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United Way executive emphasizes customers

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Joseph M. Capita recently announced his retirement from the United Way of the Capital Region after 16 years as president and 

During every year of his tenure, the Cumberland County-based nonprofit 
completed successful fundraising campaigns.

Before joining UWCR, 62-year-old Capita worked for two other United Way organizations and for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg. He has a bachelor's degree from West Chester University and master's 
degree from Penn State Harrisburg. Capita lives in Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County.

With more than three decades of experience in how to run a successful nonprofit, the Business Journal sat down to talk with Capita to gain insight on how to keep competing in a tight economy.

Q: There's chatter in the nonprofit community about functioning more like businesses — do you think this is something nonprofits should consider? What areas could they look at to change to be more business-like?

A: In general, functioning more like a business is to (a nonprofit's) benefit. We live in a very difficult financial environment; if we don't prove to the donors that we're accountable and do good things with their money, (the donors) will find people who are.

Nonprofit organizations really have to determine what they do and what their mission is. They don't necessarily have to counter or change their mission, but how they approach the way they work might need to be different in a pretty significant way.

Our mission (at the United Way) hasn't changed in the last 90 years: raising money in the community and distributing it to agencies for people who need it most. However, how we go about marketing ourselves, structuring ourselves and promoting ourselves has changed. I think it's important for nonprofits to be flexible about how they can make a difference.

Nonprofits need to identify who their customers are and what they value, and continue to provide the services that they think (are) important. We've said our donors are our customers, though other United Ways might say the community is the customer or the community agencies are the customers. We always ask ourselves the question: "How can we efficiently and effectively help the donors facilitate charitable giving in our community?"

Most nonprofits operate with a board of trustees; how can that have a positive effect on operations? Are there any ways it's a challenge?

I think the challenge is there are more people to make happy. There are people you have to bring along. If you're trying to build consensus, it's more difficult to get from 33 people than 10 or 12 people. The flip side of that is it does make you take time to put together a compelling case that is convincing; it makes you think through what you need to do. Nevertheless, (a large board) can slow you down sometimes.

Some advantages of a board are clear accountability and oversight, people helping you determine what you do best and helping you verify to those in the community that you do good work. With a large board and committees of volunteers, you can keep operating costs down. It also means you have more ambassadors in the community who understand what you do and help advocate for you to others in the community.

Nonprofits are sometimes seen as having the same people in leadership, whether board or paid executives, for many years. How can that positively affect the nonprofit's functionality and effectiveness? How might it negatively impact the nonprofit over the years?

I think the drawbacks of having people in positions too long is that you have a tendency to do the same things you always did in the same way you've always done them. You run the risk of getting into a rut and staying there. From a board standpoint, bringing new people in brings new ideas and energy to an organization. With a board that's been in place too long, you could send the wrong message to the community that your (organization is) closed, elitist and not open to new ideas. It's good to cycle people through so that the community knows you're open to new ideas and reflective of the community's needs.

The good thing about having longevity in leadership is there exists a more clear understanding of what you do well and what you don't do well, in terms of consistency and continuity.

Businesses are constantly shifting to meet new trends in their industries, customer's needs or the changing economic climate. Do nonprofits have to be as fluid and flexible as businesses? How so?

I think many nonprofits need to be able to change to be successful, not contradicting their missions, but changing how they do business. I think they have to constantly look to figure out how they can do what they're doing better. I know here we have the same number of full-time employees as when I started here more than 16 years ago, but we're a much different organization than we were then. I think there are reasons why we can do more with the same, and I think other charities have to constantly look for economies to do their business more efficiently and effectively.

Does the United Way of the Capital Region's future plans have the potential to hurt other competing nonprofits in the community?

All nonprofits in the community have access to receiving funds through the United Way Campaign. Access to the United Way can be a little bit restrictive at times … there's a finite amount of money that we have to distribute to the community and you can't make everybody happy. We have a system to bring in new agencies to meet rising needs in the community.

It's a competitive business now with so many nonprofits looking for support. If (donors) don't think an agency is being accountable and efficient, it's easy to find information about other charities. It's imperative that we change to better meet the needs that people are expecting us to meet.

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