Thursday, September 18, 2008

United Way: How Many Times Can a Tiger Change Its Stripes?

As Yogi Berra once quipped, it's like deja vu all over again. That was my reaction when reading a recent copy of the Chronicle of Philanthropy and coming across yet another "United Way reinvents itself" article. Led by CEO Brian Ghallagher, United Way of America is promoting a new approach for its local affiliates (not chapters, mind you) that involves funding focused on programs that help young people, increase financial stability for poor families, and prevent domestic abuse.

If you go to the UWA website on this new agenda, some additional clarification is offered. UWA is focusing its movement on education, income and health, which is almost akin to a politician's platform that promises rainbows, puppies and full bellies. Okay, so you've noted my skepticism.

First, some important disclosures. Once upon a time, I worked for a local United Way in Virginia as its Vice President of Community Building and for a brief yet highly educational stint as its Interim CEO (no, I didn't want the regular gig). I've also done consulting for UWA and with local United Ways on its "Success By 6" early childhood development initiative, which is being sustained by at least some local United Ways. In my United Way time, I met some great people and I met some real hucksters who, if they pulled me aside at a conference to talk to me about some sort of pyramid-scheme investment opportunity, would not have shocked me.

I actually applaud UWA for what appears to be a good measure of focus on important quality of life matters (who can argue against such an agenda?). But my skepticism stems from a "here we go again" reaction based on what appears as a litany of various reform agendas dating back to the Bill Aramony scandal of the early 1990s:

1) The Outcome Measurement movement. This one wasn't so bad. It helped funded programs ask fundamental questions like, "Are we really making a difference in the quality of life for the people we serve". I liked this agenda because really smart, non-huckster people at UWA and in local United Ways got to make important contributions and marketing took more of a back seat. This movement had significant traction and even seemed to help state and federal funding agencies adopt a better investment and contracting framework focused on results.

2) The Community Building Movement. I'll never forget being in a session with John McKnight of the ABCD Institute and getting genuiely excited about the potential for local United Ways to leverage financial resources and relationships to shift power away from deficit-focused social service agencies to citizen groups. A great example of this movement comes from the United Way of Atlanta whose 1996 initiative set a fine example for other United Ways. Not sure how alive this agenda still is. Smart and creative people like Chuck Shannon with Denver's Mile High United Way introduced a series of innovative initiatives like Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) under this agenda.

I don't think this movement ever really took off among United Ways. I suspect that most local United Ways couldn't quite stomach the idea of shifting dollars away from such stalwarts and fund-raising name brands as the American Red Cross and Salvation Army.

3) The Focused Investment Movement. This is the movement that came on the heels of the outcome measurement agenda, seeking to shift thinking away from supporting and sustaining organizations to investing in efforts (not always programs of agencies) that have demonstrated impact. Unfortunately, I think it has been dumbed down into a "buy an outcome" sort of mentality that takes the "investment"concepts too literally and attempts to force basic, common sense business principles onto complex social problems. Yet this movement seems to be where United Way has landed, at least for now.

So, reviewing what I've identified above as the key characteristics of United Way agendas following the Aramony dust-up of the early 1990s, it doesn't seem distasteful at all. Again, who doesn't like rainbows, puppies and full bellies?

I suppose my skepticism comes more from my insider knowledge of just how much United Way is absolutely, 24/7 obsessed (did I say obsessed?) about its public image. On the one hand, this may be borne of the necessity of defining value amidst a dramatic shift in the technological landscape of fund-raising, changing donor demographics and attitudes and the relative explosion of nonprotis clamoring for financial support,but I wonder how much Aramony's ghost lingers in the offices and conference rooms of United Ways where new branding initiatives get hatched.

And let's face it, United Way does some really slick stuff. You might knock them for their ambiguous value proposition, but who else makes you feel as good about emptying your wallet to do good work? I mean heck, watch United Way commercials this time of year and you'd think it was the United Way, staffed by a legion of hulking yet cuddly linebackers who is raking up trash in your neighborhood. Great stuff. Kudos.

So, in the end, with this next iteration of institutional navel gazing, where is the substance? What does this really mean for communities in which United Way has a presence. In the language of results-focused social engineers, will this new focused agenda really "move the needle" on social problems? I think the billions lost in investment and retirement assets with the latest round of financial institution nosedives stemming from shady subprime lending and an overheated housing market suggest not.

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