The United Way's newest direction — and future challenges — were hard to miss at its 100th birthday party.
Musicians on stage ranged from Prince's old cohorts Morris Day and the Time to NBC's "The Voice" finalist Kat Perkins. Speakers touted a 100,000-person recruiting project and a call to action "with an eye toward the next generation."
Meanwhile, many of the 3,000 folks attending were chosen by their employers because they were not United Way supporters.
The Greater Twin Cities United Way is in the midst of a historic overhaul as it faces a boom in millennial workers with limited ties to workplace giving, a growing desire by donors to make their own decisions and competition from social media and beyond.
The stakes are high. The number of donors dropped from 207,000 in 2002 to 125,000 in 2013, the agency reports. While revenue has climbed slowly, hitting an estimated $100 million last year, it's from a smaller pool of often wealthier givers. Attracting more — and more diverse — donors and keeping them engaged are major challenges as the agency moves into its second century.
That has meant updating its public image and mission.
"We want to be known not [just] as a fundraiser, not as a grantmaker, but as a community impact organization," said Sarah Caruso, president of the Greater Twin Cities United Way.
Simply to "be known" in the shifting workforce landscape is a growing challenge. Supporters already know that the Twin Cities area hosts the nation's second largest United Way, and that it has raised nearly $1 billion over the past dozen years. It now funds nearly 200 nonprofits in nine counties. It does research on public policy issues and program effectiveness. It encourages volunteers and public policy.
But many people, in particular younger workers, don't have a clue what it does. Workplace campaigns — the main venue for learning about the agency — reach only about a third of all workers, according to a 2010 survey by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
"To be honest, I don't know much about United Way at all," acknowledged Trevor Boswell, 28, who accompanied a friend to the centennial celebration. "I had heard about it. But it's not something I really talk about."
Even in many workplaces with giving programs, the ground is shifting. Some Minnesota corporations have diversified their giving to include the global communities they serve, said Caruso. The United Way is adopting new strategies to align with them, she said.
Likewise, there's no longer a captive audience in the workplace. People change jobs more frequently, move to new communities, work at home, work remotely. Many aren't feeling as flush with cash as they once did. The economic recession continues to haunt the United Way, Caruso said.
100 years ago
Before there were welfare checks, Social Security, Medicare or county planning for the homeless, there was the Citizens Aid Society. Housed in a stately building near downtown Minneapolis, it raised funds for the poor and worked to coordinate community giving. A hundred years and several name changes later, the Greater Twin Cities United Way continues that general mission from the same building.
Business and corporate leaders were always essential to fundraising. They took on an even greater role when payroll deductions for donors became possible in the 1960s.
The ensuing decades brought United Way to Minnesota's largest workplaces, many shooting for 100 percent employee participation, said Steve Paprocki, a professor of philanthropy at Hamline University. Some companies had brass bands strolling through the office, heralding their campaigns. Supervisors didn't hesitate to prod giving, he said.
Fast forward to today, where donor encouragement — and appreciation — takes a far different tack. At the anniversary party last week, attendees had their photos taken on a mock red carpet. Wine flowed freely. There was a goofy "best video" contest for companies. The speeches and awards were generously punctuated by jazz and lighthearted banter.
The biggest announcement of the night was a new initiative focused on younger donors, who want hands-on involvement with their causes. The United Way pledged to recruit 100,000 new volunteers for their projects. All speeches were halted as audience members were encouraged to take out their cellphones and sign up on the spot.
Changing with the times
United Way already is poised to deal with another millennial trait: the desire to donate directly to a favorite charity rather than a general pool. About 25 percent of the organization's donations now are dedicated to specific projects, said senior vice president Frank Forsberg, such as child care, housing or schools.
But there's a downside.
"You can't be the universal community planner if each donor is making decisions on their own," said Judy Alnes, executive director of MAP for Nonprofits.
Other changes have been in the works:
• One-shot giving. For folks not interested in regular paycheck withdrawals, United Way has offered the option of a time-specific project, such as a $3 million fund that provided professional certification to urban child-care centers.
• Affinity groups. United Way offers "giving communities" for women, LGBT, "emerging leaders" and more.
• Diversity. Criticized in the past for limited support of minority nonprofits, United Way offers CSO grants (for culturally specific organizations) "as a new funding stream to shore up their infrastructure," staff said.
• Advocacy. United Way cranked up its lobbying at the State Capitol, specifically for early childhood education. Stacey Stewart, U.S. president of United Way Worldwide, flew to Minnesota this week to personally congratulate United Way on its 100th birthday. The Twin Cities agency is the second largest United Way out of 1,200 nationally "by all measures," she said, and it is also at the forefront of adapting to the new workplace landscape.
The agency had some help, said Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Its roots were spread in a community where corporate philanthropy, volunteerism and the nonprofit sector are among the strongest in the nation, he said.
"Is it us — or them?" asked Pratt. "Or did us create them? Its not innate behavior. It's learned."
Regardless, United Way's track record of major fundraising for the Twin Cities is an accomplishment worth celebrating, he said. Added Forsberg: "Providing a regular invitation to be philanthropic, and to do good, is probably the greatest contribution of the past 100 years."