Strategic Planning

The Urgent Need for Strategic Planning


Back in the day, life was pretty good for United Ways. United Ways were able to raise increasing amounts of money year-after-year, and many donors would support United Way until retirement without giving it a second thought.

But the times have changed. Over the past three decades, an endless stream of new challenges has made the work of United Ways more difficult than ever. These challenges include economic recessions, growth in the number of nonprofit organizations, open campaigns, third-party processors, the ability to find and support any charity and cause on the internet, downsizing companies, organizations not disclosing donor information, companies that no longer have local leadership, scandals, Facebook and social media, online giving, Giving Tuesday, Red Nose Day, GoFundMe, partner agency competition for funds, difficulty getting outcomes for funded programs, increasing designations . . .

You get the idea. The challenges are there – you know them all too well.

These challenges make it clear that doing what United Ways have always done is not going to work moving forward. For United Ways to be sustainable, relevant, and impactful in the future they will need to determine what they are trying to accomplish, select the best strategies to achieve their goals, and decide how they are going to implement those strategies.

In short, United Ways need to be doing strategic planning. Even if your United Way’s mission is still absolutely right for your community and its needs, the strategies your United Way will be using and how your United Way implements the strategies will need to change. Strategic planning, done well, does precisely this – articulate a clear purpose, select appropriate strategies, and plan to implement and execute the strategies successfully.

If you think your United Way’s mission is on-track, I would encourage you to take a couple minutes and read my blog post “The $6 Million Question.” Think about the reason why your United Way exists and perhaps try the $6 million question with your board at your next board meeting.

Some United Ways find themselves heading in several directions at once. After you read my blog post “You Only Need One Compass” you may find that your United Way has a lot of compasses. For United Ways to be successful, it is absolutely essential to clarify your mission and purpose, one of the first steps in our strategic planning process.

Many United Ways tell me they already have a strategic plan. Great, but does it help your United Way jump higher or farther? Take a moment to read my blog post “Jump Higher or Leap Farther?” for some perspective on strategic plans that will move your United Way forward. With all the challenges facing United Ways, it is imperative to be leaping farther, which is something we address with our playbook of transformational strategies that we use with United Ways during our strategic planning process.

Strategic planning is urgently needed at most United Ways. Most United Ways are still doing what they have always done and have not yet fully evolved to address the challenges they are facing. If United Ways expect to remain relevant, sustainable, and impactful, they cannot wait any longer to address their challenges.

We know that United Ways are unlike any other nonprofit organization. Because we only work with United Ways, our strategic planning process is unique. Our strategic planning process recognizes the unique aspects of United Ways, including workplace campaigns, designations, allocation processes, partner agencies, community impact, and affinity groups. If the time has come for a new strategic plan or an update to your current strategic plan at your United Way, check out our strategic planning information and let’s start a conversation about how we can ensure that your United Way will be relevant, sustainable, and impactful for years to come.

Perspectives is on the Road Again

We’re on the road again!

This time, we're headed to Erie, Pennsylvania to the United Way of Pennsylvania State Conference. For those of you also headed to Erie, we’d like to invite you to our revamped “Positioning Your United Way for 2020: What You Must Plan & Start Doing Today” presentation.

Our presentation will discuss common communication, resource development, and marketing/engagement challenges faced by United Ways of all sizes. Our presentation will also help you to create a call to action that can be used with all of your stakeholders, think about the long-term future of your United Way, and lay the groundwork for the most important decision that your United Way will make before 2020.

We last presented this session at the Great Rivers 2017 Conference, where the session received rave reviews from attendees.

Fantastic! Promoted change and growth!
— 2017 Great Rivers Conference Attendee
Thanks so much – I needed you last summer as we are only now finishing our strategic plan!
— 2017 Great Rivers Conference Attendee
Excellent session! Engaging and dedicated to United Ways!
— 2017 Great Rivers Conference

If you’ll be in Erie this week, we’d love for you to attend our session! And, if you won’t be in Pennsylvania but our session sounds interesting to you – you’re still in luck! While we’re sorry that we won’t get to see you, we do offer this presentation as a recorded webinar, which you can find here.

However, you view it – whether at the conference or online – we are excited to share this presentation with you!

That said, we wish safe travels to all that are headed to Erie this week. We can’t wait to teach, learn, and share alongside you all!

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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