It won’t be easy because younger generations aren’t as tied to the same causes as their elders and a growing number of major employers are becoming less receptive to hosting in-house fundraising campaigns.
It’s an enigma that has already started and one that will make life even tougher in years to come on 501(c)(3) organizations that rely on private contributions — individual and corporate — to sustain their community programming.
United Way is among an array of nonprofit agencies facing this change in culture, and as such now faces the task of reinventing itself and its ways of doing business.
At least, that’s the assessment of someone who has worked in the fundraising trenches for 36 years on behalf of one collective cause — United Way of Bradley County. She is Brenda Abel, president and CEO of the local affiliate who is retiring after a long and distinguished career.
Technically, Dec. 31 is her final calendar entry with United Way, but today is her last day in the five-person office located in the renovated Princess Theater of downtown Cleveland. Her successor will be announced sometime after the first of the year.
“... It’s going to be real important to look at how we do business and to see what we can change to keep up with the times,” Abel said of coming United Way leadership teams. “The businesses and their processes are changing so we have to change [in order] to be able to do what they want us to do.”
Some of the new look is already apparent. It occurred when the former United Way of America — just like many successful U.S. and foreign businesses — embraced the global revolution. Now, what was previously U.S.-based is now recognized as United Way Worldwide.
A part of the global outreach is a new “top-down” approach in which the global parent organization is encouraging its affiliates around the world, including Bradley County, to narrow its community strategies to three key categories — education, income and health.
“They (United Way Worldwide) want to make a real difference globally in these areas, so they’re encouraging local United Ways to come up with collaborations to work on these particular problems,” Abel explained.
Although well-intended, the primary global missions might not be best fits for all United Way organizations, she said. For instance, United Way Worldwide wants to enhance graduation rates. Locally, this objective is being tackled by the Cleveland and Bradley County school systems, and a handful of community partners, so United Way is not as involved on this front.
“We feel what we use our money for locally is what we need here,” the outgoing executive explained. “That’s what we’re trying to focus on.”
If United Way of Bradley County can mesh some of Worldwide’s ideas into its fabric, “that’s great, but we want to do what we can to make a difference right here locally,” Abel stressed.
Either way, times are changing.
“It’s not going to be the same United Way,” Abel advised. “We have to find ways to keep the campaign going and to meet these needs and criteria that Worldwide is suggesting that we do. It has become very complicated and very different.”
Change is not always bad, but the evolution facing United Way is not entirely linked to the organization’s global expansion. Much of it is change in how younger generations think and their personal priorities. Granddaddy and Grandma Jones might have favored United Way — and its collection of member agencies and community services — a few decades earlier, but that’s no longer a certainty with their adult grandchildren.
“They (younger generations) now want to know more about where [the money] goes, and that’s a good thing,” Abel said. “But this means you’ve got to be able to show them, and you’ve got to show evidence that people are receiving these services and that they’re good services. So now, somehow we’ve got to find a better way ... to get to them (the younger donors), to reach them and to reach their heart.”
Standing ready to display its services and show how programming is helping the community is nothing new to United Way of Bradley County. But more and more, a donor’s “traditional” support for United Way is no longer a given, Abel said.
It is also a tribute to the quality of surrounding nonprofit organizations whose own community outreach is servicing specific causes that are just as heartwarming to their supporters. The bottom line is this: Many excellent community programs whose future relies on philanthropic gifts now exist, but fewer dollars are available to support everyone.
“People get personally involved in a special [fundraising] event and they feel good about it, and that’s good,” Abel said. “But there’s only so many pieces to the pie and when people start giving to all of these special events they have to cut back on what they can do. That has affected us.”
Abel said she has also noticed among the younger generation a mindset of “That won’t happen to me,” so they don’t concern themselves as much with community functions like United Way and other respected civic organizations.
The subject has been discussed at length internally by the United Way Executive Committee, its fundraising teams and its communitywide board of directors. It is often a topic as well during Blue Ribbon Committee visits when United Way volunteers meet with large employers to encourage expanded, more successful campaigns. Volunteers are being told regularly by employers that trends are showing a younger work force to be less tied to community interests, Abel explained.
Another workplace change affecting United Way is a growing reliance by employers toward “online donations” which replaces the traditional on-site campaigns in which volunteers, and program recipients, talk face-to-face with employee groups. Part of this is a growing reluctance by major employers to shut down production in order to give time for in-house campaigns, whether it’s United Way or other nonprofit groups.
Based on her experiences after 36 years of United Way campaigns, the last few of which have been especially challenging, Abel offered a few recommendations to her successor. A few include:
- Recruit new, and young, volunteers and actively engage them in the leadership teams and the campaign because they can bring fresh ideas and untried approaches.
- Retain the established corps of longtime volunteers because of their loyalty, and because they can relay to younger leaders the successes and failures of previous ideas.
- Work cooperatively with United Way Worldwide, but do it without compromising local ideals and proven practices.
- “Brainstorm, brainstorm and brainstorm” with different groups to gauge their thoughts on untried approaches and don’t rule out anything just because it’s new; most importantly, gain donors’ buy-in by engaging their direct and indirect participation.
- Keep recruiting volunteers through area companies; their involvement can engage co-workers and spark the interest of others — fellow employees, their families and their friends.
- Establish a strategy for approaching the younger generation which has been described by some of their elders as the “me” generation.
Some of the challenges facing United Way date back a few years and only now is their impact surfacing. This year’s campaign is an example.
For the first time in decades, United Way has almost reached the end of the year, but its campaign is only about 80 percent at goal. Several major employers are still conducting their internal fundraisers. Abel believes if these unfinished drives donate at the same level as last year, the 2012 goal of $2.3 million is within reach.
“This really has probably been the toughest year we have ever had,” Abel said. “Because of the [April 27] tornadoes hitting, we have spent much time and effort on that. The community has really been wrapped up in storm recovery, and that’s as it should be.”
Abel believes donor burnout is hitting many nonprofit contributors who have been stretched in multiple directions this year.
“It [80 percent of goal] looks bad on the surface, but we have some major contributors who are still working,” she analyzed. “Once we hear from them, we could feel very good again about the campaign.”
In spite of the growing challenges over the past few years, Abel says she has no regrets. She lives and breathes United Way, and she believes in the collective mission of its member agencies, programs and special services.
She is especially proud of helping to make a difference in thousands of Bradley County lives; and, she firmly believes in the future of the Bradley Memorial Health Endowment Fund, whose interest income from the $20 million sale of the former hospital is helping to launch innovative new programs in the community — some of which are tackling the United Way Worldwide initiatives in education, health and income.
In retirement, Abel said she will miss most the United Way volunteers and the small office staff of five people, including herself. Some of the longtime volunteers have been around since 1971 and are still going strong, she mused. Their talents and commitment to United Way, merged with a fresh approach by new and younger volunteers, will be the future of the local organization, she noted.
Abel also praised the work of her veteran staff: Matt Ryerson, vice president of Community Investment Strategies; Allen Mincey, vice president of Communications; Alice Patterson, bookkeeper; and Darlene Hicks, administrative assistant and receptionist.
“What a great thing for me personally to have worked with all of these people and to see their great commitment to this community,” she smiled. “They’re friendship all the way through has always meant so much to me and it always will. I’ve enjoyed it all.”
She offered a vote of confidence in those who will follow.
“With all the changes that are going on, and that will be going on, United Way will keep going and will make great strides ... and maybe in a different way,” Abel offered.
Once affectionately nicknamed “The Dragon Lady” because of her personal convictions and strong leadership, Abel chuckled when asked what she will do in retirement.
“That’s a very good question,” she answered in a pensive tone. “It (retirement) has always seemed like it’s been so far out there that I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought.”
She reflected. And her cheerful tone returned.
“I’m not one who does a lot of planning with my life,” she closed. “I just take it as it comes and enjoy it all along the way.”