United Way Worldwide History


The United Way model is born. Many cities across the U.S. experienced economic booms that drew people from thousands of miles away, often to already-overpopulated urban areas. It was an especially difficult time to be poor: there was no minimum age for child labor, no regulation of hours and wages, few safety standards for workers, and minimal "safety nets" for anyone who suffered an interruption in their ability to earn wages, such as natural disaster, injury or illness.

This growing poverty and economic disparity generated hundreds of local charities, each serving a particular area or group of people, many with competing or overlapping interests. People in a few U.S. cities borrowed a model common in England at the time, founding societieses that referred people in need to the agencies best able to serve them.


Denver, Colorado took another step towards the United Way model in this year. When gold, silver, and other valuable metals were discovered in the mountains, the city's population boomed from 5,000 to 100,000 people in seven years. The instant strain on infrastructure generated unmanageable human need as well as the usual duplication and imperfect management. After an especially hard winter, when the silver mine had closed and people were left hungry and homeless, a new solution emerged.

A woman named Frances Jacobs convened four religious leaders from different traditions (nearly unheard of at the time): two protestant ministers, a Catholic priest, and a Rabbi (Jewish). They founded the "Charity Organizations Society," which coordinated not just referrals to services, but also, for the first time, conducted a single fundraising campaign for 22 service agencies. The first United Way campaign in 1888 raised $21,700, an amount equivalent to more than $500,000 in today's currency.

The model was refined in other cities, where organizations bringing order and integrity to human services proliferated. Many of the essential characteristics and practices of United Way took form:

1. Community needs assessments.

2. Information and referral to services.

3. Fostering information exchange and collaboration among service agencies (often using the new telephone technology).

4. Community-wide fundraising campaigns inviting all people to give, and not just the wealthy.

5. Organizational activities and money managed according to a strategy, a budget, and strict financial controls.

6. Community-wide planning councils, bringing agencies, donors, city leaders, and other groups to a single table to address problems together.

7. Allocation of funds to carefully-investigated agencies based on the community councils' strategies.


The U.S. federal government passed an act imposing a tax on all corporations organized for profit. From the beginning, charitable organizations were exempt from paying this tax.

Organizations working on the "United Way" model were often called Community Chests. Visitors to the U.S. from other countries found value in it and brought it home in the first couple of decades of the new century, first to Canada, then to South Africa and Austrailia.


The first workplace campaign with payroll deduction was launched in 1943. Payroll deduction ("Give as You Earn") made giving convenient and financially manageable for average worker.


The U.S. national Community Chest Organization published the first "Standards for National Voluntary Health, Welfare, and Recreation Agencies." United Ways in the U.S., Canada, and other countries published and refined their own standards over the years. Most recently, Global Standards for United Way Organizations, Canadian Standards of Excellence, and U.S Standards for Excellence were published from 2005-2007 and are in active use.


It was in this year that the new name and logo were adopted. Los Angeles, California became the first community to adopt the name "United Way." The United Way name was then formally adopted nationwide in 1970. In 1972, the famous graphic designer Saul Bass created the United Way logo--the helping hand cradling mankind and surrounded by a rainbow to symbolize hope.


The year of the Major Givers' Soceity. The national Alexis de Tocqueville Society was also founded in 1972, to recognize individuals who have rendered outstanding service as volunteers in their own communities or nationally. Membership in the Society is granted to individuals who contribute at least $10,000 annually to the United Way. Eventually, recognition levels for single contributors exceeded $1 million, and fundraising with these leadership and major givers reached a significant portion of national United Way revenues. In 2005, United Way International launched a pilot program to expand the concepts and practices of major gift fundraising among international member organizations.


The total fundraising of all United Ways passed one billion U.S. dollars in 1974; the first time in history that the annual campaign of a single organization raised more than one billion dollars. In 1985, they surpassed $2 billion, and that number currently hovers around $5 billion worldwide.

That same year, United Way International was created to fund and support United Way organizations around the world, outside the U.S., and Canadian movements. At that time, it operated as an independent department financially supported by the United Way of America national organization. In 1992, it was registered as a seperate organization, with its own international governing board. To the 24 United Way countries founded between 1887 and 1992, United Way International added 20 more in the following 15 years, with 11 more to come in 2008.


For twenty years (1970-1990), the United Way movement in the U.S. achieved remarkable successes. These included the partnership with the hugely popular National Football League, the recreation of a National Academy of Volunteerism (NAV) to elevate professional competencies in core United Way businesses supporting United Way around the country, and Emergency Food & Shelter partnership with the federal government to cope with a crisis of homelessness in the 1980s, and more.

Get Involved

Plymouth Community United Way

960 W. Ann Arbor Trail, Suite 2
Plymouth, MI  48170
Phone:  734-453-6879