Fundraising, Part 8: United Way diversifies

By Todd Cohen

[This article was written for Blackbaud.]

With growth in fundraising accelerating only modestly in recent years, United Way has been diversifying its fundraising and focusing on its impact, says Sherrie Brach, executive vice president of investor relations at United Way Worldwide.

That strategy has included targeting women, young professionals and major donors, engaging workplace donors as volunteers, focusing on solving community problems, and “productizing” priority community initiatives to generate new investment opportunities for individuals, corporations and foundations, Brach says.

United Way also has made it a priority over the next two to three years to use mobile and social media strategies to engage donors.

United Way affiliates throughout the world raised a total of $5.2 billion in 2012, reflecting overall growth of 1 percent to 1.5 percent in the U.S. and 7 percent outside the U.S., says Brach, a former CEO of United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg.

“In 2013, we anticipate the trend to continue in overall fundraising,” she says. “We are experiencing slow but steady growth.”

Workplace campaigns remain United Way’s biggest channel for giving, with corporations representing the biggest sources of revenue through corporate gifts and access to employee giving.

But United Way no longer is relying only on “transactional” fundraising through workplace giving, and in recent years has segmented its fundraising by types of donors and tried “to connect more directly with individuals than through the workplace channel,” Brach says.

Ten years ago, in Greensboro, N.C., United Way launched its first affinity group for women, an effort that has been adopted at many affiliates and been expanded to include affinity groups for young professionals.

Those efforts, along with efforts to generate “leadership” gifts of $1,000 or more, and “Tocqueville” gifts of $10,000 or more, have represented most of the growth in United Way giving, which has increased at a rate of 1 percent 2 percent a year since the economy collapsed in 2008, Brach says.

United Way also is partnering with companies to connect with individual donors, often by providing opportunities to volunteer for community projects that are in sync with the companies’ business.

And by setting education, income and health as priority community needs, and creating special initiatives to address those needs, United Way has created new opportunities both for volunteerism and for giving.

“It’s a holistic strategic approach to solving community problems, and you can create investment opportunities for individuals, high-end donors, and corporations and foundations, that bring investment into our work,” Brach says.

Local United Ways that have taken that approach have developed more diversified funding streams, and while their campaigns have been growing only modestly, those new sources of income have grown more dramatically, Brach says.

In addition to $79.5 million raised through its annual workplace campaign and corporate giving, for example, Wells Fargo also has contributed a $5 million grant to develop a “Financial Capability Network” in partnership with United Way.

“We don’t just measure the annual campaign,” Brach says. “We’re now looking at total current-year support.”

A handful of local United Ways also have begun large endowment campaigns focused on their community initiatives, and some have received six-figure and eight-figure gifts to support them.

Now, United Way is looking at ways to use digital media more strategically to engage donors.

“That’s the only way we’re going to connect with young people and individuals,” Brach says. “The challenge we have is how are we able to articulate and communicate and represent our work through online engagement in a way that connects quickly with donors.”

Next: Conservation groups connect with donors

The series:

Part 1: Growth tied to capacity, cultivation, communication.

Part 2: Healthcare groups invest in capacity.

Part 3: Higher education cultivates major gifts.

Part 4: Data key for independent schools.

Part 5: International affairs groups refine message.

Part 6: Religion focuses on fundamentals.

Part 7: Arts and culture groups focus on donors.

Part 8: United Way diversifies.

Part 9: Conservation groups connect with donors.

Part 10: Communication, planning key for human services.

Part 11: Peer-to-peer strategy fuels medical research.

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