United Ways 2009: A Confusing Mix of Missed and Missing Goals

Print Share on LinkedIn More

In the Nonprofit Quarterly’s Nonprofits in the Age of Obama project, we have committed to following significant trends in and around nonprofits as our economic and political environment re-calibrates. This has led us to follow news reports of the traditional goal setting of the nation’s United Ways. We noticed some interesting trends and wanted to get your input on what you see happening in your locale.

One of the most important barometers of the recession’s impact on nonprofits—and how nonprofits are adjusting to this increasingly terrible economic downturn—maybe found in the 1,400 affiliates and chapters of the United Way. At Nonprofit Quarterly, we increasingly find ourselves noticing changes in the United Way system that raise additional questions about the direction of this network

It’s not simply that most reports on last year’s campaigns, at least those reported in the press, describe fundraising shortfalls of as much as 20 percent, though some sites such as the Twin Cities appear to have made or surpassed goals. There are significant changes in United Way fundraising strategies across the nation.

During the past month, the NPQ Newswire has run several stories about an apparently new practice among United Way campaigns. United Ways in Sudbury, Ontario; Stanly County, North Carolina; Belleville, Ontario; Lee County, Alabama; and Kansas City, Missouri have eschewed the longstanding tradition of establishing fundraising targets for their annual campaign in favor of no-target or no-goal campaigns.

Ditching the longstanding common practice of setting a fundraising target is a major cultural shift in the UW system.  Explanations of the fundraising shift vary from agency to agency. In Sudbury (Sudbury Star, September 10, 2009), the UW is substituting a target of increasing the number of individual donors from 9,000 to 12,000 for a dollar goal. Oddly, this is not because of poor campaign totals in 2008; Sudbury actually did well, surpassing its 2007 total by raising $2.4 million. But entering 2009, the locality faces layoffs in two major employers, thousands of job losses in the mining supple and service sector, and labor turbulence between local employers and locals of the United Steelworkers and others.

The new campaign strategy in KCMO is similar, targeting the recruitment of 25,000 new donors rather than a dollar fundraising target (Kansas City Business Journal, September 10, 2009). Obviously relevant is the increase in unemployment in the Kansas City metro area from 6.0 to 8.9 percent between July 2008 and July 2009. A spokesperson for the United Way of America (headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia) described the Kansas City and Sudbury no-dollar goal strategies as “a growing trend” (Kansas City Star, September 10, 2009).

In Brown County, Wisconsin, home of the Green Bay Packers, the United Way there usually set its campaign goals in the spring or summer, but this year it announced (Green Bay Press-Gazette, May 10, 2009) it would delay setting a goal until the fall, after soliciting feedback from local employers about their economic and employment conditions.

Obviously, in a system of 1,400 affiliates, there is wide diversity of practice. However, in the midst of a recession, how a United Way figures out how to set a campaign target is in itself a solid challenge that may be eliciting a little creative thinking. For example, Baldwin County, Alabama (Mobile Register, September 2, 2009), announced that it reached its target of a little over $1 million last year, but it did so by extending the campaign from its usual fall wrap-up and accounting to January 2009. Whether those donors who were tapped in early 2009 will not be available for contributions to reach this year’s $1.1 million target is anyone’s guess.

The United Way of Central New York (Syracuse Post Standard, September 9, 2009) fell $500,000 short of its target last year, and has set its 2009 campaign target at the amount they last raised—$8,500,000. This seems to be a fairly common strategy but last year, the recession had not hit the depths that it has now reached, particularly in terms of joblessness. In July 2008, during last year’s United Way campaign, the unemployment rate in metro Syracuse was 5.6 percent; as of July 2009, unemployment was up to 8.1 percent. If last year’s campaign fell short in reaching $8.5 million, how will it hit the same number with unemployment having increased by one-third? In Central Alabama, serving the Birmingham area, the goal is also last year’s total of $37.26 million, despite a one-year doubling of the unemployment rate to 9.9 percent. As the UWCNY exec explained, to make up for donors who have lost their jobs it will have to raise more money from new donors.

This raises real questions and perhaps concerns regarding where the new donors will come from. United Way has moved further afield from its base of workplace giving over the years, at times angering affiliates with strategies that directly compete with the fund-raising strategies of community groups.

With the spate of PR-generated announcements of United Way campaign launches and obligatory newspaper editorials imploring readers to give, it is difficult to prune honest insights from promotional pabulum, but some tidbits of candor sometimes sneak in. For example, from the ED of the United Way in Green Bay comes an acknowledgment that “campaign goal-setting is not a scientific process” and admitting that they “have a long ways to go in terms of increasing workplace campaigns.” This would appear to be a major understatement when unemployment is skyrocketing (nationally, it increased from 9.4 to 9.7 percent last month).

In Columbus, Ohio, for example (Columbus Dispatch, May 5, 2009). In December, the Central Ohio United Way said it would be $1.5 million under its campaign target, in March $3.5 million, but the final total was $4.3 million short of the $56.1 million campaign target.

So, what is a United Way to do? Set a stretch goal at or above last year’s number, a lower number based ascribed to the economic downturn, or no goal at all in light of burgeoning underemployment and unemployment?  As a spokesperson for the United Way in Pontiac, Illinois admitted (The Pantagraph, April 11, 2009), “I have spoken with several United Ways across the nation and they have never seen donations down like they are this year.”

This shows up in sharply reduced United Way campaign targets:

  • Greater Lorain County, Ohio, where unemployment is nearing 14 percent, has a $2.6 million goal down from last year’s $3 million goal (on which only $2.83 million was raised);
  • Forsyth County (Winston-Salem), North Carolina, where unemployment has jumped from 6.3 to 10.3 percent, reduced its goal from $18.4 million to $17 million;
  • Calgary, Alberta, dropped its target from last year’s $52 million (on which it collected only $49.5 million) to $47 million; and
  • Knoxville, Tennessee, set a target of  $11.8 million, down $1 million from the previous year since unemployment has increased from 5.6 percent to 9.0 percent.

The impact for many safety net nonprofits is huge. Agencies are getting cut across the board, frequently at percentages much higher than the United Way’s fundraising shortfalls. “People will have to get used to a lot less services,” according to the ED of the United Way of Westchester and Putnam, New York (Journal News, March 21, 2009). Who loses in this calculation? “The poorest of the poor,” as admitted by the President of the United Way of Volusia-Flagler Counties, Florida (News-Journal, June 3, 2009). But the bigger implication may be that the United Way’s payroll deduction charitable donation mechanism may be on life support—and perhaps at risk of not surviving the recession or its jobless recovery. 

  • Fran Hagerty

    Our local (Austin, TX) United Way will not let our 501(c)3 participate because they believe our mission is too controversial. It is a travesty!

  • Lynne Martinez

    Capital Area United Way is experiencing substantial reductions in contributions and targeting most income to meeting emergency needs. They have not set a goal for this year. They have adopted new policies and new outreach for to try to increase non-targeted donations to meet increasing service demands. One new policy is to not list affiliates in the hope that this will discourage targeted donations. These policies reduce the likelihood that people would select a non-profit they want to support.

  • Cyndi Paulin

    In south-eastern NH, even before the economic downturn the rate of requests for support was increasing at a far greater rate than the amount of funds raised. Likewise, the workplace campaign landscape was changing rapidly as some big employers left the area or significantly downsized their operations. This meant that the United Way had already begun to adapt their fundraising strategies to reflect the changing landscape. I would be curious to know what this pre-downturn trend looked like in other areas of the country and how that may or may not play into the trends/impacts of the economic downturn.

  • Ken Toll

    Your writers imply that United Ways are not setting goals in an effort to hide their shrinking funding base; they even went so far as to speculate that Sudbury must have foreseen problems in the coming year since it did so after a successful campaign. Wrong conclusion, and poor journalism.

    Your writers should know the truth, and it is far simpler (and not sinister in the least): United Ways have learned that our true impact is far greater than what is raised by an annual workplace campaign. We strategically invest and leverage contributions, we mobilize volunteers, we create collaborations, and we increasingly advocate for public sector policy which can be far more powerful tools toward achieving our mission than a community’s annual contributions. Of course, the local and flexible campaign dollars help United Ways leverage additional support in ways that other nonprofits simply cannot, but it is just one of many tools in our expanding toolbox.

    Because that campaign thermometer is so strongly branded with United Ways, many of us have concluded that the best way to help the general public understand the power and significance of this New Way is to tear down our old yardstick. Positive impact – actual changes in community conditions which improve lives – is much harder to measure and communicate than contributions, but that is what United Way is about; hopefully balanced reporting will help the general public understand just how much potential for positive change exists within the United Way network, and how, when we all Live United, great things are possible.

  • LindaS

    UW here dropped quite a few of the small local organizations, including ours, several years ago. Donors tell us that they’ll just send us a donation directly, rather than give as the UW wants to choose FOR them. We’ve got wise donors!

    Considering that many organizations’ ethics have been more demanding than those of the UWNCA, it’s not at all surprising to me that UW is confused. Maybe the board ought to get out here and talk to some organizations and find out why we’re still getting donations that UW is not!

  • Chris Kerrigan

    Our Community Impact agenda has been instrumental in our United Way’s ability to raise significant additional financial and human resources. We acheveied our goal of $9,876,543.21 last year( up from $9.5 million the year before) On Septmember 11th this year we had over 6,200 volunteers conducting 351 different community service projects. It is the largest Day of Caring event taking place in our United Way system and we believe it is the largest national day of service for 9/11 in the country. We also set our goal at 10,000,000.00 this year. When we acheive it, it will be the largest in our organization’s history.

  • Cheryl Bascomb

    After reading your article on United Ways and their use and achievement of goals, I am puzzled by the anti-United Way bias that seeps into what could otherwise have been an interesting and insightful piece. Leaping to conclusions about the demise of payroll deductions as a donation mechanism was unneccessary and not grounded in any facts that you presented. Local United Ways have been reaching and missing goals for years, for a whole host of reasons, none of which was mentioned in the article.

    Failing to take the reader with you on the journey to your conclusions about the impact on nonprofits and on the United Ways themselves is a disservice to the reader and woefully diminishes the value of your article. As a United Way volunteer AND a long time board member of a non-United Way human service agency, I have a balanced view of the nonprofit work in our community as well as United Way’s strength and weaknesses as a player in same. I would encourage you to do either more research or provide a more objective point of view in the future if you want people to take the information seriously.
    –Cheryl Bascomb
    New Gloucester, ME

  • Franklin M

    Many United Ways are anxious to ditch the traditional model of allocating funds to priority community programs. They can then move toward a granting process that provides no implication of continuity in funding. Or United Ways adopt internal programming that delivers vague results more aligned to advocacy.

    Without its agency partners, United Ways are becoming more like Community Foundations supported by payroll gifts. People are struggling to understand what United Way really represents. And many donors are ” scandal-weary “, as it seems a new pay-related scam surfaces each year in a different area of the country.

    A reconfiguration of accountability away from fundraising allows United Way to define success by its own ambiguous terms. And I don’t think people are interested in supporting loosely defined social engineering projects, as defined by their National organization.

    United Way’s fundraising downturn has been going on for a while . It is partly due to the economy and partly about confusion as to what it is they really accomplish.

  • Gerald Sweitzer

    I’m on a county United Way board in S.C. as well as on the S.C. state board. We missed our goal for the 08-09 UW goal, but by only 10%. We have reduced the 2009-2010 goal by the same amount. We have just implemented the Community Impact agenda, and think Community Impact will help our campaign, but focusing on a number of specific causes that will impact the community. We will know after completing the campaign.

  • Jane Moore

    Our local UW has chosen to direct their efforts to 3 main social issues; Homeless outreach & prevention, promoting financial stability & independence and stopping child abuse & neglect

  • Beki Moorehead

    It is unfortunate that this article makes a sweeping conclusion of a system of 1400 autonomous entities. When so much could have been said about the forward thinking direction of the system and the variety of community-specific approaches, and could have benefitted the system as each entity is working to maintain services in their communities – it is truly unfortunate that the article comes in the form of a dooms day prediction. Watch and learn.

  • TK Drew

    Our local United Way has been plagued with financial mismanagement issues for years. What is most of concern however is that their funding doesn’t reflect the actual population of the area in which United Way works, which is to say that though this region is majority people of color, their funding doesn’t really reflect that. Nor do they fund LGBT groups as much as they could or should. As a result, more nonprofits are encouraging people to give to them directly, rather than go through the complicated financial scheme that is the United Way. Some of our donors have mentioned being pressured to give at work, but prefer to know that we will receive all of their donation (rather than a percentage) by giving to us directly.

  • Kiersten Hill

    I believe the downturn that many UW’s are seeing is not a reflection of workplace giving, but a statement about the antiquated fundraising practices of UW. In an age when donors can learn about charities around the world and give online with 2 clicks of a mouse, unrestricted giving to the UW fund is a thing of the past. There is a place for the UW fund, but to ignore donor designation as a desire is a insult to smart donors and a detriment to workplace giving as an important contribution vehicle.

    I work for an alternative fund that promotes donor choice and funding for organizations that UW won’t fund. (Not Human Services or too controversial.) We have seen increases to our campaign every year often times significantly outpacing the growth of our local UW. But, we encourage donor choice and supporting the causes donors truly care about.

    Please don’t convey that payroll deduction is on life support. The future is bright for workplace giving. But, the future may not be as bright for UW’s if they don’t make some wholesale changes in their organizational and promotional structure.

  • L

    UW in the National Capital region is paternalistic at best. Donors deserve access to information about all causes, and they deserve our respect for knowing what is meaningful to them. Indeed, as another writer commented, many small and mid-sized charities are stronger and more ethically sound than UW is, and that is probably why their donors and volunteers choose NOT to “give and hope” that donations will somehow reach the need via a UW process. People are individuals, and one person’s safety net does not look just like yours. UW should definitely talk with some of the organizations (including those it has dropped over not dotting an “i” on their annual application in the fourth year!) and learn why we still have our donors!