Just over one year ago, stay-at-home orders were announced and the world as we knew it rapidly changed. Today, the pandemic and its ricochet effects have plunged our world, our communities, and each of us into the most challenging times we’ve had in generations. Facing unprecedented challenges, international governments deployed more than $10 trillion for emergency medical response and the initial economic shock. In the United States, despite these financial relief efforts, the pandemic continues to disproportionately affect low-wage Americans the hardest, along with people of color, and those lacking a college degree. One in four adults has had trouble paying bills, especially rent or mortgage payments. One in six has borrowed money from friends or has sought food from a food bank. Half the adults who lost a job due to COVID-19 are still unemployed. Search trend data from Google still show surges in queries related to COVID-19 and help lines, like United Way’s 211, are fielding more than double their normal calls. Overall, community services are strained and unable to meet the need.

What can Social and Human Service organizations learn from the United Way Worldwide’s COVID-19 response to inform their own response in near real-time to the ongoing crisis?

Meeting the Moment

For three years, United Way underwent a networkwide transformation. The modern United Way network is designed to be digital-first, locally focused, and able to leverage its unparalleled reach to mobilize the caring power of communities. Its distributed leadership model and infrastructure will allow social solutions to scale for maximum impact and respond to community needs in near real-time.

When the pandemic struck, United Way activated its network of 1,200 communities to move resources quickly to families in need. United Way built a digital toolkit and playbook to set up over 700 funds that helped families get tested, access medical care, avoid eviction, find a job, feed their family, and more. In all, United Way’s COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund directed over $1B directly to people in need. In particular, United Way Worldwide has deployed more than $57.3M.

Ideas for Nonprofits

Develop data-informed ways to distribute funding quickly. United Way Worldwide invested in a leadership structure supported by digital communication platforms that allow for accessible and pertinent communication with local leaders. They designed a plan to direct resources to communities with the highest need using data insights and equitable objective criteria. They simplified the application process to minimize administrative burdens for applicants and expedite grant transfers.

Overcommunicate. Together, CCS and United Way Worldwide built daily communication punch lists within a 30-day sprint and reached out to key constituents and stakeholders. We drafted messaging sets to equip local leaders with key talking points, set outreach metrics for new funders, and designed an empathetic listening tour to encourage check-ins with key supporters.

Convert crisis donors to mission donors. After receiving a tremendous outpouring of support and investment resources for communities in near real-time, United Way developed donor journeys for newly acquired donors to engage long-term with United Way’s mission. CCS partnered to focus on unique cultivation and stewardship for major donors.

Think long-term. Facing an unprecedented level of uncertainty and disruption, CCS developed scenario plans to help prioritize and sequence impact program workstreams. These plans provided structure for United Way leaders to navigate key strategic decisions and ensured a thoughtful response regardless of revenue.

Invest in your capacity needs. United Way bolstered its infrastructure by elevating a host of resources and offering supports to each local chapter, including:

  • Fully designed, customizable micro websites for each region. If your organization is not federated, a variation you may consider is building out your website to address long-term service solutions.
  • Social Media Toolkits and roll-out plans.
  • Free access to SPC (Salesforce Philanthropy Cloud) licenses for employees to encourage corporate philanthropy.

Key Successes

On the other side of crisis lies the opportunity for reimagination. United Way is committed to rebuilding better, more equitable communities that work for everyone. Some successes from their COVID-19 response include:

  • 27 million individuals have received critical COVID-19 support from United Way Worldwide.
  • Corporate sponsorship from a multitude of partners, including Tiltify, Porsche, DoorDash, BET, Kendall-Jackson, Harley-Davidson, TikTok, and PetSmart Charities.
  • The passing of the CARES Act, which United Way Worldwide advocated for. The CARES Act has led to a $300 nonitemizer charitable deduction.
  • Partnership with the United Nations Foundation and Red Nose Day to host #HopefromHome, an event held on April 7, 2020. Entertainers, CEOs, influencers, gamers, and more convened across several platforms, including TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, and Facebook to raise $1.9M, one-third of which went to the United Way Worldwide Fund.
  • The BET United Way COVID Fund, which was established with the BET, NAACP, and United Way Worldwide. The fund raised roughly $18.4M with help from Black business leaders, foundations, and corporations. The fund elevated Black philanthropy to levels unprecedented by the United Way Worldwide.
  • Learn about other successes here.

As we continue to grapple with COVID-19, we are inspired to take bold steps to reimagine and rebuild a better future. The challenges may be greater than we could have fathomed, but we remain confident in the unwavering resolve of nonprofit leaders and the organizations and memberships they represent. Social and Human Services nonprofits can shape the future contours of this reimagined world by channeling support where it is needed most.

It is our hope that these ideas and successes can help you align your organizational priorities to the needs of the communities you serve and advance your work toward the common good.

About CCS

CCS Fundraising is a strategic consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change, providing a wide range of services that support and strengthen their fundraising programs. Founded in 1947, CCS operates in more than a dozen offices in countries around the world. The firm’s experts—skilled in campaign and development strategy—work closely with organizations of all sizes across nonprofit sectors.

About the Author

Dominic Pepper is a Vice President with CCS Fundraising. His practice area at the firm includes large, multi-lateral non-governmental organizations and federated model nonprofits. He also leads CCS’s subject matter expert group on Gift Planning, with a focus on tax and estate giving vehicles. Prior to CCS, Dominic advised family office philanthropy at a Trusts & Estates firm and was awarded the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners' International Boutique Firm of the Year. He has been published for his writing on estate planning and has spoken about planned giving at industry conferences and international organizations.