Making United Way Better • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Making United Way Better

Daniel Lowery, Ph.D.

Lake Area United Way, the United Way affiliate that serves Lake County, completed a strategic assessment of its performance over the course of 2010 and is now undertaking a series of steps that should reposition the nonprofit organization for years to come.

The planning process employed a technique (i.e., competitive forces analysis) first developed by Harvard professor Michael E. Porter. Preliminary steps include identification of the “customer” being served, the nature of the services provided and the unique features associated with the service.

In Lake Area United Way's case, the customer was identified as the donor, many of whom contribute through payroll deduction. The service being provided is the very best possible allocation of the donor's contributions. And the “value added” was identified as twofold: A level of knowledge concerning the community's needs and a model allocation process that ensures that the donor's contributions are used efficiently and effectively.

With this foundation in place, an intensive analysis was conducted over a 10-month period. It involved seven steps: Identifying certain “dominant economic features” that affect all nonprofit organizations; a survey of the competitive landscape; identification of certain strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that have emerged in recent years; an assessment of Lake Area United Way's “value chain” (i.e., the work processes employed in securing donor contributions and processing them through the organization's several allocations and assessment processes); identification of the “competitive platform” on which the organization can compete most effectively; an analysis of implications that followed from these various steps; and development of a strategic plan.

Members of the board of trustees and staff members who participated in the process agreed that the organization is well-positioned to fulfill its mission. Nevertheless, several initiatives emerged. First, participants agreed that the organization's marketing message needs to be fine-tuned. Most importantly, the remarkable outcomes achieved on a day-in/day-out basis by Lake Area United Way's member agencies need to be highlighted more explicitly.

Donors need to know that their contributions make a substantial difference in the lives of Lake County's most vulnerable citizens, most notably children. Additionally, Lake Area United Way's robust, volunteer-driven allocations process, and its insistence that all member agencies document their programmatic outcomes, need to be communicated more broadly.

Second, new contribution “platforms” need to be developed if the organization's donor base is to grow. Like all United Way organizations, Lake Area United Way has long relied on payroll deduction, a process promoted by the region's largest employers and by labor organizations which represent workers.
But the economy has changed over the last three decades. Steel mills and refineries are more productive but they have fewer workers. Small businesses and professional associations now account for a much larger part of the economy. And the percentage of retirees among us is growing significantly.

Payroll deduction does not work as well for these populations as they do for others. New platforms such as e-giving and automatic deductions from financial accounts make giving easier for some and need to be developed as alternatives.

The planning process undertaken by United Way revealed other opportunities as well, all of which will be explored over the course of the next three years. Most important, the several initiatives identified build on Lake Area United Way's strengths and its well-established relationship with donors. The result should be a stronger and more relevant United Way organization that meets the needs of the donor community through a vibrant network of member agencies.

For more information, contact Robert Scott at Lake Area United Way. He can be reached at 219/923-2302.
Daniel Lowery, Ph.D., is the current chairman of Lake Area United Way's board of trustees. He now serves as vice president for academic affairs at Calumet College of St. Joseph. He will assume the responsibilities of president at the college in July 2011.


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