UNITED WAY DECIDES IT'S TIME TO UNITE Charitable organization combines separate corporations into one unit


The opening paragraph of the news release was intriguing -- if not exactly understandable: "The United Way System in Central Maryland today effected a merger of its multi-corporate operations into a single, unified organization to better meet community needs."

As explained later in the release, the United Way System has operated over the past several years as three separate corporations, all under the same umbrella.

One corporation handled all fund-raising tasks, one took care of allocating those funds to community organizations and programs, and the third provided administrative support. In today's complex business environment, coordinating the three arms became a logistical headache.

Problems were exacerbated by the existence of two fine volunteer boards of directors, one governing fund raising, the other governing allocations.

Often, board members on the fund-raising side could not respond to donor questions about whom their money would end up helping. Meanwhile, allocation decisions recently have been confused by the existence of some community programs set up by the fund-raising board. In other words, overlap began to creep into the organizational structure.

Complicating matters was the reality that raising money, then distributing it to people in need, involves different skills and strategies. Given two separate boards with different missions and agendas, coordinating these diverse tasks became increasingly difficult.

Oddly enough, the United Way is to be commended for trying such a bold approach in the first place. At the time it seemed like a good idea to separate fund-raising from allocations and to keep the two functions at arm's length. Such an arrangement allowed each division to develop greater expertise. And it allowed people who allocate money to be insulated from external pressures.

Now, after recognizing that the system created roadblocks that had a direct effect on meeting community needs, my hat is off to United Way again. The system's two boards have demonstrated their commitment to change by merging functions into one streamlined operation. This is the type of flexibility that we rarely see in non-profit management. The fact that it is being done by a $30 million organization illustrates their dedication to the community.

It's interesting to note how this change came about.

Faced with the retirement of Alan Cooper and the search for a new chief executive officer, the two boards formed a study committee that examined new management structures for more than a year. The new CEO, Norm Taylor, was brought on just as the new management structure was being formed, enabling him to put his mark on the entire process.

"The old structure was appropriate for that time," says Dr. Madeleine Warns, president of the neighboring United Way of Delaware and formerly with United Way of Central Maryland. "But today a more streamlined approach is needed. Norm Taylor is a man of great compassion and skills. He'll lead the organization into great harmony, given that the talent from both boards is now fused into one."

Others agree. "Two boards were really out of the ordinary," according to Dale Satake, co-chair of the study committee that proposed the changes. Satake, manager of marketing services and communications for the Rouse Co. in Columbia, has nothing but praise for the United Way staff and board members who helped with the recent transition. She believes Taylor and his staff, along with the unified board, will work hard to make United Way even more pro-active.

As United Way donors or volunteers, what new approaches should be expected from the organization?

According to people I spoke with, most of us will not notice changes initially. After all, very few of us knew that our United Way was really three separate corporations to begin with. However, with people of the caliber of Satake on the board, we should see more attention paid to marketing United Way more consistently. The public needs to better understand the critical role that United Way plays in all our lives, whether or not we are donors.

Training of United Way volunteers will be enhanced, by placing training under the umbrella of the fund-raising campaign cabinet. In recent years the number of volunteers has decreased significantly, an indication of the need for more effective training.

Another excellent recommendation to come out of the reorganization process is that allocation panels will be structured by community needs.

That will allow panel members to gain expertise in specific areas, such as housing, drug abuse prevention or health care. This should increase the effectiveness of the approaches the panels choose to fund.

The times, they are a-changin'. We all benefit by having a United Way in Central Maryland that changes with the times.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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