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Return on Investment: How United Way Multiplies Donor Contributions - Part 1

September 29, 2016

By JIM MULLEN, PRESIDENT AND CEO, UNITED WAY OF SUMMIT COUNTY

Perhaps you’re used to hearing “return on investment,” or “ROI,” as a financial term. Perhaps you think it sounds out of place when discussing the work of nonprofits in general, and in particular, the work of a charity like United Way. To many, the basic role of a charity is that of a go-between, ferrying money from one source to another. As a result, for a lot of people, considerations of growth, investment and strategic planning can seem out of place when we discuss how nonprofits advance the common good.

The problem with that notion is that it’s fundamentally limiting. When we decide that a charity’s role is simply to act as an intermediary between donors and the causes they support – while skimming off a small portion of each donation to pay for their operating expenses – we resign ourselves to a system in which every dollar donated to charity will make an impact of less than a dollar. That’s a very bleak way of thinking, in which charities are simply subtractors from public philanthropy, not the multipliers they can and should be.

That’s why we at United Way treat our donors’ contributions as investments in the success of Summit County. That is, after all, what they are. We strive for something more than simple efficiency (although, for the record, we’re very good at that too). We want to make United Way the most impactful nonprofit in Summit County, and we believe that the best way to do that is to build an organization that excels at multiplying, not subtracting from, the resources that this community entrusts us with. In short, we want to leverage every donation for maximum return on investment.

That is what shapes our work in the local community. Take, for example, our Imagination Library program. Through that program, United Way mails one free, age-appropriate children’s book every month to kids under five in Summit County. Thanks to our partnerships and the resources we can draw from as an organization, it costs United Way of Summit County exactly $2.14 to buy and mail each Imagination Library book to the 9,000 children who are registered in the program. Each book has a retail value of about $15.

Of course, there are harder to quantify benefits as well – everything from the average savings for families who might otherwise have had to travel to a store to buy books, to the society-wide cost savings of improved early education. For the purposes of our ROI calculations, however, we’ll set those aside. There’s no fuzzy math here, and that’s because we don’t want there to be.

In the end, for every dollar we spend on Imagination Library, we are bringing in a value of more than seven dollars to children and families in our community. And this is a program that helps thousands of children across Summit County learn to read. If that’s not a worthwhile investment, what is?

Imagination Library is just one program offered by United Way of Summit County, but the same consideration applies to our organization as a whole. Ultimately, the question we want our donors to be asking themselves is this: if I give United Way a dollar, how many dollars’ worth of impact will I make in the community?

For more on that, please stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post.