Reinventing the United Way: Changing society forces new strategies

The United Way may not be struggling as an institution, but it is struggling to become the household name it once was.

The United Way hasn’t changed that much over the years, but the world has changed. Social media has given rise to sharing of information about special causes — the GoFundMe site, for example, allows people to share in the personal struggles of people in need and send their donation dollars to those that appeal to them most.

“As older people retire and newer millennials are coming into the workforce, giving habits are different,” said Gary Johnson, president/CEO of the United Way of Milford. “They’re not responding. People want it to be personal.”

Businesses have changed, too. Whereas companies once hosted United Way representatives to make presentations to employees about the services the agency offers, that doesn’t happen as much anymore. Johnson said companies are often too busy for those presentations, and many have switched to a more staff-directed designation of philanthropic giving rather than those goals being established company-wide.

That’s why the United Way of Milford is taking a hard look at itself, making some changes and working to figure out the best way to be part of the community in the future.

The United Way board started meeting with Tom Lawlor of Custom Consult in June to look at the changes in the philanthropic landscape and to develop a strategic plan for the agency.

United Way officials believe they need to rebrand the agency and educate people about who they are. For starters, they changed their mission statement from “To strengthen and enhance community and family life” to “Together, we help people.”

Comparatively speaking, United Way donations have declined as church attendance has, both results of societal and communication changes, similar to the way other institutions and businesses have faced changes with a changing world.

The United Way, for example, hit a high point in 2001 when its annual campaign raised $1.4 million. The United Way’s fund-raising goal of $875,000 this year is lower than it has been in many years. But United Way officials see it as a reasonable goal — last year’s goal was $950,000, and the campaign didn’t even hit the $900,000 mark. The year before that, with a $900,000 goal, the campaign brought in $886,000.

This year’s campaign chairman, Diane Nytko, said during a campaign kickoff event that she thinks the declining funds are due to the economy and partly due to bad press the United Way got several years ago on the national level. But Nytko pointed out that the money donated to the United Way of Milford stays in Milford: 99% of the funds collected here go to the United Way of Milford, and 1% goes to United Way Worldwide as dues. Of the money that stays in Milford, 85% goes to the agencies and the services in Milford, while 15% is used for overhead, fundraising costs and administration.

The United Way of Milford helps support 20 local agencies. That list hasn’t changed dramatically in the 60 years that the agency has existed in Milford. Money raised goes to the Milford Prevention Council, Beth El Homeless Shelter, Scouts, Boys & Girls Club, the local mental health agency Bridges, the YMCA, Good Shepherd Day Care, the Milford Senior Center, and the Literacy Volunteers of Southern Connecticut, to name some of them. The agency has also provided money for people whose homes were destroyed by storms Sandy and Irene.

But just looking at the list of organizations that the United Way supports doesn’t tell the “people” story, and it’s that people part that the agency wants the community to understand.

At this year’s campaign kickoff, in a video produced by Heidi Voight, a former Miss Connecticut and morning anchor at NBC Connecticut, Voight talked about how the United Way helped her family when she was a child growing up in Milford. Her mother, Claudia, was working three jobs and raising five children by herself. The family often went without heat in the winter, and then things got even worse.

“When I was 15, the bank foreclosed on our house,” Voight says in the video. Her mother said she had nearly lost all hope until Johnson and the United Way provided money to pay bills. The two women said the United Way gave the family back its dignity.

Residents who donate to the United Way may not see firsthand the impact on people, like the impact on the Voight family, but Toni Dolan, director of the Beth El Homeless Shelter, said she sees the real-people results of those dollars on a daily basis.

“The United Way of Milford assists so many people in need in our community, not just through their partner agencies, but through the many services that they offer,” Dolan said. “For the Beth-El Center, United Way of Milford’s partnership is critical to our ability to continue to provide services to those who are hungry and homeless. Our food and shelter services depend upon our community partners, and our relationship with the United Way of Milford is very important to the work that we do.”

A local woman said she also sees the people side of the donations. Her husband is in the Senior Center’s Ahrens Program, which provides care for senior citizens with health or cognitive problems. The program also benefits from United Way dollars.

"The Ahrens Program provides a respite for the family member, and in many instances allows their caregivers to continue working knowing their relative is happy and well cared for,” she said.

Of course, with a campaign that is bringing in fewer dollars, that means the United Way has had to cut the amounts it gives to its partner agencies. Johnson said there have been long, heartfelt debates at those meetings when dollar allocations are decided.

Lawlor believes efficiency is the key to maximizing the United Way’s impact in Milford: The agency needs to get better at producing results with limited resources. “There is no other agency that brings all the agencies together,” Lawlor said.

Creating efficiencies by sharing resources among the non-profits is the biggest opportunity in a world of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — the SWOT map followed by companies around the world when they examine themselves.

The United Way of Milford has a small staff: one full-time and two part-time employees, supported by a volunteer board and volunteers in the community. Since there are so many opportunities these days for getting the information out — via Facebook, Twitter and other sites — sharing resources among the partner agencies may be a great way to free up time to actually tweet and post to Facebook, while also doing the core work of raising funds and identifying needs.

Lawlor emphasizes that the United Way of Milford is still financially strong, but needs to grow and thrive to once again become that household word that people equate with giving and with holding a community together.

Milford still has support from its local businesses. Bic and Schick remain major contributors, along with the Milford Bank, Subway and the Board of Education, among others. And Johnson noted that this year the agency received $50,000 from the Fred DeLuca Foundation to get this year’s United Way campaign started.

Furthermore, there are new initiatives and ways for people to contribute. ShopRite of MIlford is offering people the option of donating their proceeds from recycled cans and bottles to the United Way. ShopRite owner Harry Garafalo set it up so people can push a button on the recycling receptacle and direct their money to the United Way.

The United Way is also working with a local volunteer to sign up merchants for a program that directs a percentage of credit card swipes to the United Way.

And for the first time, the United Way of Milford will hire a marketing company to help reach more people. Lawlor predicts it will take three to five years to start seeing the results of the new marketing campaign and the United Way’s strategic changes.

Johnson is confident the United Way will thrive and will continue to help build a solid Milford. “If we’re making the changes and following through, and we keep our nose to the grindstone, we’ll survive and even flourish,” he said. “There’s always a need for an organization like ours.”

(To donate to the United Way or to read more about the agency, go to