Learn About an Issue Focus

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Two Types of United Ways

In order to understand what it means to be issue-focused, let's start by looking at what it means to be fundraising-focused. At Perspectives, we have worked with United Ways of all sizes throughout the country for over 28 years and we have found that there are two distinctive types of United Ways, which we call fundraising-focused and issue-focused. If you’re thinking, "Our United Way is more than a fundraising organization – we’re a community impact organization," we would encourage you to read our description of a fundraising-focused United Way, as our definition may differ from what you might think of as fundraising-focused.

Fundraising-Focused United Ways

At a fundraising-focused United Way, resources drive impact. The purpose of a fundraising-focused United Way is to raise money and then decide how best to allocate it. From the board and staff, to donors and the community, everyone at a fundraising-focused United Way participates to achieve the goal of raising money to fund partners/programs. A fundraising-focused United Way looks like this:

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At a fundraising-focused United Way, the entire organization revolves around raising money. United Ways hold workplace campaigns, and some United Ways hold special events or form affinity groups to raise money, as well. In the Fundraising-Focused Model above, we are showing that a fundraising-focused United Way has an annual fundraising goal. Donors and workplaces are asked to help United Way achieve their goal, as shown by the arrow from "Donors & Workplaces" to the "Annual Goal: Raise Money" at "United Way."

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The process of allocating money to fund programs is represented by the arrow pointing from "United Way" to "Funded Partners/Programs." A fundraising-focused United Way asks partner agencies to submit requests to fund its programs. Some fundraising-focused United Ways may require partner agencies to submit programs that meet specific goals, objectives, indicators, or measures. However, these goals, objectives, indicators, or measures typically address a wide variety of issues, as shown by the three arrows pointing toward different issues.

The measure of success at a fundraising-focused United Way is the amount of money raised. When a fundraising-focused United Way achieves its annual fundraising goal, it is considered a successful year. A fundraising-focused United Way does not measure success based on the outcomes of its funded programs. A fundraising-focused United Way often asks its funded partners to document program outcomes, but they are only used to hold funded partners accountable for their programs and for marketing purposes.

Issue-Focused United Ways

At an issue-focused United Way, impact drives resources. An issue-focused United Way exists to impact a single issue in the community. An issue-focused United Way decides what issue to impact and then asks for the money to do it, which looks like this:

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In the Issue-Focused Model above, you will see that an issue-focused United Way has a long-term bold goal to measurably improve a single issue, such as poverty, the graduation rate, or hunger. The measure of success at an issue-focused United Way is impacting the issue, which is a long-term endeavor. Most issue-focused United Ways set long-term bold goals that are 10 to 15 years in the future. However, most issue-focused United Ways measure progress toward achieving their bold goal annually.

At an issue-focused United Way, resource development efforts are diversified beyond the workplace campaign, special events, or affinity groups. Because of its focus on a single issue, an issue-focused United Way receives grant funding from governments and foundations to address its bold goal, in addition to contributions from donors and workplaces, as shown by the arrow from "Donors & Workplaces + Governments & Foundations" to the "Long-Term Bold Goal: Measurably Improve a Single Issue" at "United Way." While governments and foundations would not make grants to help a fundraising-focused United Way reach its annual fundraising goal, governments and foundations would be willing to invest in an issue-focused United Way working toward a concrete and measurable long-term bold goal focused on an issue.

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The process of allocating money to fund programs is represented by the arrow pointing from "United Way" to "Funded Partners/Programs." An issue-focused United Way determines what programs are needed in the community to address its issue. Local nonprofit organizations are then asked to propose how they would deliver those programs. The United Way then allocates money to funded partners/programs that will measurably improve the issue.

No United Way can solve or change a significant social issue with its own limited resources. An issue-focused United Way convenes both funded partners/programs and other organizations working on the issue, to align their efforts to measurably improve the issue. This can take many forms, such as creating collaboratives or through a more formal structure like collective impact. An issue-focused United Way only funds some of the programs addressing its issue, while other organizations provide and fund other services. This is shown by the combined arrow coming from "Funded Partners/Programs," "United Way," and "Other Organizations" – all focused on addressing the issue.

Comparing the Two Types of United Ways

The chart below highlights some key differences between fundraising-focused and issue-focused United Ways. Although the chart highlights an issue-focused United Way focused on poverty, it is important to remember that issue-focused United Ways can focus on any prevalent issue in their community. There are issue-focused United Ways that have addressed such issues as hunger, homelessness, school readiness, and the local graduation rate. 

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Benefits of an Issue Focus

Here are some of the many benefits of having an issue focus:

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A Laser Focus. An issue focus unifies your community, volunteers, donors, funded partners, non-funded partners, board, and staff around a single issue. Your community, volunteers, donors, partner agencies, board, and staff will no longer wonder what your United Way does.

Inspiring Bold Goal. An issue focus includes a long-term bold goal that inspires your community, donors, and partners to give, advocate, and volunteer to address your issue. Your success will no longer be measured by whether or not you achieve your annual fundraising goal.

The Simplest Message EVER! An issue focus allows you to easily explain what your United Way does in a short sentence or even two words, like "Halt Hunger!" You will no longer struggle with trying to explain what your United Way does.

Additional Resources. An issue focus opens the door for your United Way to receive grant funding from foundations and governments, along with corporate sponsorships to address your issue. You will no longer be dependent on only the workplace campaign for funding.

Enormous Engagement Opportunities. An issue focus gives your United Way the chance to offer opportunities to volunteer or advocate for your United Way and your specific issue, which builds relationships with potential future donors. You will no longer "pass-through" volunteers to your partner agencies.

Dramatically Decrease Designations. An issue focus reduces designations, as your donors will see your United Way as an organization that makes an impact on a critical issue in your community. Your donors will no longer see your United Way as a middleman.

Measurable Results. An issue focus allows your United Way to measure and communicate progress toward addressing your issue. You will no longer announce your campaign results nor report results of your funded partners/programs.

Challenges of an Issue Focus

An issue focus does not come without challenges. Some of these challenges are:

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Identifying and Specifying Programs. Impacting an issue requires United Ways to research and understand their issue well enough to be able to identify programs that will change their issue and then having the fortitude to stop funding programs that do not impact the issue.

Staff and Volunteer Expertise. The ability to understand and change the issue requires training and/or finding staff and volunteers with expertise or experience addressing the issue.

Securing Resources. To secure resources from foundations and governments, it is necessary to develop grant writing capacity and capability through staff training, hiring new staff, or outsourcing.

Issue Awareness and Education. Marketing and communication efforts will need to be year-round to increase awareness and understanding of the issue. This will require an investment in internal and/or outsourced marketing staff and media spending.

Leading an Issue. United Ways must possess the leadership necessary to convene all local organizations addressing the issue and align their efforts to most effectively address the issue and achieve the long-term bold goal.

Getting the Board On-Board. Succeeding with an issue focus requires buy-in from existing board members for an issue focus, and recruiting new board members who are passionate about the issue.

Becoming Issue-Focused

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The process of adopting an issue focus will take several years, as many elements of your United Way will need to change as you transform to an issue focus, including your staff, board, volunteers, partners, programming, resources, and messaging.

The transformation process will happen at different speeds within your United Way. Generally, marketing and engagement efforts transform more quickly (1-2 years) than resource development (2-3 years), with impact/investment processes taking the longest to transform, especially if you have multi-year program funding cycles.

At Perspectives, we are issue-focused experts and serve as issue-focused guides for United Ways who are interested in fully transforming to an issue focus. We have guided United Ways of all sizes, including United Ways with a staff of only one and a half, located throughout the United States. Our years of experience and expertise working with a variety of United Ways has resulted in the development of our proven Direction-Setting and Strategic Planning process to successfully transform your United Way to an issue focus.

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For more information about how we can guide your United Way in transforming to an issue focus, visit our Develop Your Issue Focus Web page.



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