By Todd Cohen
In a changing world, the United Way wants to be an agent of change.
The charity has taken stock of itself and concluded its most useful role is as a catalyst connecting donors to community needs.
And like a growing number of charities, the United Way recognizes it needs to improve its effectiveness and be more entrepreneurial.
Stung in the 1990s by the financial scandal surrounding its now ousted national CEO, William Aramony, the United Way also faced growing competition for donor dollars and rising donor demand for more choices in making their charitable contributions.
The United Way also found itself, like all charities, in a philanthropic world that was fast becoming a strange land.
Set in its ways for a century, the charitable world in recent years has operated on shifting ground rocked by forces ranging from shrinking government support and huge shifts in private wealth to a digital revolution in the way we communicate.
In this new world – upended yet again by the Sept. 11 attacks — charities are finding they must adapt even more quickly because of rising demand for services and accountability in the face of emergency needs and eroding trust.
As a result, many charities are taking a hard look at how they operate. They’re thinking anew about what they want to achieve, and how to equip themselves to be more effective.
That includes strengthening their internal operations, embracing technology, tracking the impact of their work and building closer relationships with donors.
To its credit, the United Way is adapting itself to the new environment.
Rather than focusing on its annual fall fund drive, for example, the Triangle United Way in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina is emphasizing its community impact.
The United Way will invest in research and technology to better identify community needs, assess the impact of groups it funds and strengthen its relationships with individual donors.
And in Charlotte, the United Way of Central Carolinas is working more closely with employee groups and individuals, emphasizing its role in improving the lives of people in the community.
Craig Chancellor, the new president of the Triangle United Way and former head of the United Way in Dayton, Ohio, has been refreshingly frank about the hurdles the organization created for itself.
Having enjoyed a “captive” audience for workplace giving, he says, the United Way showed “arrogance” about its fundraising competitors and was slow to address it.
Like his counterparts in Charlotte and other locales, Chancellor wants the United Way to involve itself more intimately in the community.
So the United Way aims to work more closely with individuals, particularly women, minorities and entrepreneurs, connecting them with causes they care about.
The result can be bigger gifts and stronger communities.
Leadership in our communities is in short supply. By focusing on its impact and on donor needs, the United Way has a rare opportunity to move beyond fundraising by mobilizing donors and targeting critical needs.
The challenge for the United Way is to avoid sliding back into fundraising as usual and instead sustain and build on its newfound focus and momentum.