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United Way aims for year-round corporate engagement

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Todd Cohen

Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., is contributing funds to help United Way of America expand to over 40 communities the local United Way centers throughout the U.S. that help working families claim the earned income tax credit, and bank employees are volunteering at the centers.

And Publix Super Markets in Lakeland, Fla., is promoting and giving away in its stores informational materials United Way has developed to help parents prepare their children to enter school ready to learn.

The partnerships reflect a new United Way strategy that aims to engage corporations and their employees year-round in meeting three priority goals over 10 years.

“Corporations and their employees are our largest revenue source,” says Mary Kay Leonard, group vice president for investor relations at United Way of America.

“More importantly,” she says, “they are most critical partners in the change we are trying to make in communities across the country.”

And increasingly, she says, United Way sees itself, and corporations see it, as “experts in employee engagement.”

Corporate partners

Employee giving through workplace campaigns represented roughly 90 percent of nearly $4.2 billion in overall giving to United Way in 2007-08, says Rick Belous, vice president for research at United Way of America.

Corporate giving accounted for another three percent and grew 2.5 percent from the previous year, compared to an increase of 1.9 percent in corporate giving overall in the U.S., Belous says.

“Our corporate relationships have remained firm and strong, even in very difficult economic times,” he says.

Through its national corporate leadership program, United Way of America works year-round with 120 corporate partners throughout the U.S., led by UPS and including other big companies like AT&T, GE and IBM, says Tracy Nilles, vice president at United Way for the program.

Those 120 companies account for over $1 billion in contributions to United Way, or nearly 24 percent of the total contributed last year.

United Way works with the companies to develop an overall philanthropic strategy that offers a range of opportunities and tools to engage employees, Nilles says.

‘Live United’

Under Brian Gallagher, its president and CEO, United Way of America has launched a broad “Live United” strategy, along with its 10-year “Goals for the Common Good” that set three big goals in the areas of education, income and health.

Those include halving the number of students in the U.S. who drop out of school, halving the number of financially unstable families, and increasing by one-third the percent of healthy young people and adults.

The idea, says Leonard, is to engage corporations, individuals and other partners to achieve three big goals through giving, advocacy and volunteering.

“Even in a tough economy, employees do some if not all of those things,” says Leonard. “If, this year, people can’t afford to give their money, maybe they can afford to give their time, or maybe they can lend their voice to one of the three areas.”

Whether the economy is up or down, “employees will be able to see very tangibly the difference they can make, and will be able to have a choice about the way they can make a difference,” she says. “They can pick the goal and the activity that works best for them.”

And by offering them “the opportunity to partner with us toward attainment of those goals,” she says, United Way gives companies a strategy to “succeed in their corporate social responsibility goals.”

Community engagement

Long seen as a fundraising organization that raised money in a campaign each fall that relies heavily on corporate gifts and employee giving in the workplace, the new strategy represents an “entire community engagement strategy,” Leonard says.

“Our goal as we work with employees and corporations,” she says, “is to be within those companies year-round, giving employees the tools to give back to the community either their time, their money or their voice to champion causes that matter to them.”

Corporate volunteers

Key to United Way’s new strategy is offering volunteer opportunities to employees throughout the year.

“We’re seeing more and more companies and their employees wanting to work with us in ways that match their skills and help their employees with their own professional development,” Leonard says.

Belous say at least 1.1 million people volunteered directly for United Way last year, an increase of nearly 5 percent from the previous year and rivaling the level of volunteerism at the Red Cross.

Leonard says volunteer opportunities might include enlisting employees of accounting firms to help community residents file for refunds on their income tax, for example, or matching employees of financial-services companies with community residents who need financial coaching or planning or credit education, or teaming a company’s managers with residents who need job coaching or assistance in writing resumes or developing their interviewing skills.

Many companies also are turning to United Way to help their employees serve on nonprofit boards, a role that can provide the employees with an important opportunity for networking and professional development, Leonard says.

“We know from research that employees much prefer to work for companies who are visibly seen as supporting community and their employees in their quest to help in the community,” she says.

Nilles says United Way aims to improve the “quality of the volunteer experience,” a goal in sync with the strategy of a growing number of companies that are aligning their charitable giving with their business interests and focus areas.

With the three priorities it is focusing on through its “Live United” initiative, she says, United Way is a “natural partner” of corporations and “naturally intersects with what they want to accomplish.”

Strategy for nonprofits

Any nonprofit can borrow or adapt the strategy United Way has adopted, Leonard says.

“Corporations respond when a nonprofit has a specific goal they are trying to achieve, when they can quantify the results they are achieving, and when they can link what they are trying to do with the corporation’s business and philanthropic goals,” she says.

“It’s much less effective to go and ask for just a check,” she says, “and much more effective to partner with the companies to meet the needs of a community in a way that’s going to advance the company’s business and philanthropic goals.”

And with the economy slumping, she says, nonprofits should identify the business sectors in their communities that are thriving.

While finance, banking, real estate and construction may be experiencing a downturn, for example, energy, high-tech, pharmaceuticals, life sciences and health care may be growing, she says.

“The downturn really is very industry-specific,” she says.

And while corporate giving “will continue to be very, very important to United Way and other nonprofits,” she says, high-wealth individuals represent an important pool of prospective givers.

Individuals giving $10,000 or more, she says, represent the fastest-growing source of revenue for United Way.

Wealthy individuals may include retired or working at small firms, consulting firms, law firms, accounting firms, investment houses or small startup or entrepreneurial companies.

“Nonprofits will find them everywhere in their community,” Leonard says, “and many times they’re not employed by the large corporations that nonprofits turn to.”

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