If you have watched Sunday Night Football recently, you may have seen a massive Dallas Cowboy tight end teaching blocking techniques to a bunch of pixie-sized kids sponsored by the United Way (UW). Pint-sized ballers bouncing off much larger pros: is this an unintended metaphor for the United Way’s much-ballyhooed Community Impact Agenda? What constitutes this strategy that so many United Way affiliates around the nation have adopted?

The United Way PR juggernaut is impressive, ubiquitous, and hitting on nearly every consumer- and donor-tested theme that you can think of: athletes, celebrities, and kids all pressing every button possible for United Way contributions. But the old formulas haven’t worked across the board. The United Way faces competition for charitable contributions from workplace donors as well as from community foundations’ donor-advised funds for higher-end contributors, and it also faces various economic and demographic changes.

To combat these potential threats to its vitality, the United Way system has galvanized around the concept of what it calls the Community Impact Agenda as its new program strategy. Along with this comes the UW’s remaking of its public image as a more vigorous, significant, and relevant system that will change communities and, not inconsequentially, maintain and increase charitable donations.

One United Way exec summarized the Community Impact Agenda as “a huge reinvention of the United Way,”1 another as the “complete transformation of what the United Way is.”2 But is this approach a serious shift and a true effort to retrofit the United Way to the realities of charity and philanthropy in modern society? Or is the new United Way only a thick smokescreen of PR spin?

If you read the public statements of local United Way players as well as those of United Way of America (UWA) CEO Brian Gallagher, the new Community Impact Agenda is rife with language that sounds like it was drawn from a carefully crafted lexicon of muscular charitable imagery:3

  • “Fewer, deeper relationships” (from the United Way of Central Ohio);
  • “offering ‘lasting solutions’ to people in crisis, not ‘quick fixes’” (from Silicon Valley);
  • “a long-term strategy [to] address the root causes of problem issues” (from the United Way of Pitt County, North Carolina);
  • “redefining goals into . . . focus areas” (from the United Way of Central Ohio);
  • “a more targeted approach” (from the United Way of Monterey County, California);
  • “to create broad impact in the community” (from United Way of Portland, Oregon);
  • “very outcome driven” (from the United Way of Buffalo, New York);
  • “ultimate outcomes and contributing outcomes to help reach them” (from the United Way of Cincinnati, Ohio);
  • “cut off agencies not up to snuff” (from the United Way of Columbus, Ohio).

It is all very heady stuff.

Dorian Gray or Dionysus Reborn?

First, a word of caution. There are 1,300 local United Ways (which, due to a spate of affiliate mergers, represent a decrease from some 1,400 not too long ago), with their own managers, boards, and volunteers. All United Ways must comply with certain standards to rightfully use the United Way name and logo. But the system does not march entirely in lockstep, as Gallagher’s predecessor learned when various larger “Metro One” United Ways reportedly balked at some of her initiatives. So even when a national United Way of America spokesperson proclaims that just about every chapter plans to adopt the new community impact allocation model,4 these chapters are likely to vary in how they do so.

Nonetheless, look into anything United Way–related, and you unearth at least three camps of visceral reactions. First are those who believe that the United Way is simply a relic of charitable fundraising past, devoted to perfecting the buggy whip of payroll-deducted workplace donations, while most of the world has fast-forwarded to a different array of messages and techniques. The truth is that UW is hardly as monolithically dependent on workplace contributions in corporate campaigns or public-sector venues as state-employee charitable campaigns or the federal Combined Federal Campaign. As of the 2006–2007 UW campaigns, 65 percent (or $2.64 billion, of the United Way’s total fundraising of $4.07 billion), came from individual donors in the workplace.5 But with only a 1.6 percent increase in its annual campaign over the previous year6 and fundraising totals that on an inflation-adjusted basis haven’t fully recovered from scandals during the 1990s, the United Way still faces critics who see a system that gets a lot more attention than its meager growth and $4 billion portion of $295 billion in total charitable giving warrant.

The second camp sees the United Way as a modernized and scandalous version of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. Poor United Way head Brian Gallagher wakes up in the morning, shaves, and finds the visage of the disgraced William Aramony staring back at him in the mirror, having purloined $600,000 or so to support Aramony’s high-flying lifestyle and various paramours. Or maybe it is Oral Suer and Norman Taylor, who guided the United Way of the National Capital Area in metropolitan Washington, D.C., to near collapse.7 Or maybe it’s Jacquelyn Allen-McGregor, the vice president of finance at the Capital Area United Way in East Lansing, Michigan, who embezzled nearly $2 million from the Capital Area United Way in East Lansing to support her interest in quarter horses.8 Or maybe it’s Ralph Dickerson, the New York City United Way exec who walked off with a quarter million.9 Or maybe it’s Eleanor Jacobs, the Santa Clara United Way leader who gave out grants based on a $25 million fundraising total when the reality was a full $5 million less, leading to massive layoffs and Ms. Jacobs’s firing.10

Of course, the image of a United Way system beset with charitable thieves is an unjust picture given the thousands of United Way employees and volunteers who have nothing in common with the likes of Aramony, Suer, and Dickerson. On the other hand, the United Way has faced serious criticism of its accounting practices, including a spate of revelations in 2002 and 2003 that United Ways in metro Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Houston, Austin, Tampa, Tucson, Milwaukee, and other localities had inflated their fundraising totals by way of double-counting the numbers.11 The image of a United Way system hobbled by widespread accountability and ethical problems has been difficult for nonoffending United Ways to shake.

For the third camp, the United Way is just about a godhead, a shining, charitable city on a hill. They turn out to attest to the United Way catechism, sometimes prompted by CEOs to write effusive testimonials. They fervently believe in what others see as largely United Way PR, crafted by top-flight marketing and advertising firms.12 In fact, legions of communities and nonprofits have benefited from the best of the United Way system and with little prompting will evangelize for it.

But whatever your view of the organization, there is no shortage of spin surrounding UW (whether it is a flood of tributes from grateful nonprofits or TV spots starring NFL stars or the ubiquitous local press coverage trumpeting the new strategies of the organization).13 Cutting through the PR to find the substance is a challenge.

In 2001 the United Way launched a series of public-service announcements keyed to the theme of “performance” and “bringing people together to focus resources on the most pressing problems in order to achieve measurable results.” A core message was the Community Impact Agenda, tagged as “the focus of United Ways’ work.” Acknowledging variation from community to community, the national public-service announcements highlighted the United Ways’ targeting of “poverty and violence—two of the most critical underlying social problems facing communities across the country.”14

According to a 2001 United Way paper, the emphasis of the Community Impact Agenda was partnerships with a diverse array of business, government, and nonprofit organizations, with the following issues described as “the most universal across the United Way system”: helping children and youth succeed, strengthening and supporting families, promoting self-sufficiency, building vital and safe neighborhoods, and supporting vulnerable and aging populations, each linked to several “common United Way community impact strategies” and “targeted results.”15

Some United Ways and researchers reference the apparently seminal 1998 document Community Impact: A New Paradigm Emerging, A White Paper on Change in the United Way Movement. The paper suggests that this approach is not quite as new as it might appear for some United Ways and their member agencies. But it was not until 2002 when Brian Gallagher made the leap from his perch at a Columbus, Ohio, UW to the national office in Alexandria that the concept of community impact vaulted from a paradigm to a nationwide strategy for program allocations and fundraising.

According to a March 2007 NonProfit Times interview with Gallagher, his United Way in Columbus and the United Way in Dane County, Wisconsin, had been “working in our communities to identify the four or five most critical human issues [and create] development strategies to address [the issues] . . . [and] turn those strategies into investment products that donors could invest in, or people could volunteer for, or they could advocate public-policy reform around.”16 In 2002 the United Way of America launched the Community Impact Agenda, which Gallagher “sold” to 90 percent of United Ways in a 12–month period and of which almost half had “operationalized” by early 2007.

The story of how the Community Impact Agenda evolved at the Dane County, Wisconsin, United Way and how it has been defined in other localities reflects a strategy of focused funding distributions toward a small rang