Home Donors, Volunteers Organizations Back to Fundraising Basics as United Way's Role Becomes Increasingly Murky – Nonprofit Quarterly

Back to Fundraising Basics as United Way's Role Becomes Increasingly Murky – Nonprofit Quarterly

8 min read

Who Listens to the Little Guy?” Credit: William Murphy

March 24, 2019; Wall Street Journal

That deal nonprofits used to make with their local United Ways to forego fundraising during what was one of the most lucrative periods in the year has not turned out well for anyone involved. For some nonprofits, momentum and relationships with donors might also have been foregone, along with the infrastructures needed to glean those end-of-year donations. Now, report after report is warning all of us about the declining ranks of regular folk as individual donors, but that has not deterred United Way, which apparently just wants to double down as an intermediary for small individual donations to small individual nonprofits even while it further aligns itself with the larger gifts.

Of course, United Way does not see or portray it that way. In 2017, the Giving Institute found that US companies donated approximately $20.7 billion to charitable causes globally. Higher profits resulted in higher giving that year, with an eight percent growth in contributions by corporations representing the largest reported year-over-year increase. Taking notice, United Way has begun to restructure its relationship with corporate clients. Last year, in partnership with Salesforce.org, the organization launched Philanthropy Cloud, an online giving platform. Instead of an annual campaign with United Way, employees are given the option to donate to any nonprofit of their choosing all-year round. In a press release announcing the new service, Philanthropy Cloud is described as “empower[ing] the next generation of citizen philanthropists to find their passions, invest their money and talent, and drive social impact in their communities.”

As NPQ has reported in the past, United Way has seen a decline in donations as new corporate giving platforms, crowdfunding, and the ability to donate online directly to nonprofits has emerged as alternatives. The launch of this new platform is a response to an increasingly competitive environment. As the distributor of Philanthropy Cloud, United Way is attempting to maintain its position as an expert in workplace giving. Furthermore, referring to employees as “citizen philanthropists” reinforces the trend toward putting choice in the hands of “the people”—in this case, the employees rather than senior management.

Matching-gift programs are also continuing to build steam among employees interested in individual giving. Under such programs, employees donate or volunteer with an organization in exchange for a contribution from their employer. According to forthcoming research from the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, in a survey conducted with 200 Fortune 1,000 companies, approximately 80 percent offer matching gift programs to employees. For companies that offered this benefit, 70 percent provide a match for donations and 43 percent offer a match for volunteering.

Volunteer leadership opportunities are also becoming increasingly popular as they allow employees to give to a social cause and develop leadership skills in the process. Companies are now offering employees opportunities to sit on grant review committees, spearhead fundraising campaigns, apply for fellowships, and more. For instance, at PayPal, employees nominate nonprofits for grants; then, an employee-led review committee selects the finalists. The winner is decided upon through a company-wide vote. The process offers different levels of engagement, which allows employees to determine involvement that best fits their needs. Additionally, the process increases the chances that employees donate. Research has found that employees are more likely to donate and contribute more funds when involved in the selection process.

But, what does this all mean?

Well, we imagine it means small donors are more likely to give and volunteer when personally engaged, rather than through or in addition to a workplace giving program. As any longtime fundraiser and organizer knows, when that direct connection does not exist, the all-important sustaining relationship can be lost. United Way’s increasingly desperate attempts to get between the donor and the “citizen giver” under the guise of providing the donor what he or she wants, even while cozying up to corporations who give the higher amounts…well, it may work for them in the short run, but it likely won’t work for all of us in the long run.

The wise nonprofit, to put it another way, is out there creating a robust donor base for itself, even as the lure of a vendor to consolidate such stuff tries to draw us away from the work.—Chelsea Dennis and Ruth McCambridge

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