Reflecting on Digital Marketing at United Way

Guest Blogger:  Claire MacLeod, United Way summer student

It’s always baffled me how some of the jobs we have today have professional histories extending back over a thousand years. And of course, how little or how much some of them have changed. When the first medieval European universities rose out of the cathedral schools in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the fields of study and professional training  were, to say the least, very different from today. If I had studied for my ‘Master of Arts’ at Bologna, Paris, Salerno, or Oxford in the twelfth century, my course of study would have covered the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) followed by the quadrivium (astronomy, arithmetic, music, geometry).[1] Professional training focused primarily on theology for clerics, Roman and canon law for both secular and ecclesiastic lawyers, and medicine for doctors. While medical knowledge in the medieval Arab world was incredibly sophisticated, modern health-care professionals, outside of antiquarian fascination, would find limited practical information in former European authorities like Galen or Hippocrates.[2] Modern theologians, however, still include medieval authors like Aquinas, Bacon, or Anselm in their required reading.  Law schools today offer valuable courses in Roman and canon law that train professional lawyers through study of centuries-old cases.


At first glance, the work I did at United Way this summer has no such professional history. The first few weeks of my time here involved finishing up a new website ( and transferring old content onto the new domain. I am not a web developer (yet) and can’t code my way out of a paper bag (yet). However, my age and familiarity with WordPress have placed me in positions where I am ‘the computer expert’ and therefore qualified to change the font-size on a homepage. ‘Web development’ as a profession is barely older than I am with the first ‘website’ being created by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1990. However, at an amateur level, with non-techies like me building websites using content-management-systems and specializing in digital marketing, my job this summer didn’t even exist when I was born. This is especially so for social media. Facebook (founded 2004), Twitter (founded 2007), and Instagram (founded 2010) were all initially created as social media platforms within my lifetime and are now powerful tools for businesses and charities to strategically target their audiences. I can see this relative recency of digital marketing on social media in the data I worked on this summer. To develop a strategic marketing plan, I looked over United Way’s social media insights and Google analytics. Most of this data was mapped on a timeline that did not extend before 2013. Furthermore, my Googling ‘What are the rules of digital marketing?’ returned varied and contradictory results. Yes, there are general guidelines: ‘Post a lot’, ‘Always include a picture’, ‘Don’t be racist/sexist/homophobic etc.’ However, unlike Catholic canon, the ‘digital marketing orthodoxy’ is in a state of constant change and seems immune to historical precedent.


Yet, while digital marketing at United Way felt removed from history, the actual work of the charity is thoroughly grounded in its own historical precedent. Today, what they do is called ‘strategic community investment’ but one can see similar parallels to the urban monastic orders of the 12th and 13th century which distributed donations to the local poor as well as investing in hospitals and schools.[3] By 1927, it was ‘community chests’ that acted as a social safety net in a time of urbanization, war, economic depression, and population growth. That community chest movement grew throughout the 20th century and provided a model for the post-war social welfare plans. As the organization expanded in the 1980’s into Canadian workplaces, it found its logo and its unique identity. Today, the work that United Way does in this province carries an equal legacy as medieval doctors, lawyers, and theologians. The role of a ‘community fund’ as a way for businesses and individuals to support their community has a long tradition that is worthy of United Way. Thanks for a great summer, everyone!


If you would like to know more about what United Way does, visit the ‘About’ page on their website! (



[1] Rait, R.S., Life in the Medieval University, (Cambridge, 1912), p. 138

[2] Jim Al-Kahlil, The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, (London, 2010), p. 45.

[3] Adam J. Davis, ‘The Social and Religious Meanings of Charity in Medieval Europe’ History Compass Vol. 12, No. 10, (2014) p. 935-950.