On being … a uniting way

By Ingrid Sapona

The United Way (UW) is a non-profit organization that raises funds that it then distributes to charities and groups within the local community. (I should point out that that’s my definition – not theirs. I imagine many readers are familiar with the United Way, but I thought a brief explanation might be useful.) I’m sure the UW raises funds all year long, but in the Toronto area its big fund-raising campaign is in the fall.

My first exposure to the UW annual campaign was 30 years ago when I worked at a large accounting firm. That’s when I realized that the UW’s primary fundraising approach is to partner with companies to tap into their employee base. This strategy has two significant benefits: it heightens peoples’ awareness of the work of local charities that are supported by the UW, and it provides access to a large pool of potential donors. Indeed, I don’t know if UW originated the idea of donations via payroll deductions, but that remains one of their signature methods of raising funds.

The company I’m currently working with has historically run a three-week UW campaign. In addition to signing folks up for payroll deductions (far the biggest source of donations), the campaign features a number of small fundraising activities. As you can imagine, putting on these activities can be quite labour intensive.

So as not to burden the same business unit year-after-year, the campaign is assigned to a different group every year. To their annoyance, the business unit group I’m working with was put in charge of this year’s campaign. Given that the campaign is an annual event, I was surprised at how disorganized the unit was at the start.

Though the company runs many of the same events every year (a bake sale, a company-wide bingo game, a 50/50 draw, silent and live auctions, a pancake breakfast, a hockey pool), it seemed no one had a clue about how these events were run in the past. It soon became clear that part of the issue was an attitude problem. Indeed, the phrase I’ve heard leaders in this organization use to describe their grudging participation in the corporate campaign is that they were “volun-told” to work on it.

I find that expression offensive. The way I see it, given how well off all the workers at the company are (they’re paid well and have rich pension benefits), I feel they should be volunteering to help a cause that gives back to the community – not waiting to be told to do so. I also think that such an outlook is bound to play out in terms of the campaign’s success. Indeed, that put-upon feeling clearly contributed to the inertia that the campaign suffered from at the start.

But, things started to come together once some of the co-op students and younger staff got involved. They gladly lent a hand with the “usual” activities and they came up with some new ones, including a haunted house, karaoke, and a foosball tournament. Though not everyone was keen on all their ideas, their enthusiasm made the decision easy: let’s give ‘em a try.

The campaign just ended and the final tally of how much was raised hasn’t yet been determined. Given that the purpose was fundraising, the dollar amount is undeniably an important measure. But, in terms of measuring the value of the campaign to the company, there are so many non-monetary benefits to running a campaign.

For starters, it’s a tremendous team-building exercise and a rare opportunity to work with folks from other business units. Each event required those involved to reach out to others within the organization for support – from working with facilities folks to stage different events, to the communications folks to advertise events, to getting folks to sell tickets, and getting people to come out for events.

It can also be an outlet for folks’ creativity – perhaps the best example of that was the clever story and props the students developed to bring the haunted house to life. And it can be a chance for folks to show-off their skills and talents – from baking, to singing, to foosball prowess. In other words, it can be a terrific way for people to share themselves. And, of course, it provides the opportunity for folks to give back in small ways (for example, contributing items for the bake sale) and in big ways (for example, through regular payroll deductions).

Maybe corporate United Way campaigns shouldn’t be seen as mere fundraising campaigns. Instead, they should be seen for what they can be: a uniting way campaign.
© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


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