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Greensboro United Way returns to basics

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By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — On a roll the past two years after its annual drive fell short of its goal for three straight years, United Way of Greater Greensboro plans to build on its momentum by getting back to basics in its fundraising.

United Way has named a new fundraising chief and taken a hard look at the effectiveness of its fundraising strategy, says Neil Belenky, president.

Now, he says, United Way aims to better segment, involve and communicate with its donors, and increase collaboration with other United Ways in a region with a growing number of people commuting between communities.

“The marketplace has changed dramatically,” Belenky says. “At some point, the disconnect between our boundaries and what’s important to our donors needs to be addressed head-on.”

Overseeing United Way’s new fundraising strategy is Robin Lindsey, former executive director of the Volunteer Center of Greensboro, who has been named vice president of resource development.

In its just-ended 2005 drive, United Way met its $13.1 million goal, exceeding by $40,000 the total raised in 2004, when it beat its goal by 2.4 percent.

While the drive’s stability for the past two years reflects in part a local economy on the mend, Belenky says, United Way has suffered a slight decline in the number of people donating to the campaign.

That decline is the unintended result of a longer-term strategy at United Way to focus more on donors making larger gifts, he says.

So while “leadership” donors giving $1,000 or more now account for 38 percent of the annual drive, up from 18 percent in 1990, Belenky says, the effort to cultivate and communicate with them has meant less attention to building relationships with United Way’s broader base of workplace donors.

And engaging those workplace donors is critical for United Way in the face of sweeping demographic and marketplace changes, Belenky says.

In 1990, when he joined Greensboro’s United Way, most of the biggest companies in the region were home-grown or locally managed, and “everyone knew each other,” Belenky says.

But now, no more than a handful of the biggest firms are based locally, and most of the workplace donors are spread among 1,100 small and large companies.

While the marketplace has changed dramatically, Belenky says, United Way is running its annual drive “the same way we’ve run it the past 20 years.”

Now, he says, United Way plans to segment its markets more effectively and “form better relationships with the sectors in the community, rather than assume there’s a single approach to the entire community.”

New technologies that let employees make donations through payroll-deduction plans and that reduced costs to United Way, also initially hurt its relationships with donors, Belenky says.

“Our donors probably assumed we knew who they were, but we really didn’t,” he says. “Other than leadership donors, we probably didn’t know more than 30 percent of donors, and they represented 70 percent of the money” United Way was raising.

But because it has automated the drive over the past five years and asked donors to share their names and email addresses, United Way now has better data on 86 percent of its donors, Belenky says.

The challenge is to “really break that market down so we can effectively communicate with them,” he says, “knowing enough about them that we can talk to them about the things they care about, and communicate with them through the vehicles they use.”

And with traditional geographic boundaries increasingly less important to donors who commute between communities in a region with multiple United Ways, Belenky says, the challenge is to build on previous collaborations such as a 2-1-1 information for the region, and a referral phone line and a joint marketing effort among United Ways in the region.

The next step, Belenky says, “is to start working together on some major social issues.”

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