United Way Worldwide History

United Way Worldwide History

1870-1920: 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 societies that referred people in need to the agencies best able to serve them.

1887: Denver, Colorado took another step towards the United Way model 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 needs 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:

  • The community needs assessments.
  • Information and referral to services.
  • Fostering information exchange and collaboration among service agencies (often using the new telephone technology).
  • Community-wide fundraising campaigns inviting all people to give, and not just the wealthy.
  • Organizational activities and money managed according to a strategy, a budget, and strict financial controls.
  • Community-wide planning councils, bringing agencies, donors, city leaders, and other groups to a single table to address problems together.
  • Allocation of funds to carefully-investigated agencies based on the community councils’ strategies.


1894: 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 Australia.

1943: 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.

1963: 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.

1972: 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.

1972: The year of the Major Givers’ Society. 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.

1974: 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 separate 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.

1992: 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.

Timeline of United Ways Founded Worldwide

1887: A United Way-like organization was founded in Denver, Colorado.

1917: The first “United Ways” in Montreal and Toronto, Canada appear. There are now 122 United Ways across the country, with a strong national office.

1928: Leaders in Cape Town, South Africa found the Community Chest of the Western Cape. Many years later, Community Chests around the country survived the elimination of apartheid and are still thriving today.

1947: Several Community Chests were founded in the Philippines in December 1947.

1947: That same month and year, recognizing the need for an organization dedicated to social welfare in war-devasted Japan, General Douglas MacArthur wrote the Community Chest model into the Articles of Surrender at the end of World War II. This provided a way to secure resources for badly-needed social welfare services. The Japanese parliament wrote the Community Chest into the Social Welfare Services law in 1951, making it an integral part of their community service strategies.

1953: United Way and United Trusts were established by a group of local charities in Liverpool, England originally known as the United Voluntary Organizations (UVO). They immediately took advantage of new laws granting donors the right to designate their payroll deduction gifts to the charities of their choice. They affiliated with United Way International in 1977, and ten years later became one of only four officially appointed charities authorized by the British Inland Revenue (tax department) to receive tax-exempt payroll gifts on a nationwide basis.

1954: The first United Way in Australia was the Geelong & District Community Chest, on the southern tip of the continent. The concept spread across the country, eventually necessitating a national office, United Way Australia, in 1979. The organization affiliated with United Way International in 1986.

1964: A group of leading business people who recognized that it is necessary for private enterprise to become involved with the development of their communities, founded Dividendo Voluntario Para la Comunidad, in Venezuela. DVC formally affiliated with United Way International in 1978.

1966: Fondos Unidos de Puerto Rico was established by five charitable institutions “to strengthen social and health care services,” through raising and allocating funds. Though it was a U.S. territory, giving through payroll deduction was not permitted on the island. It took the governing board of Fondos Unidos from 1968 to 1980 to push through a law permitting this type of giving. They affiliated with United Way International in 1981, and 20 years later ended up providing critical training and advice to the boom in new United Way organizations throughout Latin America.

1968: The Community Chest of Hong Kong was founded specifically, among other goals, “to compliment the work of the Government.”

1970: Philippine Business for School Progress (PBSP) was founded in 1970 by 50 of the country’s top business leaders as a response to the prevailing social unrest at the time. Business leaders realized that they needed to take on a more active role in helping to improve the lives of the Filipino poor. By pooling their resources, they believed they could create an impact far greater than the sum of their individual parts. They formally affiliated with United Way International in 1981.

1971: The government’s National Council on Social Welfare of Thailand, under the Royal Patronage of the King, founded United Way of Thailand to support the welfare services of existing charities and to collaborate with local and international organizations in providing accountable philanthropy.

1972: A group of European and U.S. corporate leaders founded the United Fund for Belgium to help them to contribute to the welfare of the Belgium people. The organization affiliated with United Way International in 1978.

1975: The United Way of Auckland was founded in 1975, and formally affiliated with the United Way International in 1987; shortly after if became United Way of New Zealand. It is helping to support new, growing interest in corporate social responsibility.

1978: The two United Ways in U.S. Virgin Islands – in St. Thomas-St. John and in St. Croix – were established in 1978 to revitalize the Community Chest organizations that had already existed for decades. They formally affiliated with United Way International in 1983.

1979: A group of Mexican and U.S volunteers founded Fondo Unido, I.A.P., Mexico in 1979. It is worth noting that the I.A.P. government designation (which translates as “Institution for Private Assitance”) is difficult to obtain and denotes a particular commitment to professionalism, effectiveness, and accountability.

1983: The National Council of Social Service (NCSS) created a wholly-owned subsidiary/partnet, the Community Chest of Singapore, in response to public concerns about competition for funds among voluntary welfare organizations (VWO’s). While the NCSS provides leadership, directions, and standards for 305 VWO’s in Singapore, the Community Chest raises funds for social service programs.

1985: United Way of Jamaica; founded through an alliance of the Council of Voluntary Social Services (CVSS) and United Way International, with seed funding from the U.S. International Development Agency.

1986: United Way of Baroda, India; founded through an alliance of the Baroda Citizens Council (BCC), UNICEF, and United Way International.

1988: United Way Mauritius was founded.

1990: The United Way model was the first charitable organization to operate in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is also one of the few foreign or domestic bodies that has the approval of the Russian authorities to legally collect and disburse funds for charitable purposes.

1990: Fundacion Ezquel was founded in 1990 by a group of leading sugar growers who wanted to directly combat poverty and build vibrant communities. Ten years later, they adopted the United Way model and affiliated with United Way International. Through their close, trusting partnerships with international foundations and government donors, they are now finding ways to involve local donors and volunteers in community self-help.

1991: United Ways began to appear in Hungary, building on a tradition of corporate and employee giving that had existed even under Communist rule. They affiliated with United Way International in 1999.

1992: Founded in 1992, the United Way of Chinese Taipei has catapulted to island-wide prominence in 1999 thanks to their highly effective response to a devastating earthquake, accompanied by the visible support of the popular mayor of Taipei.

1994: Established by the government Ministry of Civil Affairs in 1994, the Ministry encouraged the China Charity Federation to affiliate with United Way International in 1998 because they believed the United Way model was the key to an effective, vibrant nonprofit sector throughout the country.

1995: Leading Indonesian philanthropists and corporate leaders founded Yayasan Mitra Mandiri in 1995, which affiliated with United Way International the same year. They sought to fill a gap in the large nonprofit sector of that country: as a knowledgeable and trustworthy community partner for companies and a steward of sustainable community development projects. Since the devastating 2004 tsunami, it has focused nearly all of its work on revitalizing villages and lives affected by the disaster: building communities even better off than before the tsunami.

1995: United Way Belarus was established and affiliated with United Way International the same year. Though a registered charity, it is not possible for nonprofits in Belarus to deliver some of the traditional United Way services to the community, such as fundraising and volunteering opportunities. It sought to strengthen community services organizations by creating the country’s first national NGO support center.

1996: United Way of Poland was founded to explore new ways to coordinate voluntary aid with businesses, local governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s).

1997: The Asociacion Nicaraguense Americano was founded in 1997 to raise and effectively distribute vast amounts of donated products to the most effective community service agencies. In 2001, they affiliated with United Way International after learning about and deciding to adopt the United Way model.

The Community Chest of Korea was launched in 1998 as a national nonprofit organization spun off from the government. Over the next ten years, it tapped Korean’s traditional generosity to grow annual revenues dramatically, to over $200 million, largely through workplace campaigns. It is currently undergoing a transformation to the community impact model, seeking to focus and achieve lasting change in specific areas of focus.

1998: Since its founding, Fundacion Dividendo por Columbia has become one of the most respected and visible nonprofit organizations in the country, thanks in large part to its large-scale, effective work to reform the education of youth in rural and disadvantaged urban areas, a community impact strategy intended to sow the seeds of better lives for the next generation.

1999: United Way of Trinidad and Tobago was established and formally affiliated with United Way International that same year.

1999: Matan-Your Way to Give (United Way Israel) was established and formally affiliated with United Way International that same year. It nurtures an early movement toward corporate community investment by establishing itself as a knowledgeable and trustworthy community partner.

2001: Since its founding, Fondo Unido de Guatemala has become a leading, highly visible nonprofit known for its effectiveness, accountability, and productive partnerships with corporate citizens and their employees.

2001: Associacao Caminhando Juntos (ACJ) was funded primarily by a group of corporate leaders, with strong support from a local Catholic charity. As in Columbia, they have focused on improving the education of children and teenagers to prepare them for a brighter future.

2002: A group of leading local and multinational corporations founded Caminando Juntos in 2002, affiliating with United Way International the following year.

United Way Nigeria was founded by a cross-sector group of volunteers determined to building new capacity for social and economic development through giving and volunteering; they knew that, correctly managed, United Way would lead the sector in demonstrating best practices in accountability and transparency.

United Way Mumbai was founded and affiliated with United Way International in this year. It has engaged companies and their employees in satisfying giving and volunteering activities while, as a relatively small and new organization, focusing effectively on key areas of impact.

2003: Corporacion Sociedad Activa was established this year and formally affiliated with United Way International in 2004. Though the Chilean nonprofit sector was well-developed, CSA was perfectly positioned both to adapt the community impact model to local circumstances and to nuture new and growing interest in corporate social responsibility.

This year, the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) encouraged member corporations to make a three-year commitment to establish United Way Vietnam. The organization is still hosted by AmCham, and seeks to take a leadership role in developing a culture of giving in Vietnam by providing an easy, credible, and rewarding way for individuals and corporations to give back to the community.

United Way Ghana, founded primarily by leading businesspeople, has rapidly moved to understand and tap traditional leaders and traditional forms of community development. Their workplace involvement capacity grows along with its ability to plan and achieve program-level outcomes with carefully-chosen, accountable community partners.

2004: A group of international business and Romanian community leaders founded the United Way of Romania, bringing it to self-sustainability in record time.

2005: United Way Uganda was founded by a group of business leaders, respected government leaders, and community activists.

2007: The newest United Way countries will appear next in Argentina, St. Kitts, and France, along with a number of new local members throughout India.