United Way shifts focus to community-impact efforts

WASHINGTON: The United Way of America (UWA) is undergoing a radical change in mission, refocusing on community-impact programs after more than 100 years of devotion to fundraising. But with a 95% recognition rate among the public for its old mission, the UWA is facing some serious challenges in changing perceptions.

WASHINGTON: The United Way of America (UWA) is undergoing a radical change in mission, refocusing on community-impact programs after more than 100 years of devotion to fundraising. But with a 95% recognition rate among the public for its old mission, the UWA is facing some serious challenges in changing perceptions.

"We've got huge recognition," said Cynthia Round, EVP for brand strategy and marketing, "but what people know us for isn't what we want them to know us for anymore."

So the UWA and its 1,400 member offices throughout the country have undertaken a massive rebranding campaign, the centerpiece of which is two new top PR positions.

The first is VP of brand management and marketing, which will oversee strategy implementation, corporate sponsorships, and overall rebranding. The other is VP of field and media communications, which will include day-to-day media duties and internal communications.

The UWA has also launched a new series of PSAs, created pro bono by McCann Erickson in New York. The spots, already getting play on radio and television, focus on the fact that "fundraising doesn't make much of a difference if it doesn't get results," according to Round.

Some of the programs the UWA is looking to promote include a national 211 emergency hotline (similar to 911) that will connect people with nonprofits and their services,

an online pledge-processing system called eWay, a program for identifying and training future UWA executives, and a national learning center to disseminate best nonprofit practices.

But the majority of the rebranding effort will have to wait until the two new positions are filled, said Round. "We need somebody with a corporate background, someone who really understands brands," she explained. "We really have to go in and disrupt what people think of the United Way. We need big-picture thinkers."

Unfortunately for the UWA, a large part of that big picture these days includes an accounting scandal that started in Washington, DC last year, and eventually revealed unethical bookkeeping at several UWA chapters. According to The New York Times, the scandal has so far cost the organization $30 million.

This year, the UWA adopted new accounting standards and renamed and overhauled its board to include such high-profile names as actor George Clooney. Nonetheless, overall donations continue to slide - a fact UWA executives attribute more to the economy than the accounting scandal.

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