National United Way History


Copies of Grassroots Initiatives (the history of the United Way Movement since 1876) may be purchased from the UWRA office for $10 plus shipping.  Or ordered from the United Way Worldwide Products Website under Publications.  All proceeds from the sales of these books are contributed to United Way endowment funds. An Executive Summary is provided below.


Grassroots Initiatives Shape an International Movement

The History of the United Way Movement Since 1876

By Richard N. Aft, Ph.D. and Mary Lu Aft


The knowledge, techniques, and processes that define United Way were developed by small groups of people who sought to improve conditions in their communities and countries.    When their ideas and actions were successful, they were  shared in the form of “best practices” and in the spirit of continuous improvement of voluntary, not-for-profit humanitarian services.  “United is how we began.” According to United Way of America president Brian A. Gallagher.  “Our predecessors created impact that had never been seen before.  They changed lives and the conditions of communities.”

Community wide efforts to address multiple human needs were first demonstrated in 1876 when the capacity of a number of sectarian service organizations to give money to poor people for food and shelter was being limited by clients who sought financial aid from more than one agency.  Those agencies, all located in Boston, Massachusetts, organized an “exchange” of the names of the people they served, thereby beginning the process of community-based social planning that continues to be a foundation of United Way service.

Community wide fund-raising to meet the needs of numbers of non-profit organizations began in 1886 in Denver, Colorado, and was based on a model of federated fund-raising for sectarian agencies developed in London, England’s Jewish community in 1860.  In 1913, a new United Way model  was developed that combined social planning and federated fund-raising.  The concept spread quickly by word of mouth of community leaders when they traveled for business or family reasons and through national meetings of professionals involved in “social” work.

During the second and third decades of the 20th century, predecessors of today’s United Way organizations, sprang up all over the world, with most developing in North America.  Usually, social planning organizations known as “Councils” or “Federations” of social agencies preceded the creation of the fund-raising “Community Chests.” 

Beginning with these roots of community organization, the history of the United Way movement can be viewed in periods of social changes. During each, local United Ways served their communities and countries by literally inventing techniques and tools for planning and fund-raising to improve the quality of life of people in need.  Viewed historically, many of today’s “best practices” may, in fact, be “better practices” of decades-old local innovations.


1876-1929 Industrialization, Immigration, and Urbanization

● Leading families of Cleveland, Ohio, combined their charitable giving in support of the first “modern” United Way in 1913. 

● In 1924, professional and staff leaders shared their techniques in Toronto, Ontario at the first inter-national Community Chest Conference. 

● A company foreman in Cincinnati, Ohio was allowed to solicit workplace contributions to aid families of workers whose jobs had been lost in the 1929 Great Depression. 


1930-1940 Responding to Economic Depression and Natural Disasters

● Promotion of giving was first done on television in New York, New York in 1931. 

● The “Legion of the Plus,” United Way’s first “leadership giving program,” was introduced in 1936 in Yonkers, New York with the challenge, “give more than the minimum for respectability.” 

● Future U.S. President Harry S. Truman proposed the merger of several United Way organizations serving the Kansas City, Missouri area in 1938.


1941-1945  Supporting National Defense and Victims of War

● Pasadena, California’s War Chest temporarily replaced its Community Chest in 1941 and added European-based, refugee-serving agencies to its list of campaign beneficiaries. 

● Movie stars in Hollywood, California became celebrity spokespersons for United Way in 1941.

● State-wide campaigns were conducted in Rhode Island and Alabama in 1942.

● Union counselor training programs were begun in 1944 in Detroit, Michigan and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


1946-1959  Stretching to Meeting Postwar Social and Urban Challenges

● United Way leaders in Worcester, Massachusetts used market research techniques in 1947 to determine the is-sues of most concern to contributors and prospective contributors.  

● Agency representatives on allocation commit-tees were replaced by impartial civic leaders who conducted “citizen review” of community service needs, as op-posed to agency financial needs, in Detroit, Michigan in 1949. 

● In 1953, codes of ethics, including commitments for equal treatment of minorities, were adopted by United Way organizations in Boston, Massachusetts and Chicago, Illinois. 

● Representatives of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s entire metropolitan area joined together for 1958 social planning activities.


1960-1969  Federal Dollars Flow Directly to Agencies

● In 1963 thirty-three Los Angeles, California area organizations adopted the name, “United Way.” 

● Federal pro-gram funds flowed directly to United Ways in Aurora, Illinois and New Haven, Connecticut as they became “community action agencies” in the 1964 “War on Poverty.” 

● National corporate leadership campaigns were consolidated in Toronto, Ontario in 1967. 


1970-1979  Applying Business Management Practices to Community Services

● Social planning teams and community collaboration were initiated in 1970 in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

● Strategic planning was applied to United Way in 1972 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. ● Automation of United Way data began in Ft. Worth, Texas in 1974.

● Beginning in 1972, “Management by Objectives” was practiced in several communities as a result of  National Academy of Volunteerism training programs.


1980-1989  Purchasing Agency Services to Achieve Common Goals

● “Purchase of service” became the basis of 1981 allocations to Seattle, Washington’s agencies. 

● The “Alexis deTocqueville Society,” for contributors of $10,000 or more, was introduced in Nashville, Tennessee in 1981. 

●  “CAN-DO” campaign analysis was created in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1987. 

● The shared vision that every child would succeed became Minneapolis, Minnesota’s 1988 Success by Six© initiative.


1990-1999  Technology and Vision Spur Change

● In 1990, United Way of Hungary volunteers led the creation of national regulations allowing the designation of up to two-percent of federal taxes to non-governmental [non-profit] organizations. 

● Electronic pledge process-ing was introduced in 1994 by the San Francisco, California United Way. 

● On-line volunteering and giving were make possible in Provo, Utah in 1996.  

● “211” access to information and volunteer opportunities was initiated in 1997 in Atlanta, Georgia.  


2000-2008  The Vision Continues

● Teamwork in 2000 among leaders from Atlanta, Georgia, Boston, Massachusetts, Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Kentucky, Nashville, Tennessee, Pontiac, Michigan, and Portland, Oregon described “impact’ as a way to identify United Way’s capacity to create sustained changes in community conditions. 

● Locally developed programs for children, individuals, families, and neighborhoods became the basis of 21st century “national initiatives.” 


Like navigators, United Way leaders can use their historical “charts” to plot their courses. Beyond giving direction, this history also reminds us of the United Way values that Gordon Berg, professional leader and founder of the United Way Retirees Association, described in this way. “It would appear that we have done more to help our communities than we realized, but never as much as we wanted.”

About the Authors                                    

Dick and Mary Lu Aft have worked as a United Way team since 1961 when Dick served as a graduate intern with the United Fund and Community Planning Council in Evanston, Illinois, U.S.A., and Mary Lu voluntarily helped him edit United Way publications.  They also married that year.  Their “partnership” has included 42 years of United Way service in nine American cities, Dick as a professional, Mary Lu as a volunteer.  Together, they have represented United Way International as trainers and speakers in countries all over the world.  

Other books by these authors are Global Vision and Local Initiatives, the history of United Way International(available through the United Way store); and Painful Necessities; Positive Results, local community development of United Way organizations, as typified by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, is available for $20 from the United Way of Greater Cincinnati.  All proceeds from the sales of these books are contributed to United Way endowment funds.