Live United: Measuring and explaining campaign donations, updates

Published 8:45 pm Friday, January 7, 2022

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Live United by Erin Haag

One of the things I struggle with the most is how to communicate the progress of the campaign to the public. It’s not as simple as bringing back the classic thermometer that used to be downtown. You see, back in those days, we had what was called a Campaign Cabinet, a whole team of volunteers that worked to develop a relationship with donors, make phone calls, and advocate for United Way There were events such as a big chili cookoff, a wine event, the Halloween Walk and more. I’m still learning about classic fundraisers that people loved and remembered.

Erin Haag

Events are something that will be coming back. The pandemic put the brakes on quite a bit of that, but we’ve managed to have a great fundraiser with Sparkle. I’m happy to report that we raised a total of $533 through Sparkle. The prize winners were announced on Wednesday. Steve Shahan came in at second place, with Claran Stevens as our runner-up. Our Grand Prize winner was Phil Scott.

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These are the fun fundraisers — fully sponsored, majority of the work was advertising and a quick adjustments for the start of the contest due to the night of tornadoes — it wasn’t that bad. The goal of it was to have fun! I’ve noticed that a few more people have started following our social media pages for updates, and hopefully that relationship will build into giving each year. 

So back to campaign progress. I wish I knew more and understood more about how it was reported to get on that thermometer, because it doesn’t make sense to me. I tend to be an overthinker though. I wonder when the thermometer was up — what pledges made it up there and when in the process was it allowed to be counted? Is it that companies turned in their pledges much earlier than they do now? Two companies dropped off their pledges yesterday. One company dropped theirs off Christmas week, which means I have a stack of papers on my desk that is painstakingly entered into our software. That’s something like typing in 600 names, double checking their information, entering in their pledge and so forth. Bigger United Ways have a position specifically for that, sometimes multiple people doing that, so it’s a bit easier to do it as you go throughout the year. Smaller United Ways, like us….well, we wear a lot of hats.

Then there’s the question of the companies that have a different “campaign year” than we do. Because all United Ways are local, and locally run, there are differing fiscal years. We run on a calendar fiscal year—January 1st to December 31st. Some of the national companies, will do a “2021-2022” Campaign year, and I’ll get a notification that we have pledges in an odd month. So when someone calls and say, “Hey I work with (name of big national company) and I’ve been donating. Can you tell me how much I donated in 2022 campaign season?)” I’ll be over here thinking, “I haven’t even started my 2022 campaign season yet…” and then I see that it was recorded as 2021 Campaign season…so how do you make it line up right? Then there’s the financial audits, tax compliance laws and all that fun stuff that has changed so much since the ’90s, when that big fun thermometer was up there.

Absolutely don’t think for one minute that I’m complaining about money being donated in any way, shape or form. I’m not upset or frustrated by any of those things. These are my musings about the complexity of donations, and how to process them. It’s my hope that people realize that the fun, splashy headlines of “We raised XXX dollars” are just the tip of the iceberg.

This is a great example of why paid staff is in place to take care of these things. A Resource Development person has to make a lot of decisions. There’s a lot of policies that have to be put in place for situations like this. The world of fundraising and donations changed very, very quickly even in the last five years.

One big change was in the increase in grant writing. In the past, United Way has counted several grants as campaign income. I’ve learned that it’s not best practice to do that. You can choose to allocate the funds as campaign, but it shouldn’t automatically be placed in that category. It skews the perspective of how much money the community is raising, and how much money that paid United Way staff are bringing in through their work of grant writing. That’s a big jump, too. This year, UWFC has written over $50,000 in grants. Some of these grants are restricted for a specific purpose. For example, one grant I wrote pays for staff time that is spent working on developing the 2-1-1 hotline in our county.

I want to see that thermometer back though. I think it’s fun. Maybe I’ve got a bit of a competitive streak in me, wanting to see that red line bubble up. Some United Ways have moved away from the “money” thermometer to the “impact” thermometer. I’m not sure I’m sold on that idea yet either, but I’d consider it. Our community deserves to know the collective impact one way or another, so I’ll keep chipping away at being a better communicator on our progress.

In the meantime, our office is working to process those pledges. This is what I call paperwork time. Questions about what we’re doing? Call our office at 507-373-8670. We’ve decided to keep our office hours 9 a.m.  to noon through the month of January. Please note that we switch to remote working if the weather is bad, school is closed or even if we’re feeling run down with a tickle of a cold. We’re working hard to keep ourselves and our families healthy and safe, so it’s best to give us a call prior to coming out if possible. We do our best to have up-to-date signs on the door. As always, thank you for living united, and helping make that imaginary thermometer red. Maybe someday we’ll have it back in our community again.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.