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Learning to fish

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With support from community leaders, United Way should regroup.

By Barbara Goodmon

[03.18.04] — Triangle United Way needs a hand in mapping its future.

Pushed by growing competition for charitable dollars and rising donor demand for more choices, United Way is looking to redefine its role in the community.

That shift, however, risks leaving its member agencies high and dry, cut off from a core source of operating support.

Community support, especially from business leaders, is critical to help United Way define its new role.

A key challenge is to match United Way’s fundraising expertise both with the critical needs of health and human service agencies for operating support, and with the desire of donors for greater choice in where they put their charitable donations.

I suggest that United Way shift its focus to building and supporting the internal operations of local agencies.  Smaller agencies in particular need help in developing their fundraising, marketing, board and back-office skills.

In other words, teach them to fish. They will be much healthier organizations if they are empowered to become more efficient and effective, and donors will appreciate that.

United Way also could launch a major marketing effort to raise awareness in the community, particularly among business leaders, about the critical need to help agencies strengthen their internal operations.

United Way also needs to modify its business model, adapting its fee structure to reflect the fact that it no longer holds a monopoly in workplace giving.

And it needs to do a much better job, when it reports how much money it raises, of separating dollars that donors earmark for non-member agencies from dollars that are non-restricted or at least restricted to United Way members.

United Way can truly help member agencies and justify continuing community support by finding a new way to operate.

We desperately need United Way to be a strong player in our communities.


Barbara Goodmon is president of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal.

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