News and analysis
October 13, 2010

New United Way Project Points to Growing Presence Overseas

Stacey Stewart, an executive vice president of United Way, and Michael Sherraden, a microfinance expert, demonstrate video conferencing technology at the new Mary M. Gates Learning Center at United Way Worldwide.

With the help of a $10-million donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Way Worldwide on Wednesday opened a newly renovated video-conferencing and communications building that is expected to help the organization improve its work overseas.

At the heart of the new $12-million Learning Center, located along the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va., is a white auditorium. On opposite walls rest two large screens, faced by ceiling-mounted video cameras and digital projectors that can connect with United Way chapters from around the world.

United Way demonstrated the technology by streaming separate video feeds from San Francisco, Mumbai, and the Ball region of South Africa.

"At the end of the day, people have to come together and learn from each other in terms of dealing with the social issues they're confronted with," said Brian Gallagher, United Way's president. "This center gives us the ability to do that faster in real-time across lots of communities."

Hastened by recent economic troubles, many large charities are placing greater emphasis on international fund raising. United Way, which has a presence in 45 countries and territories, is no different.

With so many cultural and political views toward fund raising, such an international effort can run into problems that cannot be solved entirely by technology, Mr. Gallagher said.

"You still have to get face-to-face with folks, and you still have to get to know people," he said. "But [the new center] can accelerate it."

Behind all of the discussion about international fund raising, however, rests another important lesson for fund raisers: Never underestimate the breadth of a mother's influence on giving decisions.

That's why the United Way ended up getting $10-million for the center fromĀ  Bill Gates, who wanted to honor the volunteer work his mother did for United Way and other charities.

"She got us thinking from a young age what was volunteerism all about," said Mr. Gates of his mother, Mary, who served as the first female president of their hometown United Way and for whom the new center is named. "She set a great example and expected a lot of me."

Read this article from The Chronicle's archive about how United Way and other American charities are increasingly raising money abroad.