After another year of declining revenue, the Greater Twin Cities United Way is continuing to retool how it draws in revenue to meet a growing need for services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Newly released financial information shows that United Way's revenue dropped by more than $7 million last year at a time when the need for services, such as its 211 helpline, rose. But CEO John Wilgers said the nonprofit, one of the largest of 1,200 United Way chapters in the country, was only in the second year of a long-term plan to rely less on its long-standing workplace giving campaigns.

"We continue to see pressure on workplace giving ... and I think we will continue to see that, but I do think that as these strategies continue to take hold, we'll see recovery," he said Tuesday. "It will be a United Way that's working in different ways."

This year, United Way boosted its services and grants due to the pandemic, raising $5 million for COVID-19 grants, distributing more supplies such as food and hygiene items and expanding the 211 helpline that connects people to housing, mental health and other resources.

United Way also teamed up with the Minneapolis Foundation and St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation on a fund for businesses damaged in the civil unrest after George Floyd's death and to reform the criminal justice system.

"We have a moment in time here to really have high impact," Wilgers said.

There are more than 30 United Ways in Minnesota but the Twin Cities is the largest in finances and the number of people served — 500,000 last year.

In August, the organization reworked its largest volunteer event of the year, Action Day; instead of thousands of volunteers filling a sports stadium to fill backpacks for students in need, volunteers helped mostly from home. Now, Wilgers said, as nonprofits enter the critical year-end fundraising season, he worries donors may be tapped out after giving more in 2020.

"We enter into the campaign season this year in a really uncertain environment," he said.

'More relevant' than ever

As donor demographics have changed and donors have sought to be more involved in philanthropy instead of just cutting a check, United Way has reworked revenue tactics as it has continued a downward trend.

United Way's revenue peaked in 2014 at $102 million but by 2017, revenue fell to about $76 million, prompting United Way to cut grants and lay off nine employees. United Way drew in $61 million in 2019, a drop from $69 million in 2018, the organization said last week. But Wilgers said the tax form doesn't account for a $4 million grant to expand the 211 hotline over five years or for planned giving that donors have pledged in wills.

United Way's expenses also dropped in 2019 to $69 million from $77 million the year before, mostly from reducing grants from $54 million to $48 million.

Wilgers said the organization has started to diversify its funding through its online workplace giving tool called Salesforce Philanthropy Cloud, which four companies last year and a dozen companies this year paid for to help employees research charities, target donations and sign up for volunteering. United Way is also encouraging more giving year-round online and through social media. A volunteer coordination consulting program to boost fees was delayed to 2021 due to COVID-19.

"We're more relevant in the community than ever," Wilgers said. "We're excited about the transformation we're in. That's not to say we're not without challenges ... but our impact continues to grow."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141