Community Impact

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.

Community Impact is More Than Collective Impact

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Donors – especially younger donors – have increasingly high expectations of the charitable organizations they support. Donors want to feel confident that the dollars they donate go to organizations that significantly impact their community.

In response to changing donor expectations, many United Ways have begun to explore community impact as a means to ensure their local investments produce maximum impact. Unfortunately, while many United Ways want to fully adopt the community impact approach, doing so can seem daunting. 

After wrestling with what it meant to become a community impact organization, many United Ways began to pursue collective impact as their means achieve community impact. The unfortunate reality of this is that community impact is the most complex means by which a United Way can pursue community impact. Transitioning from a fundraising model to a collective impact model is challenging even for well-funded United Ways.

If large United Ways struggle to make the transition to collective impact, how can non-Metro 1 United Ways hope to effectively achieve community impact?

Fortunately, there are several alternatives to collective impact that are accessible and viable for United Ways of all sizes.

In total, there are six methods that United Ways use to achieve community impact. These methods range in complexity from specialized RFPs and in-house initiatives to collective impact. While collective impact remains the most complex of these methods, there are other methods that you could easily implement in your next funding cycle.  

On November 27, we will be hosting our webinar “Six Methods to Maximize Your Impact.” This webinar will explore the six methods that United Ways use to achieve community impact, the strengths and weaknesses of each method, as well as provide practical suggestions for how you can begin to implement these methods at your United Way. If you are interested in learning more about this webinar and the other topics this webinar will cover, please visit our webinar information page here.

While this webinar is relevant to United Ways that are on the community impact journey, we will be offering a total of nine webinars in the coming months that will cover other relevant topics in impact and investment, marketing and engagement, and resource development. To see a full list of our upcoming webinars and the topics we will cover, please visit our website here.

Quote of the Month: August 2018

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Our August Quote of the Month comes from Ken Toll, President/CEO of United Way of Jackson County, Jackson, Michigan:

“It is more work to try to do everything and not know where you are going” – Ken Toll, President/CEO, United Way of Jackson County

Three-years ago United Way of Jackson County adopted an issue focus around the issue of financial stability and adopted a bold goal of “Help 5,000 Jackson County residents develop a pathway to financial success by 2025.”  I recently asked Ken if it was hard work to address an issue like financial stability, and he quickly responded that it was harder to do everything for everyone.  United Way of Jackson County is no longer trying to do everything, because they now have a clear direction to impact financial stability and achieve their bold goal. It is important to know where your United Way is going, because once you have a clear direction, the work becomes easier, more impactful, and more rewarding. If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at gary@perspectives4uw.com

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