The United Way of America, seeking to stem recent declines in donations, will announce a plan today to encourage its affiliates to shift from their traditional role as fundraisers and adopt a more activist approach to regional problems.
Under the new system, the United Way's 1,400 local organizations would be encouraged to move away from the "culture of the thermometer" -- the image traditionally used to illustrate progress in a fundraising campaign -- and join community leaders in identifying societal ills and then use the money raised in United Way campaigns to address them.
The approach "is more focused on changing the conditions that people live in," said Brian Gallagher, chief executive of the Alexandria-based United Way of America since 2002. "So the ultimate measure of success is whether truancy rates have gone down and family violence rates have gone down and whether there is more affordable housing. And fundraising is a [just] part of making that happen."
The local affiliates raise money for local charities through on-the-job solicitations in thousands of workplaces. Many affiliates, including the United Way of the National Capital Area, allow donors to designate which member charities receive their donations.
In recent years, many campaigns have been set back by several factors, including scandal, corporate mergers, growing numbers of fundraising competitors and the recent rise of online giving that allows workplace donors to give directly to charities.
Donations to United Ways declined almost 10 percent in two years -- from $4 billion in the 2001-2002 campaign to $3.6 billion in the 2003-2004 campaign. At the same time, overall charitable giving rose 13 percent, according to Giving USA, which tracks charitable donations in the United States.
Some say the United Way system is fighting for its life in a changed climate for charitable giving.
"They don't want to go out of business," said Eleanor Brilliant, a Rutgers University social work professor and author of a book on the United Way. "But business as usual is not working, so they are going to have to reshape the United Way."
Gallagher said yesterday that he believes the organization is on the upswing after some difficult years. The organization's surveys indicate that trust in the United Way is climbing, he said, and its 2004-2005 campaign is expected to show an increase of up to 2.5 percent from the previous campaign.
"We've got real momentum right now," Gallagher said. "Three years ago, I wouldn't have said that. I would have said just the opposite."
The United Way's "standards of excellence," which outline the new approach, are to be presented in detail tomorrow to an annual meeting of United Way leaders in Grapevine, Tex. They were crafted by a panel of 200 United Way employees and volunteers over the past eight months, Gallagher said.
Versions of this new approach have been adopted by a number of United Way affiliates. The New York City United Way, for example, has set up its own programs to fight hunger and homelessness.
But most United Ways that have adopted the more activist approach do so by discouraging donor designations and funding charities that work in specific areas. The United Way of Metropolitan Dallas devotes much of what it raises -- $47 million last year -- to nonprofit programs that address the needs of the Dallas area's changing population, including its burgeoning Hispanic community
"The world has changed 180 degrees," said Gary Godsey, chief executive of the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. This year, it is launching a five-year effort to reduce the dropout rate among Dallas's primarily Hispanic student population.
Some charities have voiced concern that the new approach will shortchange nonprofit groups that don't fit into the United Way's new format.
And skeptics note that the new guidelines are voluntary for the system's independent affiliates and come when the United Way of America has raised affiliates' dues 25 percent, to 1 percent of pledged donations.
Local United Ways "have tended to be pretty independent," Brilliant said. "It's always a hassle whether they will do what the United Way of America says they should do." But, she added, "they're so worried that it may have more impact."