Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2004 / 16 Kislev 5765

Charity finds a United 'E-Way'

By Mark Kellner | If you've ever worked in a mid- to large-sized organization, you've probably been exposed to the annual campaign run by local affiliates of United Way of America, based in Arlington, Virginia. There's often some coffee, donuts, a pep talk and - of course — a pledge card to fill out and return for a payroll deduction to help your neighbors.

Caffeine is bad for you, they say; as for donuts, don't ask. In the digital age, paper forms suggest about as much modernity as a buggy whip.

So, what's a charity to do? Change with the times. United Way has come up with "UnitedeWay" (yes, the extra "e" is intentional), which lets people sign up online to make donations, direct them to a favorite agency, as well as explore volunteer opportunities. It's gone from zero to over $400 million dollars' worth of giving in about two years, says Michael Schreiber, who holds an MBA from Duke University and is a former business consultant who's now executive vice president for enterprise services at United Way's national office in Alexandria, Va.

Listening to Mr. Schreiber describe the changing nature of the workplace — and of giving — and it makes sense that United Way is looking to technology as a way to boost revenues, monies that go to those in the community who need a helping hand. Workplaces are spread out, over geography and work shifts; people are telecommuting or are "road warriors" spending time in the field. Assembling the entire "crew" for an old-style dog-and-pony show is therefore more difficult.

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Cards, he adds, can get lost, and paper forms are difficult to customize: "In the old days, a printed card offered everybody the same choices," he explained; with a Web-based form, "you can customize for [a donor's] needs and past giving. Tailoring it to the types of things that person is sensitive to."

If Ms. Jones or Mr. Rhys logs in for a second year, the database knows what they gave the last time and where the funds were allocated. Similar options are presented, along with the chance to volunteer.

"In the business world, it's considered a cross-sell, [but] for us, it's something new," Mr. Schreiber said. "It's effective for us and it's very popular with the donors. It's truly relevant to the things that they're interested in."

And, he asserts, it makes United Way "relevant" to potential donors and volunteers: using technology "makes a night and day perception difference with how United Way is perceived. Even among the people who chose not to participate in the electronic solicitation, their opinion of United Way went up."

That's important, since there are oceans of charities competing for public attention, and the United Way, whose roots go back to 1887, might not be viewed as being "relevant" by younger givers.

Thus Mr. Schreiber is trying to position UnitedeWay as more of a corporate service, something that can even serve as an employee benefit, a sign an employer cares about the community: "When you look at provision of services to companies for workplace philanthropy, the driver is more like a financial service than anything else," he said. "By virtue of building them, creating them and putting them in; it's ... something that makes sense in retaining their employees."

It also helps the United Way, which is taking more of a national view of its campaigns within larger firms, track progress. Before, with paper, it was nearly impossible to aggregate data quickly; now, Mr. Schreiber says, officials can view "report[s] on national basis," and see where in a company's campaign extra efforts have to be targeted.

"You can make sure an e-mail has been sent to everybody [in a firm], that they went into site and even if they didn't give, you can see that they were there," he said.

What's next for the charity? Globalization: test projects in at least two companies are aimed at increasing donor involvement or recruiting volunteers. With business "going global," it's a natural that giving should be worldwide, too.

More information on UnitedeWay is at, Mr. Schreiber said. Why not a separate URL? He said the group didn't want to confuse things.

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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