What United Way Wants to Be When It Grows Up

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April 29, 2013; The Oregonian

NPQ has to admit to being confused about what United Way is striving to be in the future. I guess the writing is on the wall regarding the waning of its traditional role as a workplace solicitor and a simple intermediary of funds. Crowdfunding and donor choice are edging out the general fund more and more. Over the past few decades, the network has turned this way and that—going after large donors in communities to replace declining workplace funds, getting acutely focused on  fewer fields than they used to fund and claiming the high road on a results orientation. Now it appears that they may be looking at something akin to an operating foundation/engagement specialist status.

Keith Thomajan of the United Way of Columbia-Willamette branch says that that organization, while it will not stop its fundraising, plans to put more resources into community engagement, and that it will do this in part by linking businesses with community volunteer opportunities.  He also says that the local United Way’s move in this direction is indicative of what is occurring at other United Ways around the world. “A central theme is moving from being a more transactional organization to a more relational organization,” Thomajan said. “This is a critical step in our building the United Way that our community has told us we want to be.”

That organization eliminated 10 positions, approximately 25 percent of its staff, to make space for 11 new positions with such titles as “director of community collaborations.” It does not appear that the shift is coming about as a result of any type of financial crisis. In 2011, it brought in $22 million, as compared with $18 million in 2006.

Thomajan said, “There’s a clear recognition that as a national system, the United Way needs to build a 21st Century iteration of itself.” Stacey Stewart, U.S. president of United Way Worldwide, said this “more direct role” is the way of the future. “Over time we’d love for all United Ways, small or big, to be operating in this way.”

“The overall transformation of the United Way really is everything to do with the fact that we’re 126 years old this year,” Stewart emphasized. “We’ve begun to really assess what communities need… we’re not alone in doing this work and we can’t do it alone. It has to be done collectively.”

Jason Mandell, spokesperson for the Los Angeles United Way, says they are still funding almost 100 other L.A. organizations, but they also “get their hands dirty” by advocating for public policy and developing coalitions. “The idea is to guide these groups and help facilitate and sometimes lead toward a common shared goal, the idea being there are a lot of groups working in isolation,” Mandell said.

So… United Ways, in our names, have solidified their contacts with big-dollar donors and corporations and are moving ever closer to becoming operating nonprofits themselves? Am I missing something?—Ruth McCambridge

Correction:  The newswire erroneously reported that the United Way of Columbia-Williamette had fired 10 staff members.  The fact is that the United Way in question eliminated 10 positions and encouraged the staff members who lost their jobs in the process to reapply for other or new positions in the organization.  Nonprofit Quarterly regrets the error.  

  • aristotle

    United Way used to be “united” which meant that hundreds of charities would benefit from the United Way method of raising money through payroll deduction. It was the fundraising “grange” of local nonprofits. Today, United Way thinks it knows better and is using its corporate relationships (created initially for our benefit) to raise funds to augment its very burdensome overhead. More and more of the United Way employees have their overhead and burden listed as “program” and not “administration”. United Way needs to return to its roots of being the “grange/co-op” of fundraising for local charities.

  • Leslie Maloney

    I firmly believe this is the right direction for UW organizations. Here in Cincinnati, UW has taken very strong steps to be a leader in funding what works (that is, programs or initaitives that actually drive positive outcomes), driving toward three bold goals around education, income and heatlh–rather than trying to be all things to all people and taking the approach of “spray and pray.” It will be very cery crucial, however that UW organizations work closely with existing collaborations and initiatives within their communities and align outcomes and resources. The UW has sucessfully done that here and the impact is huge–we get much better leverage across all our work when we set common goals, share data, and collaborate on the community’s priorities.

  • Harvey Newman

    I think you got it. The United Way is now starting to be visibly what they have always wanted to be – an organization that raises money in the name of community services and spends it through the United Way Do they have a constituency for this? Probably, at the moment, yes, among the corporation and thier leaders that they have cultivated over the last two decades. But can they continue to dop this long term? It remains to be seen.

  • Rick Allen

    Yes, Ruth, you are missing something. It’s not about United Way. It’s about community solutions. And to be effective in finding community solutions, United Way is finding the need to change. That’s a good thing.

    How do we most effectively bring people together around the biggest issues we face in human services? We know money alone is not the answer. We must work smarter, collectively, and think about how our human service sub-systems (housing, income, education, health) work…or don’t work…as systems. So United Way is seeing the need to focus more precisely, to advocate more aggressively, and to connect more with individual donors to bring them to the game.

    It’s about finding and encouraging great collaborative work in the community on key issues, and finding ways to support and accelerate that work.

  • Megan Nugent

    This is Megan Nugent. I work at United Way of the Columbia-Willamette. I wanted to clarify a point that is factually incorrect in the story. We did not fire 10 people. We eliminated 10 positions and the people in these positions are being encouraged to apply for these new positions. The original article in the Oregonian does state this correctly. Here is a link: http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2013/04/local_united_way_cuts_10_posit.html
    Thank you

  • Ron Vassallo

    United Way is continuing its existential groping in the dark. The institution isn’t asking “should we exist and where do we add value” but rather “how can we continue to justify a role for ourselves in the community.” The latter modus operandi leads to a constant shift in strategy and the inevitable baling of water in the form of program and staff reductions. United Way needs to curb its global and institutional ambitions and begin to ask whether its mission is relevant in a world where employees have many channels for supporting a cause or project (in ANY community) and a global marketplace where the employee-employer relationship has become increasingly tenuous.

  • Dan

    Your point is well-taken and certainly the United Way would do well to ponder your questions. But I will note there is a fine line between the two positions; some United Ways will navigate the transitioning charity landscape with aplomb and provide tremendous value to their communities. Others will grasp at straws to justify their continued existence and be a drag on the nonprofit sector. It will be difficult to tell from a distance which is which.

  • Jennifer Hawthorne

    IMO, you are correct that United Ways have solidified their contacts with big-dollar donors and corporations and are moving ever closer to becoming operating nonprofits themselves. However, during this transition, they are still funding NPOs and dictating what and when they can do fundraising while positioning themselves to be competitors with those same NPOs for funding.

  • Jennifer Hawthorne

    A fancy way to say “you are fired but MIGHT be able to work here if you can compete for this other job we created.” It’s still being fired or let go or whatever you’d like to call it.