with GuideStar, Philanthropy Cloud will put the power to vet nonprofits at donors’ fingertips.

If United Ways are no longer the easiest way to give to many worthy causes or the easiest way to ensure donations go to worthy organizations, how will United Ways be able to sell themselves?

The conversation about the benefits of giving to United Way will have to fully shift away from the process of giving to United Way to the outcomes of giving to United Way. United Ways utilizing Philanthropy Cloud will need to clearly articulate their relevance in terms of the good they do in their communities.

However, this brings us to another challenge.

The current reality is that when many United Ways report results, they’re reporting the outcomes of partner programs – not their own work. Any remotely astute donor recognizes that all the summer meals or after-school programs or mental health interventions their United Way references in an annual report are really the result of another agency’s work. With increasing awareness of overhead, many donors are left wondering why they wouldn’t make their donations directly to the organizations “actually doing the work.”

Of course, no United Way is going to stop providing funds to partner programs and start only providing direct services. So, the question becomes: How can United Ways that lack their own unique programming restructure their relationships with their partner programs and agencies in order to have their own results?

For many United Ways, the solution will be fully and truly implementing community impact.

Since 2003, United Ways throughout the system have been adopting and experimenting with community impact. The central tenants of community impact are clear and familiar, and adopting community impact allows the focus on United Ways’ work to shift from the funding United Ways provide local programs to the work United Ways do to develop and implement impact strategies in partnership with others. Convening and guiding collaboration and partnerships to identify new solutions is a result that resonates with donors. Donors like knowing that their donations fund innovative partnerships that produce impactful results.

While implementing community impact can be a significant departure from what some United Ways are currently doing and therefore require a significant investment of effort by staff and board members to reset the priorities of their United Way, I can see no other downsides.

Transitioning to community impact allows United Ways to secure more grants, more deeply impact their community, and – most importantly in the world of Philanthropy Cloud – help United Ways ensure their long-term relevance by giving them their own results to sell.

To survive when Philanthropy Cloud is available to all nonprofits, United Ways will need to strengthen the products they have to sell. Although this will certainly be challenging for many United Ways, stronger products will mean making investments more strategically and will therefore mean greater local impact.  

For all my worries about Philanthropy Cloud, I think the looming challenges of an open Philanthropy Cloud platform will ultimately lead to the start of a more impactful and relevant chapter for United Ways.