Do we still need the United Way?

The Star Tribune’s article today describing the new landscape for the Twin Cities’ United Way does not dissuade the reader from the conclusion the organization does not have a future in the new reality.

At one time the United Way was a staple of charitable giving; you filled out a pledge card at the beginning of the year (usually under pressure from the boss as I recall from my early working days), the money was deducted from your paycheck, and the United Way took care of the rest, vetting the organizations who wanted and needed some of the money.

But it’s not the 1970s anymore.

Last year the United Way eliminated funding to domestic violence prevention programs because giving had dropped so much. So why would you give money to the United Way if stopping domestic violence was one of your charitable priorities? And in the era of direct appeals and the ability to give online, why do we need a “middle man” to intercede on our behalf?

The answer is that even in the world of non-profits, there are “haves” and “have nots”. Some charitable organizations don’t have the development administration to fundraise successfully nor the name recognition to rise above the din of everyone who’s asking for help.

It’s not easy finding what organizations those are on the Twin Cities United Way website, but this would seem to be one such organization.

And yet there is no easily accessible annual report on the United Way’s website to see a list of who’s getting the money. It requires extensive searching and registration on, on which, by the way, the Twin Cities United Way has the highest rating.

Eighty-three percent of the United Way’s revenue comes from workplace giving campaigns.

That’s a landscape the United Way occupies that feels outdated in 2018, which is why the new strategy is to appeal directly to individuals. That puts it in direct competition with dozens of other non-profits.

The situation couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The new tax law has also removed the incentive — beyond altruism — for people to donate money to charitable causes at all because so many more people will no longer be itemizing deductions on their tax returns.

“This is the new reality,” United Way CEO Sarah Caruso tells the Star Tribune about the organization’s revenue that has been declining since peaking in 2014.

And there’s one more reality working against charitable organizations. The new generation, saddled with college debt, job insecurity, and comparatively lower wages and opportunities, doesn’t have the money to give to any charities in the manner previous generations did.

Discussion: What’s your charitable giving program and how do you decide where your money goes?