United Way comes through the fire with a new spirit


September 12, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

This week, United Way of Central Maryland launches its fall campaign, with its traditional bells, whistles and hoopla. However, little else about the 1994-1995 campaign is traditional.

Responding to powerful market forces, our local United Way is literally reinventing itself. This intensive process, already under way for a year, has resulted in significant soul searching, both internally and externally.

United Ways throughout the nation have been swimming in hostile, shark-infested waters over the past four years. They have struggled with deep-seated mistrust resulting from ethics problems at the national office three years ago although, in all fairness, the public never really understood that each local United Way is an independent entity.

The locals have struggled through one of the worst recessions in history. In our area, there have been tens of thousands of jobs lost, each of which translates into lost payroll deduction revenues and corporate contributions for the United Way.

Beyond external forces, many community leaders felt that United Way of Central Maryland had blurred its focus and had steered its primary fund-raising mission into side ventures, programs that cost its member agencies needed revenues.

"We found that we had lots of products," Norman Taylor, president of United Way of Central Maryland, told me. "We were providing training and bookkeeping for smaller agencies, for example. We asked ourselves, 'What is our core product?' "

The exploration of what United Way should be in today's age -- with intense fund-raising competition and equally intense human services needs -- started with a fresh look at its mission and vision. Through that process came a reaffirmation of its original fund-raising, revenue distribution and referral mission.

The process also involved fundamental changes in the way United Way listens to member agencies, according to Taylor. After years of clashing with United Way over decreasing funding allocations and what they perceived as misdirected priorities, agencies were at first leery of the restructuring process.

Eventually, through the involvement of dozens of corporate volunteers who provided everything from market analysis skills to strategic planning services, United Way won over many of its member agency executives and is showing every sign of emerging stronger.

Staff layoffs over the past year have hurt morale.

"We're still in transition," Taylor reports, "but now our staff and our agencies understand better where we're heading."

And just where is the fund-raising giant headed? A recent report issued by the agency, and done almost entirely through volunteered services, gives us a strong indication.

"We've never talked market segmentation before," Taylor said with obvious enthusiasm. "Now we're looking at emerging markets such as early retirees and home businesses. How do we reach these markets and get them involved?"

This market-driven orientation is a refreshing departure for United Way.

"The world is changing," says Taylor, "and we have to be sure we're changing too. People want to know what's going on, what their money is doing, how they make a difference."

The United Way community, too, has had to change, to adapt to Taylor's easier-going style. A consensus builder, Taylor is only now coming into his own, according to a staff member who has worked with him before.

Despite the work already done, Taylor, his staff and the many volunteers who have helped shape the new strategy are under no illusions about what lies ahead. There is still a good deal of skepticism among the agency community and the general public toward United Way.

The recent report does a good job of laying out clearly where the agency has been, where it wants to go, and how it plans to get there.

It defines six strategies that will form the core of the revitalized United Way. However, the plan now will need to be fleshed out, with enough detail and evaluation added to give its many constituents confidence -- and a role -- in meeting its ambitious agenda.

But the good news is that United Way is listening, and changing, to meet the difficult fund-raising challenges it faces. The end result will be a better community for all of us.

As one agency executive confided in me, "United Way has had problems, but the agencies want to see them solved. United Way has a big role to play in solving community problems."

The corporate volunteers working behind the scenes this past year have done their job. Now, with the new campaign starting, it's our turn.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100

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