The money given away through workplace giving programs comprises a very small (two percent) amount of the total contributions in this country, yet these campaigns, particularly United Way campaigns, take up a good deal of psychic space among donors and among grantees.

As we go to press, for instance, the airwaves and newspapers are full of reports about the United Way of the National Capital Area scandal, which is being played out very publicly just as all workplace giving programs head into their campaign seasons.

There is something that is particularly abhorrent about this type of scandal in that United Ways are designed to capture the goodwill contributions of ordinary working people–some of whom are making a real sacrifice by contributing. As Rick Cohen of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) notes, “employers and employees equate United Way with knowledge and reliability, a good housekeeping seal of approval of sorts, that allows donors and hosts to give without much…concern.”

Public outcry is absolutely justified, as is peer group pressure to respond immediately to the public’s concerns. But considering the importance of this national network, in terms of the impact on the general public’s philanthropic psyche, we would suggest that United Ways reexamine and revamp their national accountability structures.

That said, NCRP estimates that United Ways still capture approximately 85 percent of all workplace contributions. Other sources report a much higher proportion (98 percent) but NCRP claims that this figure includes other types of gifts like major corporate contributions and large donor gifts obtained outside of the realm of the workplace.

“Alternative Funds” at the national and local level comprise the remainder of the field. These alternative funds often provide access to groups that would not fit United Way criteria generally focused on the “traditional” social service types of organizations. The alternative funds include many local combined campaigns and some campaigns that began as national efforts. A more recent development is the creation of networks strengthening some of the local combined campaigns — Community Health Charities, Earth Share, Community Shares USA. (See discussion of Earth Share below.)

As the structure and composition of workplaces change–with many larger workplaces breaking up into smaller sites or becoming transnational–workplace campaigns are unavoidably affected. The numbers of donors giving through workplace campaigns has declined significantly, as has the rate of corporate participation in United Way campaigns. Meanwhile, the face of American workers is also becoming more diverse; an opportunity for less traditional funds to capture the attention of workplace donors.

In general, workplace giving campaigns retain a central role in philanthropy, allowing many working people to be exposed to nonprofits who are doing good work and to contribute regularly and easily–but there are a number of factors to consider when affiliating with a combined campaign:

•    Many workplace solicitation campaigns will require your organization to refrain from public fundraising during campaign season–the period of the year when people are traditionally most likely to give. If you have an existing donor solicitation program or could, build one with a little effort, you may be better off retaining the freedom to fundraise at will. Donors who are especially invested in your organization do things like up their donations overtime and leave bequests. They are also less likely to impose requirements that outweigh the value of the resources given. There is no more solid foundation than a well tended to donor base.

On the other hand, a combined campaign can give your issue needed visibility. The shared resources of an alternative combined campaign, like Earth Share, for instance, have more potential to raise environmental concerns into public consciousness than most groups would have individually; and by its nature it reveals the diversity of groups working on that set of issues. When you are doing movement building, this visibility counts as an additionally realized resource.
Think carefully about these trade-offs as you make your decisions about whether to involve yourself in a combined campaign.

•    There is definitely some benefit in being a part of a high quality combined campaign that shines light on your issue and your organization, but you should make very sure that the campaign that you sign your organization onto reflects the quality of your work properly. Do you have faith in its leadership? Do you have a voice in its direction and message?

•    There are fewer large workplaces in most of our communities, so these campaigns aren’t likely to grow significantly in the near future through workplace solicitation. What United Ways are doing, in an attempt to keep their campaigns growing, is soliciting large donors–very likely some of the same donors you may be interested in attracting.

•    Many United Ways are clear that their “customer” is the donor. Probably because of this accountability stance, some observers believe that they have been a major purveyor of a corporate influence on the sector–promoting various business solutions as if they are the be-all and end-all of nonprofit management. What will this mean for you in practical terms? We have heard numerous complaints from organizations around the country that felt they had spent the value of their allotment many times over in staff time, trying to meet the requirements for outcomes evaluation work, for instance. We are not saying that this work has no value but that there is a trade-off in these situations that can wear a nonprofit infrastructure down to the bone.

•    There is some carryover of the bad press received by first the national United Way (Aramony) scandal and now the situation with the United Way of the National Capital Area in metropolitan Washington. These high profile situations, which raise public concern about accountability, cause problems for all nonprofits. While each United Way organization is independent, the public does not always make such fine distinctions.

As with any other funding source, each workplace giving campaign has unique qualities. If you are given a chance to enter one as a member or affiliate, do your research–find out what the trade-offs are and either bow out graciously or enter wisely and with commitment to the character of the campaign.