Two Types of United Ways

At Perspectives, we have worked with United Ways of all sizes throughout the United States for over 28 years. In our work, we have found that there are two distinctively different 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 – Where Resources Drive Impact

A fundraising-focused United Way’s purpose is to raise money and then decide how best to allocate it to fund programs. These programs may be provided by local nonprofit organizations or direct services provided by United Way. A fundraising-focused United Way looks like this:

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 our diagram above, we are showing an example of a United Way with a goal of raising $2.5 million to fund programs.

The process of allocating money to fund programs is represented by the arrows pointing from the “Raise $2.5M to Fund Programs” to the different funded programs. Fundraising-focused United Ways ask partner agencies to submit requests to fund their programs. Some fundraising-focused United Ways may require partner agencies to submit programs that meet specific goals, objectives, or indicators. However, in most cases, these goals, objectives, and indicators address a wide variety of issues.

Most fundraising-focused United Ways group their funded programs into categories, the most common of which are education, income, and health. Since fundraising-focused United Ways fund a wide variety of programs that address many issues, grouping programs into categories helps simplify things. The number of categories varies among United Ways – some have as few as two categories, while others have seven or more categories. United Ways also use a variety of different names for their categories, such as financial stability, youth success, or basic needs. In our diagram, we have shown a fundraising-focused United Way that funds programs in the three categories of education, income, and health.

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

At a fundraising-focused United Way, resources drive impact. A one sentence description of fundraising-focused United Ways is “We raise the money and then decide what to do with it.” From the board and staff, to donors and the community, everyone believes a fundraising-focused United Way exists to raise money to fund programs.

Issue-Focused United Ways – Where Impact Drives Resources

An issue-focused United Way exists to impact an issue in the community. At an issue-focused United Way, impact drives resources. A one sentence description of an issue-focused United Way is “We decide what issue we will impact and then ask people for the money to do it.” An issue-focused United Way looks like this:

Issue Focus Diagram.jpg

In our diagram above, this issue-focused United Way is working to increase the graduation rate to 92% by 2030, which we refer to as their bold goal. The measure of success at an issue-focused United Way is impacting their issue, which in this case would be increasing the graduation rate. Impacting an issue like the graduation rate is a long-term endeavor, and most issue-focused United Ways set 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.

Since issue-focused United Ways address a single issue, there is no longer a need for categories. All of the programs funded by an issue-focused United Way address their issue, because an issue-focused United Way exists to impact their issue. In our diagram, United Way is funding two school readiness programs – one through YMCA and one direct service provided by United Way itself. They are not funding programs for hunger or drug abuse, for example, because those programs will not directly increase the graduation rate to 92% by 2030.

No United Way can solve or change a significant social issue with their own limited resources. Issue-focused United Ways convene all of the organizations working on the issue, to align their efforts and work together most effectively. This can take many forms, through creating collaboratives or through a more formal structure like collective impact. United Way only funds a small number of the programs addressing their issue, while other organizations and funders provide and fund other services. In our example, you can see organizations that are not funded by United Way, but are providing programs to increase the graduation rate, including a state agency, the local school district, the health system, and a local church.

Issue-focused United Ways determine what programs are needed in the community to address their issue. Local nonprofit organizations are then asked to propose how they would deliver those programs. Partner agencies are asked to propose only programs that address the issue and will help achieve the bold goal. In our diagram, only programs that are identified to increase the graduation rate are funded. The arrows point upward indicating that the funded programs will increase the graduation rate.

Resource development efforts at issue-focused United Ways are diversified beyond the workplace campaign, special events, or affinity groups. Because of their focus on a single issue, issue-focused United Ways raise money from foundations, government, and corporate sponsorships. While foundations would be unwilling to make grants to help a United Way reach their $2.5 million goal, funders are willing to invest in a United Way working toward a concrete and measurable bold goal. Issue-focused United Ways ask donors and other potential funders to contribute to address their issue – which is the graduation rate, in our example.

Comparing the Two Types of United Ways

Benefits of an Issue Focus

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

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 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 campaign 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 government, 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 programs.

Real Community Impact. An issue focus fulfills the promise and potential of community impact. You will no longer just say you do community impact, you will fully implement community impact in an effective and efficient manner.

Challenges of an Issue Focus

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

Identifying and Specifying Programs. Impacting an issue requires changing how United Way funds programs. A fundraising-focused United Way funds programs as proposed by partner agencies. An issue-focused United Way must research and understand their issue well enough to be able to identify specific programs that will change their issue. Once these programs are identified, local organizations are asked to submit a proposal to provide the programs. Issue-focused United Ways fund these issue-changing programs, and stop funding programs that do not impact their issue. Two challenges in this area are developing the ability to identify programs, and 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 staff and volunteers who have expertise and/or experience with the issue. The impact council or investment committee at a fundraising-focused United Way typically consists of community volunteers who are willing to donate the time necessary to review the applications and meet with partner agencies. However, these big-hearted volunteers rarely have any expertise or experience addressing the issue. The challenge is training and/or finding staff and volunteers with expertise or experience addressing the issue.

Securing Resources. An issue focus gives United Ways the opportunity to secure resources to address their issue from foundations and government. The resource development staff at fundraising-focused United Ways are experienced in running workplace campaigns and organizing special events, but do not necessarily have the time or ability to seek and secure grant funding for programs. Although the workplace campaign will grow at an issue-focused United Way, the largest increase in total resources under management will come from new sources of funding, such as grants. The challenge is developing the capacity and capability to secure these resources, through staff training, hiring new staff, or outsourcing.

Issue Awareness and Education. Depending on the issue selected, donors and the community may be aware of the prevalence and significance of the issue, but more likely, it will be necessary to inform donors and the community about the issue. Issue-focused United Ways rarely select the most top-of-mind issue facing their community, such as employment or crime, and instead select issues that are not on the radar for most community residents, such as the graduation rate, hunger, or poverty. To succeed as an issue-focused United Way, marketing and communication must include year-round efforts to increase awareness and understanding of the issue. The challenge is making the investment in internal or outsourced marketing staff and media spending to communicate the issue.    

Leading an Issue. Since it is impossible for United Way alone to solve any issue with their limited financial and staff resources, it is necessary to bring together all of the organizations addressing the issue. Fundraising-focused United Ways develop relationships with their partner agencies through the funding process. Issue-focused United Ways bring together all of the local organizations working on the issue, most of which do not and will not receive United Way funding. The challenge is providing the leadership to convene all of these organizations and align their efforts to most effectively address the issue and achieve the bold goal.

Getting the Board On-Board. United Way staff are often ahead of the board in terms of adopting an issue focus. Many board members at fundraising-focused United Ways are not deeply engaged in the work of United Way and do not fully understand the challenges facing United Way. When a United Way adopts an issue focus, some turnover of board members is to be expected as some board members may not be passionate about the issue selected. The challenge is gaining buy-in from existing board members for an issue focus, and recruiting new board members who are passionate about the issue.

Discovering Your Type of United Way

Although you may see your United Way as having elements of both a fundraising focus and an issue focus, every United Way is either fundraising-focused or issue-focused, just like every radio station is either AM or FM.

To determine if you are fundraising-focused or issue-focused, select either “F” or “I” for each of the following four statements that best describes your United Way:

1. The primary reason our United Way exists is to:

F: Raise money to fund programs

I: Impact a specific issue in the community

2. Our campaign goal is:

F: Publicized and promoted in our community

I: An internal goal, which is not known publicly

3. Our funded programs address:

F: A wide variety of social issues

I: A specific issue in the community

4. Our messaging is focused on:

F: Our funded programs, and asks people to give to help us reach our campaign goal

I: A single issue, and asks people to give, advocate, and volunteer to impact the issue

If you selected one or more “F” statements, your United Way is fundraising-focused. If your United Way selected all four “I” statements, your United Way is issue-focused.

If you selected both “F” and “I” statements, you are not alone. This means that your United Way is still fundraising-focused and is not purely issue-focused. Many United Ways have begun their journey to an issue focus, but need guidance to fully transform to an issue focus.

There are plenty of examples of very successful fundraising-focused United Ways, just as there are plenty of examples of very successful issue-focused United Ways. To maximize your United Way’s impact, resources, and communication, you must fully commit to being either fundraising-focused or issue-focused.

Becoming Issue-Focused

When a United Way decides to adopt an issue focus, it does not happen with the flip of a switch. The process of adopting an issue focus will take several years, as many elements of your United Way will 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.

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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