BUILDING COMMUNITY – United Way moves to Web – Internet drives strategy

By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — In a pioneering initiative among United Ways nationally, the United Way of Greater Greensboro is remaking itself with a heavy online focus.

The United Way plans next September to launch a Web site that will be a one-stop shop for people who want to get involved with improving health and human services in the Greensboro area.

Visitors could use the site to learn and talk about community issues, make donations and volunteer for nonprofit groups. Donors also might be able to use the site to track and monitor United Way finances and spending.

The United Way’s ambitious Web strategy, one of the most innovative in the region and nationally, signals a major overhaul in the way the organization will do business in the 21st century.

Integrating the Web into all its operations is critical to the United Ways as it shifts away from only making grants to local nonprofits.

“It’s a move toward more effectively investing in strategies that will measurably improve the human condition in our community,” said Neil Belenky, president of the Greensboro United Way.

The goals of the new strategy are to better serve clients whose demographics are changing quickly, and to thrive in a fiercely competitive marketplace increasingly driven by electronic commerce.

“In a world where people want to see tangible results, an incremental approach doesn’t work,” said Neil Belenky, president of the Greensboro United Way.

Winston-Salem fundraising consultant David Winslow, president of The Winslow Group, agrees.

“If one doesn’t embrace the Web and all that it means, you’re going to get left behind in the dust,” he said.

Creating the Web site poses a big challenge for the United Way, Belenky said, and will require significant investment and a change in the way the United Way does business.

“You have to be prepared to invest in staff,” he said. “You also have to change how we do things internally.”

The United Way has hired Webslingerz, a Web firm in Carrboro, to help develop plans for the site. Those plans, including the estimated cost of building the site, should be completed in February. The United Way board then will decide whether to proceed with developing the site.

Belenky said the United Way needs to provide quick, easy and personal service to clients ranging from donors and volunteers to nonprofits and community groups.

“We want to have a personal relationship with the community by providing them with opportunities to give, to be informed about what’s going on in the community, to give input and get immediate feedback around the issues that are important to them,” he said.

The Web also gives the United Way a tool to provide the instant communication and accountability that its clients expect in the accelerating world of electronic commerce, he said.

The United Way’s strategic move to the Web, which the board has approved, comes as nonprofit groups throughout the U.S. and abroad are struggling with how to use technology to meet a broad range of needs, from raising money and finding volunteers to delivering services, managing people and data, communicating and collaborating.

The board of directors of the United Way of America, for example, has just formed a committee to study how the United Way should use the Internet. The committee will make recommendations to the United Way of America board this spring.

“There’s a clear consensus from [local] United Ways that this is important for us, that it’s part of the future,” said Jim Yu, director of marketing technologies for United Way of America, a national membership group that provides services to local affiliates like the Greensboro United Way.

The Web is important “to maintain our position in the community, to access new donors and to have a stake in this new space,” he said.

Roughly 300 local United Way affiliates have Web sites, Yu said, but only about one-third of those use the Web for more than simply publishing what amount to electronic brochures about their organizations.

And only a handful of local affiliates use the Web in more innovative ways, such as to raise money or promote citizen participation in community issues, he said.

At the Greensboro United Way, which is pursuing its Web strategy independently of the national group, the Web represents a solution to the big challenge of serving a rapidly evolving constituency.

In its recently concluded annual fundraising campaign, for example, the United Way just met its goal, thanks in large part to gifts of $1,000 or more from individuals.

Future growth, however, will have to come from groups that the United Way traditionally has not targeted for its workplace giving campaigns, which count on payroll deduction for contributions, Belenky said. Those non-traditional groups include small business owners, independent contractors and people who work at home.

“We have to move more aggressively to the whole new sector of givers,” he said. “This is the giver for whom the convenience of payroll deduction is not the incentive for giving that it is for the traditional giver.”

The Web, he said, offers the United Way a tool to reach people motivated mainly by a charitable “mission” – rather than by support for a specific agency — to give or volunteer or participate in a cause.

“Charitable giving has become a commodity,” he said. “The value that’s going to distinguish our Web site is for those people who are not impulse givers but are those folks who first of all want to invest in their local community, and they’re looking to make informed decisions rather than spontaneous decisions.”

The United Way Web site probably will be organized around community values and issues, Belenky said. That will distinguish it from many existing sites that “allow you to give to specific institutions but may lack the capacity to meet the needs of individuals who are looking for systemic response to the problems of thei
r communities.”

For the first year or so, the goal of the Web strategy will be to drive traffic to the site, said Belenky. Later, the goal will be to develop possibilities for e-commerce.

“Creating a community of users for non-giving purposes, as well as creating giving opportunities, are parallel activities,” he said. “But the measure of success in the first couple of years will be use. And most charities are behind the curve on that.”

Belenky said the United Way faces a big challenge simply in overcoming built-in fears about doing something new and different, and investing in a technology that hasn’t produced quick results for many other organizations.

“The United Way is about local community,” he said,
“and in order for us to be successful in the future, we have to be seen in the community as that place where the issues of community get debated through, understood and resolved.”

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