Monday, September 15, 2008

(United) Way To Go!

Is United Way (finally) getting it right?

The old formula was distribution driven: collect money on behalf of a number of UW accredited human service agencies and then distribute it across the board according to a formula, saving employers and employees(who were enrolled through payroll deductions at work) from selecting and vetting the beneficiaries directly.

Over time a number of things happened:

- Big manufacturing had the largest employee groups. Most of those jobs went away.

- Charities like Planned Parenthood, groups serving the abject poor and the hardest to reach; grass roots organizations and others whose missions were broader than or combined more than human services alone (education, arts in the community, immigration, HIV-AIDS etc.) were generally left out of United Way and as the government's combined federal campaign grew in importance (state and federal employees being another large work force component - jobs that couldn't be outsourced for the most part)successfully challenged the UW throttle hold on work place solicitation.

- Like the Red Cross the UW brand was compromised by multiple scandals at national and local levels. It didn't help that the Red Cross - a major UW beneficiary - was decomposing before our very eyes.

- UW developed a major gifts competency over time through establishing the popular De Tocqueville societies at United Way around the country for donors at $10,000 and up. Traditionally UW eschewed major gifts from individuals asserting that such solicitations should better be left to their member agencies who were in fact least capable of generating them. The unintended consequence of this really good idea has been that many major donors wanted to designate their gifts, a proposition long resisted by UW because it wanted to have the distribution power.

No doubt other societal influences played in. But the welcome result is that UW around the country has recognized that it had to do its business a new way if charitable dollars were going to get where they are needed most. Three weeks ago a big story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy headlined the new approach: prioritizing giving to "focus on helping young people, increasing financial stability for poor families and preventing domestic abuse."

The story goes on to underscore that "such scenarios are playing out across the country as United Ways make changes that are altering the fund raising landscape." New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area are two places where big changes are on the drawing boards.

These new initiatives are not without serious challenges. Cherry-picking among programs within nonprofit agencies, United Ways deciding on their own what the priorities should be, and most of all faced with raising new money over the old - because the basic UW safety net must still be kept in good repair in a struggling economy - make for a tough script.

But I believe this is absolutely the right thing for United Way to do because for a long time now I have been wondering if charitable dollars are really getting where they're needed most. I have prevailed on Giving USA Foundation to sponsor a discussion on this and in the next blog I'll tell you about the Gurin Forum we're doing in New York in December.

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