Make change happen: what United Way Ottawa is doing right.

This brand is all about change – the good kind

(Also posted at the United Way Ottawa blog) Over the last year, click I’ve spent a lot of time telling United Way Ottawa what they’re doing wrong – not because I’m mean, unhealthy or a hater, treatment but because they asked me to as an advisor helping them improve their brand strategy. So when they asked me to blog about what they’re doing right, and all the solid reasons to support them during this campaign, I thought: that’ll be kind of nice for a change (and remember that term).

Defining the Way

So ask yourself this question: “What does the United Way do?”

Now hold that thought for a moment.

My job as a “brand strategy” guy is to help organizations answer questions like that – to simplify and streamline the stories they tell. I’m that critical outside eye that tries to explain complicated stuff in a way that makes sense. This is especially important when big changes are happening, as is the case with  United Way Ottawa.

But it becomes tricky when a brand has been as successful, and has been around as long, as Ottawa’s United Way. No matter how big or obvious the change is to people inside the organization, it’s going to be a huge effort to shift public perception to catch up with present reality.

So think again about the answer you gave above. Chances are, if you’re like 90+% of people in Ottawa (including me a few short months ago), you gave an answer like: “they collect money for a bunch of different charities,” or “they distribute money,” or  “they run that huge campaign every fall”.

So if you equated “United Way” either with a. “moneybags”, b. “giant campaign” or c. “both”, pat yourself on the back because you are totally right. The United Way does those things… and more.

So what’s the problem?

As I found out to my surprise, the big branding problem here is not the accuracy of people’s perceptions; it’s emphasis. The difference is not WHAT the United Way does, but WHY they do it, and the logic behind HOW and FOR WHOM.

United Way 1.0 was about funding agencies

The “old” United Way gave money to a spectrum of social agencies like shelters, food banks, boys and girl’s clubs, etc. because they were seen as important actors in the community, and it was really important to keep them going.

Sounds good so far, right? It’s sad that we need shelters and food banks in such a wealthy country, but it would take a real cold-hearted Scrooge to argue that we don’t need them at all; as far as I’m concerned, anyone who chooses to work in this field is a saint who deserves an automatic ticket to heaven.

But even we non-Scrooges occasionally wonder things like, “do we actually have too many social agencies – or too few?” “Are they really working together effectively?” or most importantly: “Are my donations actually making a difference?”

I can’t tell you the answers. Neither can the individual agencies. Nor can any one level of government. The problems, and the potential solutions, are just too complicated and big.

But there is one group who is in the best possible position to answer that question. Which brings us to…

United Way 2.0 is about making change happen

The exciting change that has been happening – and is still underway – at United Way Ottawa is the move from giving money to agencies to investing in projects that deliver results.

As it was explained to me by United Way insiders, this involves three steps:

  1. Identify change opportunities: that is, find the social problem areas where smart effort will be rewarded with tangible, measurable results. Right now, the three areas are Growing Up Great (make sure kids and youth in Ottawa can reach their full potential), Belonging to Community (help vulnerable groups contribute fully to our community), and Turning Lives Around (reduce homelessness, addictions, and violence).
  2. Build the team and the plan: recruit the people who have the ability to make change happen – including agencies, decision makers, social influencers, and entrepreneurial donors – and agree on the approach and how to define success.
  3. Equip them to succeed: work with the team to provide whatever  “change tools” are needed – like volunteer energy, media efforts, policy influence, mini-campaigns, and public education. Of course, many of these efforts also require money. But note, it’s not about spending money; the new focus is on investing in real change, and making sure we (as a city) can see the results all around us.

Please give your dollars. But keep the change.

That’s why we’re trying to focus attention on the real value of the United Way to Ottawa: as the people who help us all solve social problems – the people who make change happen. And yes, right now that involves giving dollars, so please do.

But here’s the clincher: the other big change has to happen outside the United Way – among the rest of us. We have to change from thinking of the Way as ” those people you give money to so you don’t have to think about social issues any more,” and instead as “those people who need my help making this happen.”

United Way change projects aren’t their projects; they’re ours.

So now that you know a bit more, ask yourself:  how can I be part of the new, simplified United Way story? How can I be a change-maker too?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *