La Crosse County Emergency Response Fund activated in response to COVID-19. More details here.


United Ways and community foundations: What’s the difference?

April 15, 2021

Jamie Schloegel, Executive DirectorBy Jamie Schloegel, Executive Director

Understanding United Ways and community foundations

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from folks is how does the community foundation differ from United Way? It is a great question, and one of my favorites to explain.

Both organizations are important resources to our region and bring to the table different approaches to addressing community need. Neither is better or more superior; instead, each holds a piece of the puzzle to solving and managing serious issues that threaten the livelihoods of the people living in the communities we serve.

How we’re different

Some have described the differences by suggesting the United Way is more like the community’s checkbook, raising and distributing money annually, while community foundation’s are more like a savings account, distributing grants from the income of endowment funds forever.

United Ways typically focuses on health and human services, while a community foundation’s scope of funding is much broader and includes working in areas such arts and culture, the environment, culture and diversity, healthy recreation and wellness opportunities, as well as health and human services.

Communities with both a United Way and a community foundation are better off

Ultimately, the most vibrant communities are fortunate to have both. Our different roles and strengths complement each other. We both exist to improve the quality of life in the regions we serve.

And when we work together – which we often do here in La Crosse County – we can be an enormously powerful philanthropic force.

Partnering to help the community through COVIDThe official logo of the La Crosse Area Emergency Response Fund, featuring the logos of both La Crosse Community Foundation and Great Rivers United Way, and a cute, orange COVID virus molecule

The most recent example of community benefit from this power couple working together is the La Crosse Area Emergency Response Fund. Just one day after the Safer at Home order was enacted last March, we launched the emergency fund together in response to anticipated community need related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through our combined networks, we were able to raise over $1,000,000 in just six weeks.  I’m confident that is much more than we could have ever raised each on our own.

The main differences between United Ways and community foundations


  • Provides for new undertakings for special projects, emergency needs
  • Broad-based grantmaking
  • One-time, project-based, and/or time-limited funding for general operations
  • Endowment held in perpetuity
  • Assets come from larger one-time or bequest gifts through traditional donor relations
  • Community savings account for charitable needs
  • All charitable organizations in a defined geographic region are eligible to apply for funding


  • Provides for ongoing operations of programs and occasional short-term projects
  • Focused on human services
  • Continual annual funding for general operations
  • Funds raised and dispersed each year
  • Most assets come from smaller annual gifts, mostly secured through employee giving campaigns at local companies
  • Community checking account for charitable needs
  • Certified partner or member organizations are eligible to apply for funding

Serving the community, together

At the end of the day, local do-gooders can be rest assured that gifts to either the United Way or the community foundation will do good work here and will be spent with the biggest community impact in mind. And we love working together to improve efficiencies in distributing crisis funding and figuring out the best ways to improve the community. We are happy to be here, serving you, together.