United Way aims to engage donors

By Todd Cohen

MORRISVILLE, N.C. — Reducing to 15,000 from 30,000 over the next eight years the number of low-income households in Durham, Johnston, Orange and Wake counties that are financially unstable will be the focus of a new initiative United Way of the Greater Triangle plans to kick off later this year.

Plans for the effort, which will focus on reducing housing costs, improving employment, and providing training in financial management, are being developed by volunteers, donors and nonprofits, and grew out of online surveys and face-to-face visits with donors, and from trends in the choices that donors make about the health-and-human-services causes they want to support.

The effort reflects an emerging business model for United Way, which traditionally has focused 95 percent of its fundraising on workplace giving and now is moving to be a “donor-centric” organization, says Jim Green, senior vice president for development.

“The best way to satisfy our donors is to make a measureable impact in our community in a way that it is apparent to the donor that it’s helped them or someone they know, and is a cause they care about,” he says.

While United Way did not publicly announce a goal for its annual campaign that began last fall, the campaign fell $800,000 short of United Way’s internal goal of raising $17.5 million, including $9.8 million from donors who designate that their funds go to the Give United Fund, a general fund United Way can use at its discretion.

United Way typically uses those dollars to address the priority needs of health care, income, safety and education.

Green says the shortfall in the campaign is the result of the weak economy and the fact that donors want more choice and involvement in the causes they support.

United Way’s new business model is based on focus groups, surveys and donors visits, ongoing input that is designed to overcome the fact that the organization’s main contact with donors traditionally has consisted of five minutes once a year in front of employee groups to promote its workplace campaign, Green says.

While United Way “traditionally has been seen as a black hole,” he says, it actually is a “galaxy of outcomes and results” at the 149 programs and 82 partner agencies that United Way funds.

“When people donate, their dollars really go effectively to the most need,” he says, “but as a donor, it’s hard to understand how your dollar is being used.”

That method of communication is labor-intensive and cannot effectively reach the nearly 26,000 individual donors who account for 83 percent of the dollars donated to the annual campaign, Green says.

So in addition to surveys and focus groups, he says, United Way will be more active in using technology to better understand donors’ interests, help them understand the difference their dollars make in addressing causes they care about, and engage them in the organization’s work.

“We can use information about what’s most important to donors,” Green says, “in how we affect change in the community.”

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