United Way of the Columbia-Willamette

Case Study

Navigating the Current of Change in the Nonprofit Community

As the largest charity in the country, United Way is universally known for directing resources to the children and families who need them most. Its model transformed the world of charitable giving by enabling workers to donate small amounts, through payroll deductions, to make a big collective impact. In this age of online giving and Facebook-friendly causes, however, the organization has had difficulty capturing the attention, and donations, of younger audiences.

Caught in the Fog
Changes in workplace giving had pushed United Way of the Columbia-Willamette (UWCW), which serves the Portland area, into a budget and operational crisis. The flow of fundraising revenue had declined precipitously over the past decade, but no one had a complete picture as to which funding channels were most cost effective, and how United Way was allocating development resources. With the board of directors calling for a clear path to sustainability, United Way’s leadership tasked Coraggio with developing a plan that would ensure financial stability of the organization, while maintaining the social impact of its extensive programs.

Testing the Current
To analyze the current state of UWCW’s fundraising operations, Coraggio reviewed background documentation and interviewed the leadership team, key partners, and external constituents. We also worked closely with the finance and internal operations teams to evaluate United Way’s accounting practices and assignment of work.  Having established a clear understanding of United Way’s development operations and financial position, we conducted research to evaluate the shifting models that similar charitable organizations were embracing . To that end, we interviewed leaders at several United Way offices, and facilitated communications and shared best practices between UWCW leadership and other United Way offices around the country. We ultimately developed three distinct future state scenarios for United Way’s leadership team to review. Then, we collaborated with them to refine and distill the scenarios into a final recommended approach to present to the board.

Avoiding the Rapids
As a mission-driven organization, United Way is authentically committed to diversity and inclusion in both its internal operations and external programs. Applying an equity and inclusion lens to the development of future business models was core to the assignment, and to that end Coraggio partnered with Portland’s Center for Equity and Inclusion to ensure that restructuring and organizational improvement decisions were conscious of diversity and did not perpetuate social or racial disparities. Equity remained top of mind as UWCW’s leaders owned and refined their plan and presented it to their board.

Paddling Hard
The plan the UWCW leadership chose was focused on better leveraging local development resources, and reorganizing the team to more efficiently serve donors and workplace partners. The planning process brought rigor and analysis to the UWCW’s operational structure and drove home the importance of a financial management structure that continually evaluates return on investment. The process was not easy: The internal team was experiencing dramatic change (including a physical office move during the engagement), and the plan ultimately required downsizing the organization. We were proud to serve as advisors when the group’s leaders pushed beyond their comfort zone and, at times, made tough decisions. Based on the trust we built through the engagement, additional Coraggio team members were brought in to advise on leadership development strategies beyond of the original scope of this project.

Clear Waters Ahead
While the project forced the group to make difficult decisions as it evaluated its options for long-term sustainability, it also set a strong foundation for the future. UWCW’s board gave a standing ovation at the end of the plan’s presentation, and the group moved forward with confidence and enthusiasm. Based on our recommendations, they have reorganized the organization, reduced expenses, and, most importantly, confidently set off towards new fundraising and financial management opportunities and approaches.