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What is the United Way Campaign model? And what can it teach me?

United Way campaigns excel at inspiring the community to give.

The United Way Campaign sets the gold standard for annual campaigns. While the campaigns differ a little from place to place, they excel at raising money.

The United Way has been around under various names since the 1880’s, so they have had a more than a century to develop their process. They know what has worked in the past, and continue to improve as new opportunities arise.

What can we learn from the United Way as fundraisers? Their approach to the Annual Fund Campaign shows us the power of systems, volunteers, and marketing.

Systems work.

United Way campaigns use a system for raising money that has been proved to work time and time again. The system is simple, though it is not easy. It takes a lot of work to run the campaign, but when you do the work, it works.

United Way Worldwide invests a lot of energy in training their local United Way affiliates how to use the system. Each local affiliate will customize their campaign in order to fit their community and resources. From the thousand foot view, each campaign is essentially the same.

Founded on relationships.

The foundation of the system rests on relationships with local non-profits and local businesses.

United Ways do not raise money for themselves. While they do take a modest percentage of funds raised to cover administrative costs, most of the money goes to their partner agencies.

Most United Ways use a rigorous process for selecting their partner agencies. They set high standards for financial accountability and require outcome based reporting. Typically, United Way partner agencies have been around a long time and are good at what they do.

The United Way Campaign then showcases their partner agencies to local businesses. Local businesses provide the lion’s share of the funding for the campaign.

The power of employee giving.

United Way Campaigns primarily focus on employee giving through direct payroll deduction. Campaign staff or volunteers give a presentation to large groups of employees that showcase the partner agencies that their giving will support.

The employees receive a payroll deduction form that the human resources department includes as part of their regular payroll process. Payroll deduction was the original monthly giving, long before the invention of the internet.

Monthly payroll deductions multiply the impact of small gifts the same way that online monthly gifts do. A $10 deduction turns into a $240 annual gift if paychecks come twice a month.

Businesses love the United Way Campaign, because it allows them to do one big fundraising push every year. The rest of the year, when non-profits come to ask for support, they can say, “We give through the United Way.”

Volunteers – Mobilizing the community.

Volunteers make the United Way campaign possible. From planning the annual kickoff celebration to talking to business partners, volunteers work the system.

After decades of refinement, the system gives clear expectations for every volunteer role. The campaign relies on a defined structure of volunteer committees that take responsibility for one part of the campaign.

Committees run each of the activities that make up the campaign. One campaign takes responsibility for planning the kickoff celebration. Another takes charge of asking large businesses. Yet another looks after small businesses. Some campaigns will even have a committee that goes after individual major gifts.

Volunteers often commit to several years of service, especially if they are taking leadership roles. Since the campaign has such a high public profile, it helps volunteers to meet a local business leaders.

The volunteers get a job description that spells out their job. When they know what they’re supposed to do, something surprising happens. They do it. Most of them do, at least. Enough for the campaign to succeed.

Marketing – Getting the word out.

The public attention span doesn’t last very long. Squirrel! The United Way system realizes this and limits the length of the campaign.

The campaign ‘season’ starts with a big kickoff event. Campaign leaders announce the annual fundraising goal, and thank key sponsors and volunteers.

The typical United Way Campaign then moves into several weeks of intense ‘campaigning’. Volunteers and staff visit participating businesses and ask employees to sign up for payroll deduction. The United Way coordinates ‘agency fairs’ at larger employers, where partner agencies set up displays telling what they do.

Larger United Ways incorporate a Major Gifts component in the Annual Campaign. Individuals who pledge to donate more than $1,000 to the campaign become members of the “Tocqueville Society”, or something similar, which honors people that make a major gift. A group of high level volunteers also lead the Major Gift portion the campaign.

During the campaign, the United Way will drum up media attention. This might be media presence at the kickoff event. It could host media visits at partner agencies. They might use billboards, mailers, television, radio, and social media commercials. Any way to attract positive attention in the community.

The campaign ends with another big event, during which the campaign chair hopefully celebrates that they have exceeded their goals. Volunteers are thanked and honored, as are major business sponsors. After that, the volunteers take a well deserved break while the staff starts getting ready for the next year.

Learn from the best!

United Way affiliates across the nation show off excellence in fundraising. They have tuned their Annual Fund Drive into a well oiled machine. We can learn a lot from what they do well.

Focus on making your system simple and easy to understand. Work with the best partners you can find. Help volunteers to understand what they’re supposed to do and empower them to do it. And spread the word to light a fire in the community.


Looking for more articles on annual fund drives? Try these:

Check out The Fundraiser’s Playbook for a full list of fundraising articles.


Would you like to learn more about raising money for Church and Ministry? Check out Letters From The Almoner, now available on Amazon.com. Image courtesy of Pixabay.com, via Creative Commons License, no rights reserved.
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