Introspection Brings Sparks at United Way

July 1, 2001       Matthew Sinclair      

At United Way of America’s (UWA) Community Leaders Conferences, conference-goers are more likely to network outside hotel elevators and in gift shops than in the hotel bar. Yet the latest CLC in St. Louis carried with it a strange hangover feeling compared to past years.

Betty Beene, the former UWA president and CEO, was nowhere in sight, and center stage was left to the higher-profile volunteer board members, such as out-going chair Dimon McFerson, since her permanent successor has not yet been selected.

Also missing (and seemingly forgotten) was the forecast of the national campaign, a figure that had proven mostly accurate.

The approximately 2,000 UW professionals and volunteers attending saw a national board addressing the challenges that face the system regardless of whose name tops UWA’s letterhead.

Weeks before the CLC, the 24-member task force on strengthening the UW system issued its Case for Action, candidly describing a decade in which the philanthropic market changed dramatically while “trust within the United Way system has eroded.” Possible new mission and vision statements were also debated.

Addressing such concerns and hearing the voices from the field became evident at several sessions, starting on day one with the board’s annual meeting and a separate session highlighting the Case for Action.

Presenting the case

Task force members Brian Gallagher, who runs the UW in Columbus, Ohio, and Alex Sink, a volunteer from Florida, detailed the task force’s findings from a national survey. While United Ways tout their roles as community builders, the survey found donors primarily consider religious organizations the builders of local coalitions (48 percent), citing United Way at only 6 percent. They put UWs just below local, state or federal government and just above for-profit corporations. And when it came to assembling resources, religious organizations again led the way (42 percent) while United Way and corporations languished at the bottom (both at 6 percent).

Moreover, the UWs’ compound annual growth rate from 1995 to 1999 was 2.6 percent, while Giving USA figures showed 8.8 percent growth of philanthropy in the United States during the same period.

There’s even trouble in UW’s traditional fundraising venue, the workplace. Less than 10 percent of United Ways reported workplace campaigns that outgrew the overall growth in philanthropy, said Sink, noting Giving USA growth figures. “When one Fortune 500 company opened its campaign to America’s Charities, giving (to United Way) declined 75 percent,” she said.

The trouble in the workplace is also a matter of finding where people are working today – not where their parents worked 30 years ago. Companies with fewer than 25 employees created 78 percent of all new jobs in the U.S. economy, according to Sink. Of course, developing new corporate accounts costs money.

“We’re not adequately prepared to cultivate those resources,” Sink said. “We struggle for $100,000 gifts when our local universities are regularly getting million-dollar gifts from these same donors.” She added that United Ways need to become more donor-friendly, or they risk losing their ability to lead. “If the United Way suffers a loss in credibility and influence, communities lose an important advocate for children (and the overall community),” she said.”

The challenges are not simply about donor relationships, Sink added, citing issues such as diversity, fund processing, and targeting community issues. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Gallagher also noted differences of opinion within the UW system. He said that in a survey of UW professionals, 54 percent said the primary customer is the donor, while 40 percent said it is the community. And there was an even split when asked to identify the primary purpose of United Ways; 48 percent said it is to maximize fundraising, 48 percent said to create the highest level of community impact.

The grim statistics left some UW professionals and volunteers feeling cold. When asked what was missing from the Case for Action, there was a round of applause and echoing agreement after someone said, “The tremendous number of successes out in the field.”

The collection of committee members, which included board members, acknowledged the overall strong efforts put forth by the local UWs, but emphasized its concern for the future. McFerson, who remains on the board though his term as chair officially ended on the CLC’s first day, later said the comments about the lack of acknowledging the successes “disappointed” him as they seemed to be missing the point. “The only way we’ll stay strong is if we’re willing to look critically at ourselves,” he said.

“We need to come together,” said Brian Hassett, who heads the Valley of the Sun United Way, in Phoenix. “It’s a tough time for the United Way.”

New vision thing

Draft ideas for new mission and vision statements for the UW movement met with mixed results. For example, the drafted mission statement: “To improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities,” pleased some, but also elicited a response of, “That could be almost any organization.”

The draft version of a new vision stated, “During this decade the United Way will provide the leadership necessary for communities to identify their most important human care issues and work together to invest time, energy and resources to produce measurable impact on these issues.”

Again, many voiced support of the statement while others considered it unwieldy. The only alternative from the floor that seemed to spark interest, however, was, “During this decade, United Way will rebuild a civil America.”

Another person from the floor, noting diversity concerns, said, “There’s no word in Spanish for ‘caring’.”

Jack Little, the task force chair, said the group has met five times since November. “We’re not as far along as some of you would like us to be, I know that,” he told the audience. “But this is very hard work. … None of us feel like the answer is in the back of the book.”

Little said the Case for Action was neither an attempt to point fingers at particular local United Ways or the UWA, nor an attempt to lay the groundwork for a highly centralized system.

Little added he thought much of the vitriolic debate within the UW system “has not served us well,” and distracted its energies. “(We need to) figure out how best to work together on behalf of all our communities,” he said. “We know the local United Way is where the action is.”

New board chair Eleanor Ferdon, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of America, sits on both the task force and the 11-person search committee for a new president. She said the task force will complete its charge before the new leader is selected – likely to be in the late fall. One of the major roles of that person will be “to build the trust. That’s very important.”

And there is trust to build. “The field basically fired the last two CEOs the board selected,” said one conference-goer, who asked not to be identified. “That should tell them something.”

In a session bringing together national board members and professionals and volunteers from the field, several different concerns were raised from beneath the challenges voiced in the Case for Action. Dave Wilson, board chair of the United Way of the California Capital Region in Sacramento, said that in addition to a strong UWA, the movement needed strong regional organizations and to make sure they’re volunteer run. Volunteers are less likely to get bogged down in political backbiting, he said.

“The whole network has to be done through volunteers,” Wilson explained. “We feel more collaborative than the professional people. Those turf wars, you won’t have them because we’re here for the greater good.”

McFerson said the growth of the UW system pales in comparison to that of other organizations such as community foundation and donor-advised funds through the charitable spinoffs of financial service firms. “When other organizations are growing significantly faster,” he said, “(we have to ask) where can we improve.”

Following a question from a Tennessee-based UW professional who spoke of 14 UWs coming around the table, McFerson asked if he thought there were too many UWs there. The man had no answer, and neither did McFerson, who said 1,400 United Ways nationally sounds like a lot. “I hope we’re bold enough and blunt enough to tackle some of those issues,” McFerson said.