Uncharitable: How the United Way is Building Their Millennial Dream

With the rapid acceleration of change around us, the lines between charity and business are blurring, however attitudes and institutions are lagging in their acceptance and support of new models of doing good. Dan Pallota, in his talk ‘Uncharitable’ at the Social Enterprise Dialogue challenged us to embrace these blurring lines and to evolve our vision of charity. The Millennial Dream offers insight not only into new ideas, how millennials are shaping our world, but if we’re willing, there are many lessons for how we get out from under some of our most sticky social challenges. At the United Way, we are embracing these pressures to evolve our understanding of community and indeed ourselves. I’m proud to say that we excel at some of Pallota’s lessons and have for a long time. But alas, we’ve still got some work to do! Here’s what I mean.

The United Way has the good fortune of having one of the most recognized brands on the planet. The general consensus is ‘we do good work, we help people’. In the 60s, we developed a fundraising niche, the workplace giving campaign, which, resembled the assembly line. Provided we had sufficient scale (large companies with whom to partner) fundraising was very efficient. A fact we were very proud to promote. In truth there was very little risk in our model; we had a trusted brand and very diverse revenues sources.

Fast forward 50 years and our landscape has changed. Fewer people are working in large companies and communities are not improving enough despite great local efforts. In about 2011 our United Way starting asking ourselves a tough question: were we having enough impact? Our leadership believed we could do better. To do better we had to take the risk of shifting our course, while at the same time preserving the strengths upon which we build 60 years of success.

In 2014 we reimagined how we grant to charities on behalf of our donors. To me this shift is the quintessential example of letting go of something good for something better. To begin saying ‘no’ to charities with whom we had relationships for many years carried a lot of risk. It was much easier to fly under the radar than to very publicly change lanes. But we did, because we needed to, our community needed us to, and our donors asked us to. We began to think of our donors as customers and really listened to what they were telling us, including those who were not customers, but who could be. This shift in thinking is a lesson I might add to Pallota’s list, for us it was transformational.

These changes to our funding created the conditions for us to add a new offering, an advisory service to individuals and private foundations who give charitably. In its first 6 months, this new service yielded $77,000 in new money directed to high impact organizations and projects. I believe this is the tip of the iceberg.

Of Pallota’s 5 suggestions, I would say our United Way has always done a few things well: We believe that in addition to passion (we consider this a given) we must have a talented and skilled workforce to solve some of our most complex problems (child poverty, family violence, skills shortages). This means, paying great staff well, offering benefits that do not force the choice between doing well for one’s family and doing good for the community. We also know social change is a long term venture. Our community’s problems did not emerge overnight (e.g, generational poverty) nor will they be solved within a 12 month funding cycle and United Ways are in for the long haul. For example, 80% of our grants are multi year commitments.

Almost all of my career has been in the non-profit sector and I struggle everyday with being cheap. However, there is a cost to being cheap. For example, we design and print everything in house without the expertise or glossy paper. I have a really hard time spending money on marketing and communications, but that results in no one knowing what we are doing. In 2016 we will hire a new staff person to work on, among other things, marketing and communications. I realize I said among other things…it’s a journey, I have not yet arrived!

The more we have ventured out of our comfort zone in order to better achieve our mission, the more positive reinforcement we have received. For us the risks and challenges have been eclipsed by the improvements we are already seeing around us.

I invite you to join your United Way as we help transform Saint John from a small city that leads the country in child poverty, single parent poverty, and family violence, to one that leads the country in solving these complex and damaging problems.

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