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United Way of America

United Way of America

By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

Introduction: Describing the history of the United Way organization is complicated by the fact that in the latter part of the nineteenth century two separate but important historical trends were developing. Both of these trends were for the most part a response to the effects of industrialization, the rapid growth of urban areas, increases in the level and degree of poverty and the expanding number of local charities attempting to help the needy and poor.

The first trend was an effort to design and use a more “scientific approach” to efficiently and effectively organize the many local and overlapping charities created to help the poor.  The outcome of this effort was the creation of local Charity Organization Societies  (sometimes called Associated Charities) in urban areas. The second trend was the effort to use a more “scientific approach” to coordinate the many and diverse charitable fund-raising efforts directed at wealthy contributors and companies. The outcome of this effort eventually resulted in what came to be known as “federated fund-raising.”

Over time, these two initiatives evolved, expanded and then merged into what was known for a long time as Community Chest and Council organizations, later the United Way of America and today United Way Worldwide.

Organizing Local Charities: Efforts to organize and rationalize, the rapidly expanding number of local charities on a community wide basis began with the founding of the Charity Organization Society (COS) of Buffalo, New York in 1877.  The impetus for the COS movement had its roots in urbanization and the resulting loss of “community” and “mutual aid” that had been prevalent in rural areas of Western Europe and the United States. Residents of urban areas in the 1870s experienced industrial accidents, poor sanitation, diseases, unemployment, slum housing, poverty, family breakdown and other social and economic problems. When afflicted by unemployment, sickness, old age or a physical disability, individuals and families living in urban areas without relatives or financial resources had few options for assistance: apply for public relief, appeal to private charities or beg help from strangers.

The COS movement was first introduced into the United States by two men from Buffalo, New York who were deeply concerned about the expanding destitution caused by the Long Depression of the 1870s. One was an Episcopal rector, Rev. Stephen Humphreys Gurteen, the other was T. Guilford Smith, a young successful businessman and a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church where Rev. Gurteen served. Along with a circle of friends, they discussed the social and economic problems of their community, the proliferation of private charities, and what more could be done to ameliorate poverty.  A plan emerged and, as part of that plan, Rev. Gurteen traveled to England and spent the summer of 1877 learning about the London Charity Organization Society.  On his return, the two men drew up plans to create a COS in Buffalo.

The major reason for establishing the Buffalo COS was the dire economic and social circumstances the city was experiencing from a decade of severe economic depression and industrial strife in the 1870s. By 1877 the United States was entering its fourth year of a depression closely related to a collapse in the railroad industry. The Buffalo COS was intended to bring together and coordinate the efforts of the city’s numerous charitable agencies. The goal was to stop or at least reduce the practice of local charities continuing to provide the indiscriminate giving of alms or charity to those who requested it.  The COS plan was to create a more scientific approach of “directed” philanthropy for distributing assistance.

In 1880, Reverend Oscar C. McCulloch, Pastor of the Plymouth Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a Member of the Committee on Charitable Organization in Cities for the National Conference of Charities and Correction (NCCC), gave a presentation at the NCCC’s seventh annual meeting. His paper detailed the problems a COS was attempting to solve by describing the operations of the Indianapolis Charity Organization Society, which was established in 1879. He said:

“…The need of the organization of charities in our cities springs, first, from the wasted energy and effort….

“Few realize the number of agencies that exist for the amelioration of the condition of the poor, or the amount of money spent. Christianity has become ” structural,” that is, a part of the very structure of society, working instinctively and unconscious of its origin. Out of this “structural Christianity” flow all the tender feelings and earnest efforts which embody themselves in orphanages, asylums, societies and schools…

“Yet, says Rev. S. H. Gurteen, ” in spite of all that is being done in the way of charitable relief, it is found, on all hands:

1. That pauperism is steadly on the increase in almost every city in the land.

2. That the most truly deserving are those who do not seek, and, therefore, very often do not get, relief.

3. That the pauper, the impostor, and the fraud of every description, carry off, at least, one-half of all charity, public and private; hence there is a constant and deplorable waste in the alms funds of every large city.

4. That, by far, the larger part of all that is given in the name of charity is doing positive harm by teaching the poor to be idle, shiftless and improvident.

5. That but little effort is made, as a rule, to inculcate provident habits among the poor, or to establish provident schemes, based on sound business principles, so as to aid the poor to be self supporting.

6. That little, if anything, is being done to check the evils arising from overcrowded and unhealthy tenements, or to suppress the causes of bastardy, baby-farming, and other evils peculiar to the individual city.”

The Need for Organization

Objectives: The early movement to organize local charities addressed itself to two over arching objectives: 1) attempting to ameliorate the extensive suffering caused by destitution and the growth of poverty and vagrancy in urban areas; and 2) reducing the conflict between social classes. Early leaders of the movement professed the idea that poverty could be lessened, hardship ameliorated and professional beggars eliminated by employing a rational system of scientific charitable administration. This would be achieved by replacing the existing chaos in helping the poor by systematically coordinated private agencies. It was further believed that greater social class harmony would come from the mutual respect that would develop as the volunteers and staff experienced greater contact and relationships with poor families seeking assistance. In his 1880 presentation, Rev. McCulloch outlined these elements:

“…The principles and objects of the society may be thus stated:

1. The complete severance of charitable relief and other charitable work of the society from all questions of creed, politics and nationality.

2. The social and moral elevation of the poor, (1) By bringing the richer and poorer classes into closer relations with each other by means of a thorough system of house-to-house visitation; and (2) By the establishment of provident and humane schemes for the gradual improvement of the condition of the poor.

3. The reduction of vagrancy and pauperism.

4. The prevention of indiscriminate and duplicate giving.

5. The prevention of imposition.

6. The procuring of immediate and adequate relief for the worthy and needy ones in the city….”

Methods and Operation: The emphasis on a scientific approach led to the use of investigation, registration, and supervision of applicants for charity. It resulted too in community-wide efforts to identify and coordinate the resources and activities of private philanthropies and the establishment of centralized “clearinghouses” or registration bureaus that collected information about the individuals and families receiving assistance. The workforce for the organized charities would consist of trained “friendly visitors.”  (Note: These innovations were later incorporated into the casework method of social work, the organization of Community Councils, and the operation of Social Service Exchanges.)  In Rev. McCulloch’s presentation he details the methods as follows:

“…The general methods by which this society seeks to effect its objects and carry out its principles are: (1) Cooperation of all existing agencies. (2) Districting of the city and thorough investigation of the poverty and pauperism in the districts, and of the history, character and condition of every applicant for relief. (3) Organizing a trained band of visitors who go from house to house in friendly ways. These methods need detailed explanation.

1. Cooperation of existing charitable agencies. This brings together: The mayor, the police, the overseer of the poor and the heads of the institutions, as representatives of the official aid given; The local charities, fraternities, private institutions and churches as representatives of the private aid given; Individuals who are interested in the movement. From these a certain number is chosen as council or executive committee, whose function will be described later. It is evident that such a society, if complete, could, by aggregate wisdom and combined force, effect large results. It would present a solid front to imposture; effect exchanges of information; measure the work to be done and inaugurate schemes for doing it, which would be as wise and as successful as the business methods and plans of its members.

2. Districting the city. The society is practically related to the poverty and the pauperism of the city, through what is called its district committees or ward conferences. The various churches, clergy, local charities and societies, together with delegates from the overseers of the poor, dispensaries, unite in any district or ward. An office is opened, a superintendent hired. It is the business of this superintendent to make himself acquainted with the condition of the district; its needs, abuses, evils, and its various remedial agencies. All applicants for relief are registered and their case; carefully and kindly inquired into. I shall describe the committee in action later; suffice it to say that in the district committee the poor come up for consideration as individuals.

3. Organized visitors. It is the tendency of all societies to crystallize into fixed forms and methods. Work becomes mechanical; the order is one of routine. The individuals become members of a class to be dealt with by rule. There is no personal relation of individuals of the society with individuals of the class. Then, too, the society is suspected; treated with cunning and deceit, because of the benefit to be derived. To counteract both these tendencies bands of visitors are organized, of men and women. who will visit the poor in their homes. They take their warm hearts, cheery spirits and wise thoughts into homes where need is. They establish personal relations. They give no aid, save that which friendship dictates, nor are they allowed to use their position for purposes of proselytism or technical spiritual instruction….”1.  (Note: These innovations were later incorporated into the casework method of social work, the organization of Community Chests and Councils, and the operation of Social Service Exchanges.)

Source: Oscar C. McCulloch, A Member of the Committee on Charitable Organization in Cities and Pastor of Plymouth Church, Indianapolis — A Presentation at the Seventh Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, Held at Cleveland, June and July, 1880. (pp.122-135)

Origin of Federated Fund Raising:  Federated fund raising had its origin in the U.S. with the creation of the Cleveland Federation for Charity and Philanthropy.  The Federation was formed by the action of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce on January 7th, 1913, when it adopted the recommendations of its Committee on Benevolent Associations (i.e., local charities).

According to an early promotional pamphlet, these recommendations: “…grew out of the Committee’s painstaking study of the reasons why the local benevolent organizations and their supporters were both complaining—the first of increased financial difficulties and the second of incessant and increasing financial pressure.

“The situation revealed by the Committee’s study was disconcerting. The givers-lists of 73 benevolent organizations in 1909 showed only 4598 different individuals and 788 corporations contributing a total of $5.00 or more. Furthermore, this number, while contributing 22% more than in 1907, showed in comparison with that year a decrease of 11%! The cause of this surprising situation was, in the belief of the Committee, to be found in the fact that “the education of the non-giver and the cultivation of the small giver do not increase in proper proportion to the increase of charity’s financial needs….”

For the first fund-raising campaign in 1913, for the Federation for Charity and Philanthropy, there was no dollar goal. The only goal was to involve as many contributors as possible. Shortly after its founding, the Federation forwarded to4,118 contributors an explanation of what they were proposing and a form to complete.

Below is the explanation of the plan and a copy of the original donor’s pledge:

The Federated Plan of Giving

I. Federation subscribers are not solicited for current expenses by any of the organizations in the Federation.

II. Current expenses only are solicited by the Federation; before soliciting funds for other needs, federated organizations are expected to consult with the Federation board. Gifts to such needs are forwarded by the Federation on request.

III. Gifts are forwarded in line with the designation of givers to any Cleveland organization, whether listed as a member of the Federation or not.

IV. Write one check, making it payable to “J. D. Williamson. Treasurer.”

V. A copy of the subscription is sent as a receipt-record, followed by direct acknowledgment from the designated institutions when forwarded.

VI. The Federation’s fiscal year began October 1st. Conformity with it, when possible, is appreciated.

The Pledge

I wish to help in the work of making Cleveland a better place in which to live, to work, and to play; and am anxious that every dollar I am able to give for that purpose accomplish the most and the best possible. Believing that the Cleveland Federation for Charity and Philanthropy furthers these ends, I take pleasure in subscribing the sum of  $_______to be paid at the time and to be distributed in the manner indicated below:

(a) To be distributed according to my designations as shown.

(b) To be distributed in repetition of my gifts made last year.

(c) To be distributed at the discretion of the Federation (to be reported to me later).

By October 1st, the beginning of the Federation’s first full fiscal year, the mailing and pledge produced surprising progress toward the attainment of the organization’s four-fold aim: (1) larger gifts to good works; (2) more effective gifts; (3) more givers, and (4) happier givers. Below is a brief recount of the first year’s efforts:

I. Larger Gifts. A careful comparison of each subscription received by the Federation with the gifts made by the same persons in 1912 shows the use of the federated subscription-blank to cause the following amazing results:

A. In 1911-1912, 4,118 Federation members (October 1) gave to federated institutions. .$126,735  In 1912-1913, Federation members pledged to the same institutions:

(a) Through Federation…. $188,335.00

(b) Direct $26,027.50

Total $214,363—69.1% Gain

Of this amount, 2,063 persons who gave nothing to Federation organizations in 1912 subscribed $14,749

The same persons, therefore, who gave $126,735 in 1912 gave in 1913 directly and by Federation subscription blank $199,614—57.5% Gain

        B. Where, in 1912, a giver gave to one organization, he gave to three through the Federation in 1913. (In 1909 two-thirds of all givers of $5.00 gave to one organization only.)

Source: The Social Year Book. Published by the Cleveland Federation for Charity and Philanthropy, December 1913. pp.12-20.

The new Cleveland organization added budgeting to the single campaign concept, i.e., funds were allocated to agencies on the basis of demonstrated need rather than on hopes for as much money as possible.  This “citizen review process” became the model for United Way organizations across the country. The federated fund raising movement had begun. The benefits of a collective volunteer effort were realized dramatically during World War I as the War Commission and the Cleveland Federation for Charity and Philanthropy joined the movement, and in 1917 together raised $4.5 million.

The United Way (United Way of America and now United Way Worldwide) was established in Chicago in early 1918 when twelve representatives from centralized fund-raising agencies met and formed a national organization to exchange ideas, experiences and recommendations.  The name of the new organization was the American Association for Community Organization (AACO).  Its initial purpose was stated as “…to encourage and stimulate collective community planning, and the development of better standards of community organization for social work.”  Two of the founders were: William J. Norton of the Associated Charities of Detroit who had earlier pioneered federated fund-raising in Cincinnati, Ohio, and his successor in Cincinnati, C. M. Bookman.  Norton was selected as the first president of AACO.

The early leaders involved with the AACO set in motion the critical tenets and goals of what a charitable organization should be, and how such goals should be met. In 1919, with the cooperation of Ohio State University (OSU), the AACO initiated a short course to be held during the summer to train executives for community chest work.  This training program continued until 1930 when OSU established a graduate course for interested professionals.

In 1919, Rochester, New York, used the name Community Chest, a name that was then widely adopted by federated fund raising organizations and used until the early 1950s.

At the annual meeting of the AACO in June 1922, the delegates expressed the need for more executive management within the AACO and local agencies. This led to arranging a relationship with the National Information Bureau (NIB), an organization charged with assessing the legitimacy and strength of agencies.

In the summer of 1924, C. M. Bookman gave a major presentation at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Social Work held in Toronto, Canada about why Community Chests had become so popular.  He said:

“…Community chests when organized as financial agents can present convincing arguments on the value of their work. They do raise more money than individual agencies would be able to raise, at an expense but a fraction of the former expense. They do relieve givers of the constant annoyance of repeated appeals-one reason why central financing appeals to the average businessman. However, valuable as these contributions are, I doubt if community chests can justify their existence on the financial argument alone. We all recognize the need of economies. We realize that there is so much to do, and so little with which to do it, that the social agency or social worker that wastes money is guilty of malfeasance. But social programs are not formulated to save money or to save annoyance to givers; they are formulated to build up social values in society, to make possible a better and a happier people. We must look to social results for justification of the community chest plan of conducting social work….

“There has been much recent discussion on when and how to organize a community chest…. It is not so much a question of when, as how to organize. That some order should be introduced into social work is an accepted fact. Whether the method of organization shall be a community chest, a council of social agencies, or both, or some other plan, is a question which should be answered after a very careful analysis of the social work of the city in question. The answer depends upon many factors. Some factors, however, are basic, and should be a part of any organization plan. Adequate finances and competent social engineering are two essentials to success in social work. Each of these essentials should be the responsibility of the groups vitally interested in social work, the agencies, the givers, and the general public. No ready made plan of organization will be successful in any city. Probably the Council of Social Agencies is the soundest method of procedure for most cities. A city wishing to organize its social work should secure the approval of the social agencies and social workers to the plan, and a reasonable backing of the givers to these agencies. It should develop its organization upon democratic lines, each agency appointing delegates to the central body. Once having secured the co-operation of the agencies, the social workers and the givers, the development can proceed as rapidly as sound leadership dictates.”

By the mid-1960s United Way was well known with more than 30,000 affiliated agencies nationwide, and establishing cooperative arrangements with the federal government and national groups.  In 1970 the United Way’s national governing body, the United Community Funds and Council of America (UCFCA), reorganized itself into United Way of America (UWA).

Sources: Social Service Organizations, Peter Romanofsky, Editor, Vol. 2, Greenwood Press, 1979, pp. 741-748.

United Way Worldwide –

Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work Formerly National Conference of Charities and Correction at the Fifty-First Annual Session Held in Toronto, Ontario June 25-July 2, 1924. pp. 19-29.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2013).  United Way of America. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=9431.



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