Issue Focus

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.

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.

Quote of the Month: October 2018

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After speaking to United Ways at conferences for many years, people have attributed several quotes to me. This month’s quote comes from yours truly:

“Helping people is easy. Change is hard.” – Gary Goscenski, Issue-Focused Consultant, Perspectives

When a United Way provides funding for a program it helps people. For example, 120 local families received food from a local food pantry because United Way provided funding to the food pantry. It is relatively easy for United Way to say they helped these families by making an investment in their program.

It is hard to change things. The challenge of change comes when you ask the question: “How do we change things so that these 120 families will not need food from the local food pantry next month?”

Many United Ways measure success by how many people received help. Very few United Ways measure success by how many people no longer need help.

What is success for your United Way – helping or changing?

Adopting an issue focus is all about achieving change – fewer people in poverty, more students graduate from high school, fewer people are homeless, etc. Change is hard, but United Ways that have adopted an issue focus make change in their communities every day. Check out the Issue Focus Model on our website and see how your United Way can make change. One of the most powerful aspects of the Issue Focus Model is that it not only changes your community, but it makes your United Way relevant, sustainable, and impactful.

If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at gary@perspectives4uw.com

Blog Survey Update

On another note: We want to thank everyone who took the time to complete our blog survey. We sincerely appreciate your comments and suggestions, and you will see us incorporating your comments and suggestions into future blog posts.

Congratulations to Jimmy Hill, President and CEO, River Region United Way (Montgomery, AL), who completed our blog survey and was randomly selected to receive a free webinar from Perspectives for his United Way!