DC United Way draws $50,000 line in the sand

DC United Way draws $50,000 line in the sandUnited Way of the National Capital Area announced this week it would only support non-profits that raise at least $50,000 a year. They say: (1) larger groups are more likely to be high-performing organizations; and, (2) donors want more impact for their buck. But UWNCA – and other like-minded groups – will need to broaden its definition of impact and its strategy moving forward if it wants to reach its goals. My hat is off to UWNCA in that it has fought mightily over the past 4 years under Bill Hanbury’s strong leadership to restore people’s confidence in the organization and strengthen its relevance. This $50,000 move is another sign of the group’s seriousness to engage in tough decisions.

But the move raises serious questions as a strategy for fulfilling the United Ways’ hopes. Simply investing in groups that meet a fundraising threshold is blunt instrument for change when a more intentional and focused strategy is called for. Here are some key elements I believe all boundary spanning organizations like UWNCA should be thinking about:

Refocus the core criteria for support. Rather than use $50,000 as the criteria for support, use whether a group is “turned outward” toward their community and roots their work in people’s aspirations (rather than being inward toward their own programs, activities, and survival). When an organization is turned outward, it can contribute to change, no matter its size. Be clear on the space different groups occupy in the community. For instance, it’s useful to distinguish between core organizations that can help drive a larger change process and those groups on-the-ground that directly touch people’s lives, hold people’s credibility, and are rooted in their communities. Different types of groups are necessary for change and impact. At issue is not their size, but how they can contribute to change given the space they occupy in the community.

Offer new training to build the community’s capacity for change, including those not receiving funding. For instance, if I were at UWNCA, I would immediately announce for all community groups a training program in knowing and rooting their work in the community, taking effective action, building networks, and being innovative (this is something we’ve helped many United Ways and other groups to do). Those groups not receiving direct financial support should be actively invited as they, too, are vital to moving the community forward. Indeed this is one important way UWNCA can support such groups without providing direct financial support. Finally, this effort must be viewed as neither a sideshow nor concession prize, but as a critical investment in impact.

Impact is more than about money. For many boundary spanning groups, their power often comes from what they do beyond making any financial investments in other organizations and programs. Rather, it comes from the ability to convene groups across dividing lines, being catalytic to get things going (and then often spinning them off to others to direct and run), and holding up a mirror to a community for people to see their shared realities and aspirations, among others. Too often impact becomes equated with money, and we lose our focus on what counts most.

Make sure to focus on the conditions than enable collective impact. Mobilizing communities for change is often thought about it terms of organizing the “right groups,” “coordinating” their activities, “aligning” funding resources, “measuring” key indicators, and the list goes on. But these steps – this very approach – only will work if we pay attention to the underlying conditions that, in essence, create the right enabling environment for change to emerge and take root. This includes generating positive norms to combat the negative ones of turf battles, fragmentation and divisiveness; building real trust between and among people and groups; authentically engaging people and using what is learned to make choices; developing leaders who work differently; ensuring organizations are turned outward not inward; cultivating spaces for innovation and networks to emerge; thinking about how change unfolds in an organic system called “community.” Without paying attention to such conditions, our efforts may lead us to better organize groups, funding, and people, but fail to change how work is done in a community.

Of course, this is just a taste of the things I would hope would be on the table for a boundary spanning organization that sees itself as a kind of backbone group in a community. It requires a different frame about who creates change in a community, how change comes about, and how such a group can support it.