United Ways Struggling to Boost Fundraising Revenue

Against a backdrop of declining participation in office fundraising campaigns and an explosion of information about the causes and organizations donors care about, members of the United Way system are scrambling to demonstrate that they still have a critical role to play in addressing the issues that matter most to people in their communities, the New York Times reports.

According to the Times, the United Way system saw its collective fundraising revenue fall some 4 percent, to $3.7 billion, in 2015 — a year when total charitable giving increased 4.1 percent. Indeed, the UW system raised slightly less that year than it did in 2004.

In part, that's because for years the value proposition of local United Ways for many donors was their ability to identify bogus charities and partner with organizations that were effectively working to meet the most pressing needs in a community. But digital technologies and the Internet has spawned dozens of giving apps and platforms and enabled any nonprofit or charitable agency to appeal directly to potential donors, in effect "disintermediating" United Ways from their traditional role in the charitable ecosystem. Giving platform Benevolent, for example, makes it possible for anyone to search for an individual in their community with a specific need and make a donation in support of the person, yet gain tax-deductability by going through the organization. "We're inviting people to relate to one another's stories in whatever way suits them and who they are, where they've been, and who they want to be," said Megan Kashner, founder of Benevolent and a clinical assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

But if such direct, person-to-person giving makes it easy for even small-gift donors to see the kind of difference their gift can make in another person's life, it is not necessarily the solution to the kinds of deep, longstanding problems found in so many communities. "It's not going to scale in a way that bends the arc on income inequality in the United States or on getting more girls in school around the world or on stopping human trafficking," said Brian A. Gallagher, president and CEO of United Way Worldwide. "We stay very focused on [multidimensional problems]....The reason we're a hundred and thirty years old is that we never forget that we exist to help communities work on their most difficult issues together. And when that happens effectively, that's what donors care about."

Ron Lieber. "United Way Searches for Its Place in a World of One-Click Giving." New York Times 12/23/2016. ""