Book chapter summary: Canadian United Way as a Community Impact Funder: a Reinvention or a Failed Endeavor?

Par Iryna Khovrenkov , Co-Directrice du Hub de l'ouest
12 février 2020

The chapter: Canadian United Way as a Community Impact Funder: a Reinvention or a Failed Endeavor? will be included in The New Intersections: Canada’s Voluntary and Nonprofit Sector, edited by Susan Phillips of Carleton University and Bob Wyatt of Muttart Foundation.

Book to be released as an online open-access resource in Spring 2020.

Canadian United Way as a Community Impact Funder


Chapter Summary

Canadian United Ways, as a unique form of organized philanthropy, have established themselves as significant contributors to the wellbeing of Canadian society, by way of the programs they fund and the issues they leave unignored. In their efforts to tackle a range of social problems, United Ways connect devoted individuals, corporations, and government agencies with communities in need. While United Way of Canada was only officially established in 1973, it quickly gained recognition as a leading fundraiser and a prominent funder of numerous charitable organizations.

By the mid-1990s, United Way’s revenue stream had begun to decline due to donors wishing to designate their giving to the charities of their choice as opposed to directly giving to United Ways, which inevitably diverted donations from the organization. Once a dominant aid to individual giving, United Ways were now faced with expanded donor choice coupled with fewer companies able to administer workplace campaigns due to overall corporate downsizing. These challenges required United Ways to transform their approach from a fundraising organization to one with a new vision. Community Impact mission was adopted in the early 2000s as the “nationwide strategy for program allocations and fundraising”[1]. This rebranding signified a shift to funding programs with measurable outcomes rather than guaranteed funding to historic member agencies.

Despite the changes in focus, Canadian United Ways continued to experience financial hardships. Several United Ways have responded to the challenging circumstances by finding ways to preserve some degree of financial viability through amalgamation. Others, however, have dipped into their savings, struggling to survive. And some have even ceased to be in operation. The key reason cited by many United Ways across the country was declining donations, and financial data confirms that between 2008 and 2014, private donations to United Ways fell by 14 percent.

These developments point to troubling questions about the future of United Ways. Does the increasing difficulty in attracting donations suggest that United Ways are losing their value as an intermediary? Are United Ways succeeding in shifting their culture to community impact and successfully reinventing themselves?

This chapter assesses these suppositions by examining United Ways’ historical background and analyzing United Ways’ financial trends. It is framed around a shift in the United Way’s funding approach from a purely fundraising organization to an organization with a community impact vision.  Theoretical discussions are supplemented with quantitative analysis of revenue and spending trends over a fifteen-year timeframe (2000-2014) using Canadian charity tax data. This chapter offers implications for the future role of United Ways in the philanthropic space.

PhiLab members have worked on different aspects of the United Ways / Centraide:

Notes de bas de page

[1] pg.3, Cohen, Rick. 2007. “The United Way’s Way or Bust.” Nonprofit Quarterly: Federated Organizations and Their Problems, Policy; December 21, 2007.