Your Opinion, Please: The United Way’s “Bold” New Strategy

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One thing I have come to depend on is the wisdom and knowledge of NPQ readers. So, when I read the following story from the Washington Post quoting the head of the United Way, I felt it was something I needed to share with you and hear from you about as well. Here’s an excerpt:

“Despite spending millions to support scores of local programs, the 121-year-old United Way has not made measurable progress on these core problems, [United Way’s president and CEO] Gallagher said. The country’s social safety net is broken, he said, and the United Way must redirect its money toward the root causes and hold itself accountable by declaring bold and measurable — even if unattainable — goals.”

I don’t mean to be a Doubting Thomas but the United Way of America’s bold new 10-year initiative aimed at cutting school dropout rates by half, reducing the number of working families struggling financially by half, and increasing the number of adults and youth that are healthy by a third, seems like an unwise and potentially fruitless swim upstream. In saying this, I must admit to a great deal of accumulated skepticism about most top-down funder initiatives.

It’s not that I do not believe that enormous social change can be accomplished if we accumulate public will and advocate politically for a more reasonably equitable social contract. And, I do want to acknowledge that Gallagher may have the right general concept about building from local efforts and knowledge to informed national policy but, 1) I think that this network’s ability to move quickly on a cohesive strategy is questionable. As I understand it, a very significant proportion of the network is not yet fully behind United Way’s last declared initiative — the community impact strategy and press reports suggested that many local United Ways knew nothing of this new “bold initiative” until they heard press reports last Thursday — that doesn’t sound like the textbook approach to engage a network; and 2) the network may be overestimating its own influence at this point, which I believe has been lately eroded.

The strength of United Way at local levels — as I have experienced it — has been in its role as gatherer and distributor of resources to strengthen local safety nets: the same role that Brian Gallagher now appears to eschew. In the best cases, there was a commitment to the funding of operating costs for mainstay organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs, the local battered women programs, Head Start, Community arts programs, community centers and foster care agencies . . . all badly needed and all expressions of community concern at the local level. I believe deeply in those kinds of organizations. I have seen them consistently turn straw to gold and improve the lives of community members in even the worst of public policy environments. For most of these types of nonprofits, operating grants are like gold because they are relatively unrestricted — covering the basic costs of keeping such operations going.

This is, in my opinion, what gives local United Ways their distinctive and hefty influence. They were often the big player in town when playing this role. When they said “jump” — nearly everyone did — for good or for bad. I’m not sure that is true now.

Unfortunately, I believe United Way of America may now be further eroding the positional power of local United Ways through serial declarations of new directions not yet anchored in the collective will of the network.

I want to be wrong and I’d love to hear why you think I’m wrong or right.

What has been your experience with your local United Way of late? Is the community impact strategy hitting the ground in a useful or less than useful way? What does this or other past practice suggest about the United Way’s capacity to carry out this kind of initiative? Do you have worries about any unanticipated consequences of this strategy?

If you’re willing to share your response with others, please leave it here as a comment on our Web site. If you prefer to response confidentially, please write directly to me.

I have included a link to two Washington Post articles, one of which simply reports Brian Gallagher’s announcement, and a second which reflects the concerns of D.C.-based United Way affiliates.

I very much look forward to hearing from you!

Your friend,

Ruth

  • Eric Lindblom

    The new, transformative 10-year goals outlined by United Way are certainly attainable, but only if promoted not only by United Way and other charities but also through political action at the federal, state and local levels. That means United Way funding of more charitable organizations involved in direct public policy development and related advocacy, including lobbying (within the constraints placed on charitable nonprofits). And it means more charities waking up to the fact that they are legally allowed (and perhaps morally required) to engage in significant amounts of lobbying to promote these kinds of goals and the public policies necessary to achieve them.

    As United Way President Gallagher has noted, 121 years of spending millions of dollars on the more traditional strategy of charities as service providers has not made measurable progress on these core problems. A new strategy is needed; not just new goals.

  • Yvonne Sparks

    First, let me say that I wholeheartedly agree with Ruth. Local United Ways do an incredible amount of good with minimal resources and in the best ones, minimal overhead. Your dollars work for the people they are intended for.

    This “bold, new” initiative reminds me of many of the “bold new” initiatives I have lived through and survived over the last 30 years of my career in nonprofits. What immediately came to mind was the “Thousand Point of Light” campaign of the first Bush Administration and promoted by Colin Powell. They and Republican administrations before and since have tried to convince us that volunteers could take care of all of our human services needs. They were and are wrong and so is Mr. Gallagher.

    All due respect to Mr. Gallagher and the United Way of America but I think he “drank the Kool-Aid,” is “believing his own press,” or what ever other appropriate cliche’ phrase might describe such overblown, overconfident and, above all, arrogant pronouncement.

    When will we (government and bureaucratic organizations like the United Way of America)stop looking backward and look forward for meaningful ways to engage now, today and into the future with the people who are already doing the work? I can see my friends in local United Ways across the country rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at what will most like be another thing on their plate that will only distract them from doing their real work.

    I think Mr. Gallagher’s been blinded by the “Thousand Points of Light.” This is definitely a retro-strategy.

    Yvonne

  • Dee Anne Everson

    As a local United Way executive director, I’m thrilled with the new bold national goals. I also believe United Way of America is catching up to local progressive United Ways who have set bold measurable attainable goals to create community change. It takes each of us, our organizations and the voluntary sector to create these changes and I believe it’s time to get on it. I’m grateful. We’ll have early adopters and later joiners. What we should all know is that 1 in 4 kids dropping out of high school isn’t okay, the level of poverty in this country isn’t okay and the issues of health for millions of Americans aren’t okay. We spend entirely too much time being skeptical. It’s rather like nonvoters to me.

  • Paul Komarek

    The United Way’s recent actions tend to concentrate donor’s attention on a core group of very institutional, large-scale charities. It is designed to attract money by promising corporate-style, unattainable outcomes. Not that the suggested outcomes are bad things.

    What would serve society better is having the United Way support a return to a more progressive tax system, and [i][b]adequate public funding [/b][/i]for our society’s safety net, which has been sustaining damage for more than two decades from the self-serving political efforts of the very “corporate citizens” United Way now panders to.

    United Way agencies design and implement some very essential programs. But they have nowhere near the capacity of well-funded, appropriately designed and managed public institutions.

    Can the United Way provide medical coverage for every child? Can it bring art and music programs back to all schools? Can it provide realistic income levels to people with disabilities, people who are unemployed? Can it fund every public library, or provide safe drinking water to all?

    –pk—

  • Melinda

    I think United Way has a point: the small, local, in-the-trenches organizations are crucial and have important missions BUT they don’t work together, there are too many of them, and there is no overarching plan among them to address the root causes of problems. That said, someone needs to be there to take care of those who are suffering. Can’t we have both?

  • Anonymous, Submitted via e-mail

    dear ruth, thank you very much for the article. here in buffalo, the local united way has done some very solid things over the years, however, I believe that they are currently struggling for relevancy. their intiative of outcome funding has not developed into what they had thought it might, ie, “paying for results” or “making sound investments in your community”. the language that they have chosen to embrace is symptomatic of the once be all/end all to health care issues, of being “participating providers” (someone on their board must have been from an insurance company!) and “investing your dollars

    in the community” yet they have not had demonstrable results from all of this work. despite achieving various results from our programs, our funding has thankfully remained the same (I doubt that it will given their faltering campaign results) so they don’t really pay for results. they have jumped aboard the bandwagon of 211 as if that is their main focus (our crisis center was involved with discussions, yet there seemed to be a fait accompli with another entity that handles Info and referral from 9 to 5 and yet we have a 24/7 operation for the past 40 years and I can go on 🙂 if one calls the 211 you either get dead air or are redirected to us despite a redirection to the lower hudson, about 450 miles away!)

    I agree that having the locals manage local issues in a more unrestrictive, operating assistance way is the best way to help local entities conduct their work to truly help the local communities. Gallagher’s statement about getting to the core of an issue is something that UW just simply cannot do.

  • Anonymous, Submitted via e-mail

    Thank you!

    Your editorial was bold and appropriate . . . given the assertive statement from the national United Way.

    In my opinion, and experience, the national association of the United Way has once again demonstrated its ignorance, but using arrogance. For them to anoint themselves spokesperson/solution finder for our nation’s social ills, clearly demonstrates how out of touch they are with the donor community, and their agency constituencies.

    For years, they have continued to practice obsolete “white-male fundraising” (telling people they need to give and where), seeming oblivious to the changes that have taken place in our multifaceted and diverse society (changing demographics, psychographics, economics).

    The United Way’s historic approach to fund raising is make more ineffective, by the same approach to giving away the money their donors give and their volunteers raise (they fail to see that it is NOT their money, nor did they raise themselves).

    Arrogance and capricious misguided “power” have promulgated a “know-it-all” attitude about social issues and program deliver models (even though they are NOT doing sophisticated market research to be objectively informed). Nor, have they experienced the front-line delivery to appreciate the nuances of failed attempts to correct social ills.

    We as donors, do not want to be told where to give our money, and be made to feel guilty because we not “on agenda.” We are capable of researching our own “cause” preferences, getting involved in the delivery of those services as our time and inclination allow, and being generous on our terms. For the United Way’s leadership to say that past efforts have failed, simply validates donors “dislike” for giving through the United Way. Should you interview any donor between the ages of 25 and 55, they will tell you they hate giving to/through the United Way. Designated giving is the true test (where tolerated).

    The national United Way’s latest plan to position itself as a viable organization doing systemic work, simply by saying what the issues are, and raising money for them, is not only ludicrous . . . it is destined to fail! And, in my opinion, none to soon.

    To arbitrarily make education and health a national agenda will only encourage more grant-writing spin from the local agencies who already have to “beg” for United Way funds. Admittedly, it is time for the United Way system to reinvent itself . . . not as “Big Brother,” but rather “Big Sister” and Chief Advocate for the good work that local agencies are doing.

    For ten years now, I have publicly predicted the demise of the national United Way (related to its dominant corporate culture, and lack of philanthropic culture). I wish I had been wrong.

  • SteveHoad

    I am really amazed with the continuing ideas that pervade the strategy of United Way. They create a focus that never seems to include the real people that they want or expect to serve. They want to be the voice, the policymaker and the organ that carries the programs through their funding initiatives.

    They, like so many organizations, never ask the folks they want to serve what their needs are. They seem to develop programatic and funding viewpoints without ever consulting the low income communities or whichever “group of the month” where they want to focus. It is unfortunate. People who live in poverty, or in poor health, or with poor educations, often know what would help but they are never asked. It seems much easier for a large organization to throw money and service at a problem rather than working the problem through.

    Big corporate names don’t end poverty. In fact, many corporations add to the problems. Where are the people who need the service or “help”? Where are their voices? I feel strongly about this because I am a person with a disability who has lived in poverty and it has so often been the case that I was “helped” by someone or some organization who had never been in my position: How could they know how to help? And when I suggested ways that they could, I was often pushed to the side.

    I am proud to work now with groups that are inclusive of service recipients so our policies and advocacy lead toward a partnership with the people we wish to serve. The “Ending Poverty” initiatives of John Edwards, America’s Promise and the United Way (among others) must find ways to engage and really value the communities of real individuals that they want to help.

    Money won’t solve these problems, but an attitude shift really could make change possible.

  • Mary Gamble

    The Community Impact Strategy is not new. United Ways throughout the country have actively been executing on this strategy for 5 years. It is a strategy that has evolved because local United Ways responding to Brian Gallagher’s vision, have determined how best to impact their own communities.

    So no Brian’s vision and the community impact strategy is not seen as a centralized, nationally directed approach. Rather it is a call for local United Ways to understand their own community needs, be donor-focused and responsive to donors’ philanthropic interests, invest those donors’ dollars to effect real change and be accountable for real community solutions.

  • Anonymous, Submitted via email

    I wholeheartedly concur with your analysis of the United Way announcement. The “strength” of the United Way has been its ability to mobilize large employers to support those causes that might not have the capacity to secure their own operating funds. They are as good or bad as the community leaders that meet and run them, and make funding determinations. But their strength is local, and any attempt to direct from a national office is doomed. As we’ve seen with Red Cross’ recent devolution to the local chapters, the UW national office is definitely “swimming upstream.”

  • Anonymous, Submitted via email

    Wow, you are quick!

    On the way home, I realized I had more big beef with some of the United Ways. The 211 program.. United Ways should not be providing programs, they could have saved millions of dollars by outsourcing or financing agencies already doing call centers instead of re-inventing the wheel, creating call center, purchasing technology, phone lines computer, and creating more administration and training staff. The telephone for information in this day and age of internet is rather late. Also, it isn’t necessarily accessible for Deaf. Not only that, every 211 center in my state wants to list us as a resource, when we are only UW funded by 8% of my state’s counties, who pays for the other 92% coverage?. Lastly, I think they should have their administrative costs should be limited to less than 7.5 %. It should not take $15M to manage $60 Million. UW makes up less than 18% of my
    budget, but I NEED the unrestricted funding to cover operating expenses, which are almost impossible to get..

    Fortunately, I just picked up one more tiny untied way recently, so it is nice that some of them “get it.”

    But yes, if you remove all identifying information and my state, please use it. I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

  • Gloria Greis

    My first response to this story was “Count me out!” In our previous jobs, my husband and I both worked for employers who participated in the United Way payroll deduction program (both large companies – one public, one private). In both cases, there were benchmarks to be met regarding percentage of employee participation, annual increase in dollars, etc, as well as internal competition among managers and departments for employee participation. In other words, there was considerable pressure to “donate” (and is it really voluntary when
    your boss is standing over you with a donor form?) We were doing well in those jobs and made numerous of charitable donations each year, but I always resented this pressure – we had our own charitable priorities, and frankly, I did not want my employer telling me whom
    to give money to.

    When my husband’s company began allowing us to designate recipients, this was an improvement – though a small one (some we preferred over others, but none were charities we would have chosen of our own accord). At that point, I started tossing the requests from my own job (when sent a second notice, I told them “I gave at my husband’s office”). I notice from the Washington Post article that some 85% of donors make restricted gifts, so my bad attitude probably has some company.

    I can see strong strategic reasons for the United Way narrowing its funding focus, and it is probably the “right” decision. You can’t be all things to all people, and most foundations have funding priorities. The great diversity of their funding recipients is an
    inefficient way to affect outcomes; they certainly seem to consider it unproductive.

    BUT, I see two very significant problems with this new direction: 1) resentment over their “compulsory” payroll donation system coupled with the perception that the money is no longer coming back to your community (their strongest rationale for support) can potentially devastate their fundraising. And 2) their aims are grandiose to the point of implausibility – if they continue allowing the donor restrictions as promised, then only 15% of their money will go to their target initiatives – and frankly, I’m not sure that all
    the money in the WORLD could halve the dropout and poverty rates in a mere 10 years! Bold is energizing, but if there is no possibility of success your donors will look for impact elsewhere.

    In short (or is it too late for that?) the United Way built itself up as an umbrella, sheltering a network of community-based service agencies. If they want to make a strong change of direction, they have to look just as strongly at the impact that the change will have on the communities that they have supported, and on the wishes of the donors who have supported them. I don’t see this part in Gallagher’s vision, but he would be very unwise to take the acquiescence of his donor base for granted.

  • Oliwier Dziadkowiec

    I would have to agree with what was said in the article below, and say that these goals might be a bit out of range. What is concerning to me is their evaluation strategy and lack of shared vision. First, if there was a noticeable difference in how each branch was measuring it’s outcome goals and how much each branch differed on how well they monitored and implemented their goals might be something worth looking at. This is important because we can’t get this sort of information by looking at the national average as well as because it can point us to the root of the problem. It might be that the types of services needed in each of the diverse communities served by each branch affects on how they do their business. Second, in order to have accurate and meaningful measurements of national outcomes all branches need to be on the same page because if they are all doing something different, it would not be appropriate to try to evaluate them based on the same standard.

    What might be needed is a systemic/network organizational evaluation of all the United Way branches that would measure their shared vision, communication, implementation, capacity etc… In sum, United Way is an important source of distributing resources in the community and it can have a great impact if it functions well as an organization and before implementing these new goals revaluates its goals and functioning.

    I hope this makes sense…

  • Anonymous, Submitted via email

    We are a small, rural United Way with no paid staff. Our volunteer board and our recipient agencies work together to raise funds. As you pointed out, our agencies use the funds for general operating expenses, matching funds for grants, or for items that grants don’t cover enough or at all (travel for staff driving to see rural clients, for example). We fill in the gaps that other (mostly government) funders miss.

    I became President 4 years ago. I think that was just about the time that national United Way reporting became more involved (no one from the past had said anything about it), and probably as the community impact push was starting to become more intense from the national United Way.

    Our strategy for addressing community impact has been to lie low and continue what we are doing, which we believe is in the best interests of our community. Our primary reason for staying in the United Way system at all is to take advantage of payroll deduction pledges from our residents who work in other counties. We are a small geographic area, and 20-30% of our revenue comes from pledges via other United Ways.

    A United Way in a nearby city of 80,000 people recently followed the community impact process and ended up cutting funding entirely or significantly to the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts. They received a great deal of negative local press for this. I don’t know whether or not it had a negative impact on donations the following year. Their experience certainly did not encourage us to pursue what seems to be a time-consuming process. We would only do something if we were forced to by the national United Way as a condition of membership.

    To be fair, I should point out that our knowledge of the national United Way system and processes is very limited. We have no paid staff and therefore are not able to attend any national or regional meetings.

  • Anonymous, Submitted via email

    I agree with your comments. In general, it seems to me that United Ways (certainly ours here in Seattle/King County) are more and more prone to issuing pronouncements without seeking knowledge (or valuing it – which is the same thing) or input from the community. And if it’s happening at the local level – hmmmmm. Meanwhile, support for local mainstay organizations is being cut because United Way seems determined to set its own course. The community impact strategy seems to be ignored for the most part – or formed by an increasingly small group of people chosen for their adherence to a particular philosophy or agenda.

    That, coupled with reporting requirements and contractual restraints which seem far (FAR!) beyond reasonable, are forcing me and many colleagues to weigh the cost against the benefit and work to replace United Way money in our budgets.

    My sense is that United Way here is losing ground every year, but still trying to be the ‘big player’, which translates these days to playground bully.

  • Bob Andringa

    I’m not an expert on United Way, nor have most of the organizations that I have served as a consultant tapped United Way.

    But at a principle level ….

    * It would be better if United Way national said something like “We share the vision of all nonprofits who are committed to A, B and C and urge our local affiliates to get behind them with support and encouragement.”

    * In other words, it’s OK to lay out priorities and a vision that others can learn from, be encouraged by, and even influenced by in making their own decisions.

    * I agree that the more top down decisions don’t work in this situation and can back fire.

  • Anonymous, Submitted via e-mail

    In my experience, the local United Way is never the primary, or even secondary funder for any organization. They cannot possibly believe they could mandate/control/hold responsibility for the outcomes of organizations for which they provide less than 10% of the funding. UW does not involve the other major funders of these organizations to any significant degree in their Community Impact Panels. The Impact Panel volunteers, most of whom (at least locally) are bankers or grocers, do
    not have even a vague idea about best practices in respective human services fields for which they make recommendations. UW therefore makes funding decisions in a virtual knowledge vacuum. This would be far more acceptable if they would at least solicit input from those who are the subject experts. This does not happen in my experience.

    UW appears to have overestimated their ability to control outcomes in an arena in which they are under-prepared, under-educated, and under-valued by agencies providing the various services that could help achieve the stated (grandiose) goals.

    They would serve a much greater good by partnering with primary local funders (i.e. state, county, local foundations) to provide ‘gap funding’ as recommended by the subject/program experts, and those from the larger funding organizations, to coordinate desired outcome measures to help with the attainment specific, attainable and reasonable goals.

    Thanks for the article.

  • Renae

    In a time when our kids are not graduating from high school and when more and more families live on a financial tightrope, I would ask that each of us look in the mirror and ask yourself – what are you doing to make those issues better for your neighborhood, your community and your nation? If you are honest, you will say – not much – that’s for someone else to do – then I say sit down and be quiet and stop throwing stones and harsh words at an organization that is trying to create awareness, momentum and change in the very areas that affect all of us and our families everyday. This work is too big for the likes of you. And if you are one of the few that says yes – I do that. You have my gratitude.

  • Katherine Morrison

    In my many years experience with local nonprofits I’ve observed UW contributing to the greater good by serving as a facilitator and provider of information (e.g. conducting needs assessments). I feel it actually diminishes the greater good by allowing non-human service agencies to participate in campaigns (e.g. PTAs) and extracting too a high a fee, when donors could be giving 100% of their gift directly to a nonprofit of their choice.

  • Roger Rapp

    I have been a UW contributor for countless years, however this may change do to our local UW decision to cut all funding to one of our local Mentoring Programs; which provides mentors to kids at risk in the community and mentors in schools to assist in improving grades and reducing dropout rates. These goals might be the national goals but they are far from what the local UW is doing!!!!!!!!

  • Anonymous, Submitted via e-mail

    While I find some degree of truth in your letter about top down
    strategies, as a United Way Executive Director I have to say that it is my belief that there has to be some top down leadership and we have that in Brian. I have been at United Way for a little over 5 years now and I took this job because I saw a need for change, especially here in our United Way. To be known as just a fund raiser and a fund giver is no longer good.

    First, United Way today has to compete with thousands of non-profit organizations all seeking the same dollar for worthy causes. Before it was fashionable to be a non-profit, United Way could be just a fund raiser and a fund giver. Today that model is not working well. To many people have too many choices. United Way has been moving in a direction that puts us back in the center of our communities. I think that is true especially in smaller markets.

    We have been working on community impact now for the past 5 years and it has been resonating in our community for the past two year fairly well. This new strategic move “LIVE UNITED” is the next step in the movement to be that, as you put it, the “big player” in the community. We completed a major community assessment in November of 2006. From that information we set in motion our community impact areas of concentration:

    Helping children and youth succeed

    Promoting health and wellness

    Building safe and caring communities

    Supporting vulnerable and aging populations

    With the LIVE UNITED campaign putting out front Education, Income, Health we find that in each of our community impact areas these LIVE UNITED priorities easily fit. Many of the agencies that we support have or are looking at establishing programs that also involve Education, Income, Health issues. As a matter of fact, in our assessment we found the top issues were Health, Education and Income issues. So for us, this new campaign is hitting close to home.

    We are also finding that the LIVE UNITED movement of GIVE. ADVOCATE. VOLUNTEER is also resonating with the community, especially young people and this is a group that we really need to reach and bring on board as givers, advocates and volunteers within the community.

    So, is Brian right, time will tell. Will the LIVE UNITED campaign resonate with the entire community, from indications that I have at this moment, yes. Will every United Way across the country enthusiastically embrace this new strategy, probably not; however, not all of them embraced the community impact.

    Getting all 1280 United Way’s to embrace a signal, centralized theme or campaign is like herding cats. And it is often time said by Brian and the United Way of America staff, one size does not fit all. It was recognized with community impact that each community was different and had different needs. LIVE UNITED will not necessarily fit every community the same, however, I like Brian believe that if we are to change the conditions in our communities, the building blocks of that change lie in providing the best education possible for our children and getting as many as we can to graduate from High School. That helping families produce for themselves as much income as possible so that they can provide for basic needs leads to happy and healthy communities. And helping young children, teens and adults lead healthy lives and have access to preventative health care leads to children ready to learn, adults who use less tobacco, less alcohol, lower
    blood pressure, less obese, and more physically fit. All of this leads to less crime.

    So, will this resonate? Will this work? Will United Way once again become the “Big Player” in the community? It depends on each United Way. But it has to start someplace and Brian has at least put the stake in the ground. I for one am going to give it my best effort.

  • Dan Johnson

    I’ve long believed that with the United Way the tail wags the dog. Their top down decision making clashes with nonprofit culture, which is much more bottom up.
    I also believe the way they collect funds, again through a top down approach, does not lead to cheerful giving.
    The idea of a unifed giving effort to support the community is wonderful. However when there is such a strong concetration of power at the top, I don’t believe that the community is as well served as it ought to be.-

  • Margaret Trahan

    Having just returned from the conference where these goals were announced and having worked at a local UW on the Gulf Coast for 13 years, I have a completely different take than Ms. McCambridge. The 10-year goals are NOT mandates from United Way of America to local UW’s, but they do provide a way to both frame the work that most of us in the system are already doing and a set of metrics that will enable national comparisons. Our team of staff and community volunteers who were present for the announcement of these goals were excited and inspired by the opportunity to link our work with that of our colleagues around the country. The goals also validated the conclusions that we had reached locally after 2 years of independent research. As a small UW in a hurricane-prone area, we will also maintain a strong commitment to disaster response and recovery in addition to working on the national goal areas. The team at United Way of America was very supportive of us after the back-to-back hurricanes that hit our region in 2005. They continue to provide expert support for disaster response and recovery. I share this because it illustrates how we can embrace the national goals, but at the same time maintain commitments that local needs dictate.

  • Karen

    As one who has worked in non-profit organizations, both as a paid staffer and volunteer, and also has contributed financially to some, I can say with absolute sincerity that the last time I contributed to United Way will be the [b]last[/b] time I contribute to United Way.

    Previous experiences had been good, though I was frustrated that at the time (it may have changed) I could only indicate preferences for how my money was used if I donated a minimum amount. But the last time, it was a nightmare!

    First, I was employed in a unit of a national non-profit, but in a different state than the national office. It was not clear in advance which local UW I was donating to, and after my deductions began I learned it was not the one I thought….

    Second, a high-placed administrator within our unit forced everyone to attend rah-rah meetings and to contribute. I mean, he went around the office to every desk and harangued people. I was made to leave in the middle of important work to attend a fruitless meeting, [i]although I’d already submitted a form to contribute[/i]!

    Third, someone (I suspect the same administrator) arranged that at the final cheerleading meeting there would be a raffle of some rather expensive prizes to those who contributed. I’ve participated in things like this before and sometimes there are nominal gifts–pens, mousepads, t-shirts, baseball caps–but this time there was a television! (I complained to HR and said that if I won anything I would revoke my contribution.)

    Throughout the campaign I had need to complain to HR on my own behalf (dragged away from my work) and on behalf of co-workers, including a single mother in a modestly-paid clerical job who was berated into making a “contribution” she could not afford. I also attempted to complain to the UW office where our organization’s national headquarters was located (because I believed that’s where our money was going) and then to the UW office in our own city when I learned that that’s where it really went.

    I still donate to several non-profits, probably more dollars per year than I did back then, but I make my donations directly to the organizations I wish to support, no middle-man, no confusion. And definitely [b]no[/b] United Way.

  • Mat Despard

    Interesting comments from Ruth. I’ve worked on both sides – with a local United Way and with agencies that they support financially. I like Brian Gallagher as a UW leader in trying to position the UW network to make greater community level impact.

    However, I share Ruth’s skepticism on few different grounds. First, United Way of America exerts only so much influence with local United Ways. Its only leverage is that a local United Way may not use the UW brand name and logo should it cease to pay national dues and fulfill other basic requirements. Second, there are many smaller, local United Ways that lack the capacity to direct efforts toward the national initiative of which Gallagher speaks. Their value to their communities might be more akin to the traditional “community chest” model that Ruth invokes. Third, this initiative will likely be met with skepticism not only on pragmatic grounds (particularly because United Way funding is such a small slice of nonprofit revenues) but because it will appear to many as yet another round of window dressing – efforts to convince donors that United Way is still relevant amidst many cost efficient ways to give to nonprofits. Conversely, I do think there is value in harnessing resources and community effort around a limited number of high priority initiatives – perhaps just in larger communities where United Way has already shown some capacity in community mobilization vs. a traditional “community chest” approach.

  • Steve Brazen

    As I read Ruth’s article about United Way and several of the responses to the issues that she raised, I couldn’t help but think, “Here they go again, chasing after another set of windmills”. I am a recently retired not-for-profit director and, in that capacity, had spent significant time working with our local UW. I also continued in a volunteer capacity after I retired. The problem that this “new initiative” illustrates is UW’s ongoing struggle with what it wants to be when it grows up. Many local UWs, just like the national office, want to be something more than a local Community Chest. They believe they should be the convener and/or mobilizer of the community around issues of greatest local concern. This is an admirable role, but is it something that they have the capacity to achieve?

    Our local UW spends a lot of time developing impact plans, in some cases a solid effort coming from the grassroots. But as anyone will tell you, they last 2 to 3 years and a new plan is done or the priorities change, or UW reorganizes and we start all over. Bringing about change in the community takes time and usually happens at an incremental pace. You have to decide your going to be in this for the long haul.

    Furthermore, as I have seen first hand and heard from other NFP directors across the country, UW is notorious for understaffing or underestimating the infrastructure needs to successfully implement a set of strategies. I would argue that if you want to be a community convener when you grow up that you will have to spend a lot more money to staff the initiatives than you do to manage a successful fundraising campaign. But this is counterintuitive in UW circles in which a measure of success is holding oneself to the dubious distinction of the 10% overhead criteria. So you set yourself up for failure right at the start.

    Failure is also guaranteed when you hold up bold initiatives that are not really grounded in reality. Brian says that he wants to cut school dropout rates by half, reduce the number of working families struggling financially by half, and increase the number of adults and youth that are healthy by a third. What are these sets of initiatives based on? Does his network have the capacity to deliver on the promise? Has UW National been working with the other major players in these areas to develop a consensus on some approaches that can support the newly proposed initiatives? Have models been developed which identify the huge amount of resources that will be required to implement the plan? We all know the answer to these questions and unfortunately UW seems to be going down the road towards another “crash and burn” scenario, especially when they admit from the start that some of the goals might not work …”United Way must redirect its money toward the root causes and hold itself accountable by declaring bold and measurable — even if unattainable — goals.” Why design an initiative for failure? That’s what this amounts to.

    Finally, as several writers pointed out, UW, in its role as community convener, is a very small part of the funding puzzle. If it realized this limitation, it might try to create working networks or leverage it position to get the larger players to work together for the greater good. This would require UW to use its dollars a radically different way than it does now. Funds would have to be used for advocacy, legislative strategies, pilot programs, etc. Instead, as we have seen before, a few mini-efforts will be undertaken that will take the organization not very far down the road to achieve its much larger and grandiose plans. Five years from now there will be another “clarion call” and the process will begin again.

    Clearly UW wants to be something else other than a Community Chest. But is it willing to make the radical changes within itself and to make the financial investment that could help it grow up and become something more than it is today? That’s the real question.

  • Linda Saffell

    Yikes, United Way is one of my personal hot button issues.

    First, I and the organizations I’ve worked with are in the DC metro area. The local UW has continually had management problems, and in the last round dumped some portion of affiliates, including my current organization. My organization had been in good standing with UW for four years, diligently sending in the ENTIRE application for renewal of our affiliation every single year. For a small volunteer group, let me assure you that’s not a trivial undertaking, but we did it. But that
    last year, an email message — one single email — went out that the organization numbers were changed. And we sent our app in for renewal. Got a call that our app was “deficient” and we should consult the list online to find out how to remedy it. Could not find our organization in the deficiencies online. It took us right until the day of the deadline to actually speak to a living being with UW, and then it was apparently a volunteer who could not resolve the problem. As it turned out, we
    were listed under that new number, and the problems were that we failed to enter anything in several fields where our answer was “zero” and I think we gave only month and year of board term, not MM/DD/YYYY. Because of this, we wound up not being able to submit revisions in time, and were axed with not even a kind word.

    Now, WRT the national initiative: what makes us think that the approaches chosen by the UW now, are the RIGHT ones to solve big problems? Granted that UW may be helpful in national disasters, they may have a role in some kind of social programs, but I, like others, am not yet convinced that applying the same OLD approach to problems will yield some NEW solution. Like the arts program representative interviewed by the Post, I think people in general do not recognize the value of some programs in addressing community problems, in spite of outcomes evidence.

    The arts, animals, alternative health care, community empowerment are all topics that seem to be disliked by UW — but on what criteria? Oh, they’ve always tried to imply how they feel that “animal welfare” is of no benefit to humans — and I admit, many “animal welfare” groups tend to encourage this view — I’d still like to know what thought process goes into deciding that a needy person is allowed to want food but NOT allowed to want to help a fellow creature (say, a cat or dog).

    The thing is, in my view, that communities have resources and strengths that the UW seems intent on quashing — they’ll tell us what is important, they’ll tell us what to give to, they’ll tell us whether things are better or not.

    We could never even manage to get donor contact information, most of the time, for our UW donors, anyway, so it’s not a big loss. I would much rather be able to educate and inform our donors about what we are doing, directly; I’d much rather know their names!

  • Anonymous, submitted via email

    I completely agree with your position and I’m glad it has been given voice. There has absolutely been an erosion of autonomy from local United Ways.

    In an attempt to speak the language of business (accountability, measurable impact, outcomes, bold etc.) and redefine themselves (partly to be more attractive to business donors) they may have inadvertently made some of the same mistakes I see in big business:

    -the loss of voice at the delivery level (in this case the local United Ways)
    -outcome measurement without the connection to process (this also overlays an extensive new vocabulary and reporting scheme to add to the complexity and cost of receiving UW money)
    -lots of marketing to include a veneer of participation in redesign but the product has already been determined

    I’ve been wondering with my board if United Way will even remain viable in the next five year window. As we already know, a flat business is a dying business.

  • Doug Jacobson

    This is fascinating information. Excuse me if I’m a skeptic of the United Way’s national leadership but it seems to me that someone is too full of themselves.

    I’ve been involved in charitable giving and service since well before the United Way came to rural communities. Most folks that contribute to the local United Way fund drives do so thinking that the money will remain in the local community. (They also expect that it will keep agencies from conducting their individual fund drives.) The givers expect that the money will flow through the United Way to the local groups on the front lines fighting the inequities of life.

    I am well acquainted with the “top down” approach to addressing the needs of the less fortunate. As the leader of an agency that receives $1.6 million a year of federal funding, I know too well how difficult it can be to meet 6,289 federal regulations and still fulfill the unique needs of the families we serve, especially in Shannon County, South Dakota which is typically the poorest economic county in the US.

    My advice to the United Way leadership is that they need to be cognizant of who their donors are and the reasons they donate or they may find themselves without support.

  • Christine

    Great article & posts! To add my two cents…one of the challenges of the local fundraising/local giving aims of the United Way is that mom & pop businesses located in single counties are not their bread & butter. It’s the big firms with loads of employees that can give them the biggest bang for their investment in coordinating fundraising efforts. Small businesses generally are hit up by the local organizations more directly anyway.

    When it’s time for the campaign for Bank of America – the national partner mentioned in the article – the bank does not want to deal with every United Way across the country. They want one United Way to centralize request forms, etc., and at least as of five years ago, it still was up to the local United Way where corporate headquarters were located to manage that national campaign and then distribute those funds where they were designated around the country. The United Way of America would better serve its member agencies by coordinating national fundraising campaigns than by setting unrealistic goals for its member and funded organizations to try to meet. However, with the advancement of the internet and online automatic deductions for everything from credit cards to utility bills to Orange savings accounts, the fundraising techniques of the United Way are no longer needed.

    It drives me crazy that even organizations receiving only a couple of thousand dollars a year have to post a United Way logo on all their materials (signs, letterhead, etc) as if the United Way were their sole funder – and as an earlier post said, it’s hard to take credit when you’ve only underwritten 10% of the cost of a program. Maybe in more rural areas United Ways are still paying for overhead in general, but in the cities I’m familiar with, the United Way is demanding program applications outlining specific outcomes and budgetary items. In an effort to be seen to be creating some value-added in the community, our local United Ways are now hiring grant writers and competing with local agencies for program funding!

    An earlier post begged United Way to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up. Another suggestion is for the United Way to call in its funded agencies and do some estate planning.

  • Pastor Charles A. Cunningham

    I have worked side by side with the United Way in 9 communities. I totally believe in their original and main purpose for existence and that was to work together in a community to pool limited resources in an effort to better provide for the member agencies specific programs. I believe that the United Way is obligated to address core causes for poverty and not just throw money down a never ending drain of enabling. I also believe that the lone ranger mentality of nonprofits must end with a vengence.
    That said, I am not sure the goal as stated by Brian is reasonable or attainable. I think that there is a lot of anger among many of the member agencies for the United Way 211 program that remains unresolved. Most of the issue comes down to the fact that the member agencies see this as complete deviation away from the original purpose of the United Way’s existence and a breaking of the promise of the United Way for funding programs of other organizations. This program makes the United Way a competitor in the market of limited resources instead of a fundraising partner. The other issue that is causing anger is the United Way seems to be setting agendas in many communities that go against the mission, vision and purpose of at least some of their member agencies. There seems to be an ever growing thread of anti-religious motives within many United Way organizations.
    Can the United Way improve its image? If as an organization the United Way starts asking questions instead of making absolute statements or unmeasureable demands of its member agencies perhaps. The other possibility is the member agencies will continue to see the United Way as a competition for their donors dollars and will unite against the United Way by seeking the creation of another organization that will truly be their fundraising partner. When the United Way realizes that in most cases their funding is only a very slim margin of its member agencies budgets, which really doesn’t give them the right to wield the power that they are grabbing for, and then humble themselves before their partners, then they will begin to re-establish their niche in the funraising marketplace.
    Again, I agree that the United Way is obligated to use the dollars given to it to improve the root causes of poverty. I just don’t believe that as an organization, at least right now, they’ve earned the right to dictate how to accomplish this.
    I would love to work for the United Way – working with them to help accomplish the goal of improving, or re-establishing their image and credibility. Ultimately guiding them towards improved relationships with their member agencies and by that increasing their influence.

  • Anonymous, submitted via email

    As a former Boy Scout executive in Massachusetts, my evaluation of this Virginia agency’s experience with our local United Way of South Hampton Roads has been mixed.

    Our Board & staff have agreed with the U W that our organization must enhance our fiscal transparency with their allocation committee(s) as well as the general public and we continue to find ways to upgrade our financial controls & reporting.

    Our difficulty has been to try to quantify and/or measure outcomes of the year-round services we offer the indigent & homeless populations we serve in Virginia. We continue to be in conflict with their view to reduce staffing of this human service agency.

    One trend we are experiencing is that we are receiving an increased funding from other sources:

    foundations, religious charitable trusts, planned giving, and individual donors to offset some of the reduced funding from the United Way.

    Frankly, we find the local United Way volunteer committees and employed staff seem to operate in a “bubble”- a well-meaning altruistic one, but; isolated from the non profits they want to support. I can not recall one representative(volunteer or staff) of the United Way observing in “real-time” operations/programs of our agency in over four years.

  • joe

    Does this ever work?

  • Kim C.

    Fascinating viewpoints voiced here. What is obvious is that many are basing their observations on the one or two United Ways they may have worked with. Since each is a local, homegrown organization that belongs to the same national trade association, each has its own personality. I have worked for two United Ways in two different states and also worked for funded agencies. It seems that some – mostly the larger United Ways – have drunk the national Look Aid and try to conform to national directives. Others, like the one I’m with now, are fiercely independent. We do all of them a disservice if we try to paint all of them with the same broad brush strokes.

    How do I feel about the new national goals? Divided. I understand that they came up with Education, Income and Health because those are the 3 areas that most, if not all United Ways work in. That said, they don’t quite fit our local focus areas, and we are not going to change because we are first and foremost a local organization and respond to local needs.

    My former United Way embraced Community Impact and changed its business model, yet, they were careful to involved experts from funded programs and others in the community in coming up with their issue areas and goals over a four year period. This contrasts with some earlier comments that implied that United Ways do not involve the community and other program directors. Only one previously funded program did not receive dollars in the first year of implementation, and that was because it was ineffective and poorly run. But they also added about 5 new programs. At first agencies were leery, but they eventually realized that the United Way was raising the bar for them and that they were stronger for meeting specific outcomes. The end result is that the clients benefit from better programs.

    That United Way also encouraged partnerships and collaborations among agencies. A little reminscent of Big Brother? Yes, but it did so by identifying unmet needs in the community and setting aside $ for collaborations and partnerships to address them. Helps eliminate duplication of services and encourage information sharing.

    My present United Way has a very different feel.It has many in-house programs, many of which have become statewide models for others. Some are 30 years old, others are newer. Most are partnerships and collaborations with United Way being the fiduciary and providing the staff to run them. It is not regarded as a top-down funder, but as a concerned community partner. Sure there are misperceptions out there, especially when a program does not receive a grant it applied for. If you are upset about that, then ask the United Way why that program no longer gets grant dollars. You may be surprised at the answer.

    Back to Brian Gallagher’s goals: Are we running with them? No. Only because they are not something we are already doing, or because there are some other nonprofits in our community doing a great job in those areas. But on my wall are some words: Inspire, Aspire, Envision, Mobilize, Involve, Deliver. Also on my wall is a quote: “Shoot for the moon – even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” (Les Brown)For those United Ways who are currently working in these areas and embrace these goals, who can complain if they move the ball and do decrease drop-out rates, even if only by 25%? It may be fun to take potshots at a large organization, but at least Brian Gallagher got people talking about these issues.

    However, we are among those who are not jumping. We are taking the terrific new Live United Marketing campaign and tweaking it slightly to talk about our local focus areas. We are a fully local, homegrown organization that belongs to a national trade association. We benefit from national resources like the Live United Campaign and NFL partnership TV commercials and national market research. We share information with colleagues from united Ways all over the country and borrow openly other’s great ideas.

    When the local media asked us for comment on Brian Gallagher’s announcement (which by the way, we’ve know about since late last fall) we simply said that we’ve always focused on Education, Income and health, but we were not going to change our focus because what we are doing is what our local community needs.