United Way is Not the Way for Volunteer Centers

By Susan J. Ellis

At the risk of sounding like the Grinch, there is little to smile about this holiday season when it comes to the state of Volunteer Centers operated as internal programs of United Ways. This is a major issue in the United States because almost one-third of the Volunteer Centers on the Points of Light Foundation member list are a direct service of their local United Way. I have been simmering about this topic for a long time, but have just been pushed over the edge.

Two weeks ago I accidentally learned that the Volunteer Center in my own city of Philadelphia has disappeared. The Philadelphia Volunteer Center was one of the oldest in the country, but in the mid-1980s the local United Way denied them funding as an independent Center and merged them into the new “full-service” United Way. There the Volunteer Center was under-resourced, but did manage to provide some useful services. Now it’s gone. Over the past year, the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania quietly but deliberately erased the name "Volunteer Centers of Southeastern Pennsylvania" from all the places it used to appear. In its place are a number of referrals to a new Web site (which I guess the United Way thinks will run itself), VolunteerWay.org http://www.volunteerway.org, a collaborative online registry of volunteer opportunities in southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. The key staff member who used to manage the Volunteer Center is now called "Community Impact Officer," with diverse duties including some volunteerism training, Gifts in Kind, and United Way staff work with funded agencies. There has been no official notice of any kind - no letter, press release, explanation in printed materials - to explain the decision to fold the Volunteer Center into other United Way activities.

I have always held the opinion that United Ways ought to help fund Volunteer Centers, but not own them. Why? Here are just a few reasons the connection is not as neat as it might look on the surface:

  • Volunteering is so much broader in scope than the human service agencies within the umbrella of a United Way. While most Volunteer Centers within United Ways are allowed to capture information on volunteering in all sorts of settings, their focus ultimately narrows over time to the types of organizations given funding by the United Way. So, for example, government agencies – a huge category of volunteer-involving settings – are under-served, as are cultural arts programs, environmentalism, and other political action causes, despite their obvious importance to community involvement.
  • United Ways are eager to show that they are cost-effective fundraisers and are loathe to increase their administrative/overhead budget figures. To keep internal costs down, an in-house Volunteer Center is expected to stay small. This is money-based planning, not need-based planning. Independent Volunteer Centers can do additional fundraising (not that enough of them do this well) to grow; internal United Way Volunteer Centers are restricted from outside fundraising which would be direct competition to the United Way campaign.
  • United Ways are about money first and foremost. Volunteering, though praised with lip service, is treated only with peripheral interest, except as an avenue to more fundraising. The proliferation of “Days of Caring” is a good example. The original motivation for the “Day of Caring” was to show corporate employees how their donation to the United Way is used by community agencies. While everyone is glad that the employees provide useful service during the Day, the real purpose is to generate more money later. In most communities, it is only United Way-funded agencies which are asked to develop a volunteer project (and who may feel they have little choice but to comply) and only companies with payroll-deduction plans which are recruited to send employees - an invitation-only circle. The irony, therefore, is that internal Volunteer Centers spend an inordinate amount of time planning and coordinating the logistical nightmare of a “Day of Caring” which looks as if it contributes to the work of a Volunteer Center, but may actually detract from it.
  • As staff of the United Way, Volunteer Center workers can – and usually are – diverted and deployed to “priority work” when necessary. Think of how often you’ve heard Center staff beg off from a meeting or other event with the excuse: “Sorry, but that’s right in the middle of the Campaign.” The United Way fundraising campaign always comes first, leaving many communities without a fully-functioning Volunteer Center for one or two months a year.
  • As an internal program, the Volunteer Center is governed by the United Way’s own board – and how much agenda time do you think this board spends on volunteer-related subjects? Most United Ways never consider that there might be a unique constituency for the Volunteer Center, with valid opinions and input. That’s one of the reasons the United Way here in Philadelphia felt completely free to dismantle our Volunteer Center without notice: they couldn’t fathom that it would matter to anyone.

I realize that United Ways are as diverse as the communities they serve, but I am tired of the incessant whispering about this problem. I also recognize that volunteer program managers have too often not come to the aid of Volunteer Centers in need of better funding and other support. (For example, I never saw one word about the changes in Philadelphia from my local DOVIA, neither as information nor as a cry to battle.)

On the other hand, every Volunteer Center in North America truly worth its salt is an independent, self-incorporated agency with a clear mission, a broad vision, and an understanding of the enormous scope of the field. Becoming an internal program of a United Way is the kiss of death to future growth.

It is time to bring this situation out into the open. While the behavior of local United Ways is the most egregious, the same principles apply wherever Volunteer Centers are subsumed under other organizations having many goals and agendas. So, if a Volunteer Center is part of municipal government, it is likely that local politics have an impact or that each new administration changes the services offered. If a Volunteer Center is part of the Red Cross, the Junior League, or any other organization, pressure (subtle or overt) is placed on giving priority to the causes and concerns of the sponsor. Only when independent can Volunteer Centers serve the full scope of the volunteer field.


  • Have you witnessed how a United Way or other sponsor has limited the effectiveness of a Volunteer Center? (Or, you are welcome to praise a good local relationship.)
  • What are ways to support a local Volunteer Center so that it can be independent?
  • What’s the responsibility of volunteer program leaders in this issue (individually and collectively)?

Applaud or scream at this Hot Topic, but please take the risk to voice your opinions.

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