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.

Gary 2017 Blog Signature NEW.png



The Story of Julie Capaldi and the United Way of Pickens County

Have you experienced a loss in your donor base? Do you feel like you need to better connect with your donors and community members?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you will be able to relate to what Julie Capaldi experienced at United Way of Pickens County (Easley, SC) as President over the past 24 years.

Julie recently shared her story of how United Way of Pickens County experienced a significant loss in their donor base and how she turned things around and now better connects with donors and community members, while riding the Nonprofit Story Tour bus.

During the video where Julie shares her story, she talks about how essential it is to communicate impact about a specific issue and to share "S-S-T" with donors and community members. "S-S-T" is our acronym that we first shared with United Way of Pickens County in 2011, which stands for Statistics, Stories, and Trust & Accountability. Based on our years of experience in conducting research for United Ways, we have found that about one-third of donors want to see statistics, about one-third want to hear stories, and about one-third care about trust and accountability.

Julie also talks about "a consultant from Michigan" and gives a shout-out to Gary at approximately 10 minutes into the video, referring to Gary Goscenski, one of our Issue-Focused Consultants here at Perspectives. Gary has been working with Julie and her team at United Way of Pickens County since 2011 to focus and maximize their impact, resources, and communication.

On the homepage of our website, we share a quote from Julie, which says: "You were so right! We are a little United Way, and focusing on the issue of early childhood education and summer learning loss has resulted in raising more money from grants and campaigns, attracting new donors, and reduced designations. This is all we talk about – at campaign presentations, to donors, and to our community – and now everyone knows what United Way of Pickens County does in the community."

We love how Julie talks about how people felt moved to give to United Way of Pickens County when she shared a story about summer learning loss and their Camp iRock program. We encourage you to come along for the ride as Julie explains how focusing on a specific issue has been the key to engaging donors in the community – check out the video here.

To learn more about an issue focus, visit If you are interested in becoming issue-focused, you can find more information about how we can guide your United Way in your transformation at

Kasey 2017 Blog Signature NEW.png

One Tough Job

This afternoon, Kasey and I spoke to a public relations class at Western Michigan University, our alma mater. The professor asked us to talk about public relations in nonprofit organizations, and specifically, public relations at United Ways. We both have a background in public relations, and a ton of experience with United Ways, so we were excited to share our knowledge with future public relations professionals.

When preparing our talk, we quickly came to this conclusion: public relations at United Ways is one tough job. This is not to say that public relations is ever easy, but that public relations at United Ways is really difficult. Three of the challenges that make public relations at United Ways more difficult than at other nonprofit organizations include: many stakeholders, finding the story, and limited resources.

Compared to most nonprofit organizations, there are significantly more “publics” who need public relations at United Ways, such as: donors, community, board, partner agencies, workplaces, and even clients for United Ways that provide direct services. Each of these publics has a unique relationship with United Way, making it impossible to have a one-size-fits-all public relations approach. Maintaining public relations with this many publics is one tough job.

Most nonprofit organizations have a straightforward story to tell, compared to a United Way. A United Way’s story is, at a minimum, complex and more often downright convoluted with a language all its own. For some United Ways, the story is not just a story of United Way, but a story of partner agencies and programs funded by United Way. All these stories make it incumbent on public relations to simplify, edit, filter, and distill in order to communicate the message effectively to all of the publics. Figuring out the public relations message for a United Way is one tough job.

Finally, the budget and resources available for public relations at many United Ways is very limited. At smaller United Ways, public relations is just one of the many responsibilities of the executive director or president, which means there is limited time for public relations. Smaller and mid-size United Ways rarely have the budget to outsource public relations services. In fact, many United Ways with the resources to be able to hire someone dedicated to public relations are conflicted when it comes to spending money on anything other than funding programs. Limited time makes public relations one tough job.

Combine more publics than you can shake a stick at, with a message that often requires a decoder ring, and just a couple of minutes at the end of the day to get the job done, and it is easy to see why public relations at a United Way is one tough job.

Kasey and I pulled no punches when we explained the challenge of public relations at United Ways to the students. We made certain the students understood the need for public relations at United Ways, despite the challenges. And before we walked out of the lecture hall, we explained to the students how effective public relations at a United Way impacts lives and the community.