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Printed from the Charlotte Observer - www.CharlotteObserver.com
Posted: Wednesday, Sep. 03, 2008

United Way's troops will need their flak jackets

By Mark Washburn
Published in: United Way

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They'd probably rather pet a porcupine than perform this civic duty, but people in your workplace will nonetheless be coming at you, beginning this week, to collect a United Way pledge.

Brave people. Foot soldiers in the cause. On a suicide mission.

Folks are sore, plenty sore, about the charity's money-spending ways. People on the front lines can expect to get an earful. Probably two earfuls.

If you're one of these sacrificial souls, I offer you this advice: Let them vent, then get on message. There's 91 agencies United Way supports in the region, compassionate organizations that do everything from tutor at-risk kids to assist the mentally ill.

Give a couple examples, then leave the prospective donors to their consciences. That's all you can do.

And in doing so, you will have done better than the charity itself. At least you behaved humbly and spoke from the heart.

Now, some advice for the charity's overseers.

United Way has assembled a board that includes many of the region's top CEOs – leaders in education, medicine, government, titans of industry, a team more powerful than Joe Biden's teeth whitener.

And with a stunning cast like this, things just get worse for United Way?

Yep, they do.

When the press came asking about the salary and benefits being paid to CEO Gloria Pace King, United Way stonewalled many of the details.

Once King was ousted, United Way apologized and said it was time to move on, explanations about King's severance, travel and expense account be damned.

United Way leaders around the country speak in lockstep about the value of transparency.

It's transparently obvious that the local United Way doesn't think much of the common people it depends upon around here for support.

If it did, it would come clean about how donors' money was spent.

If it did, it wouldn't hire an interim director in the midst of a paycheck scandal at the astonishing salary of $20,000 a month.

If it did, it would explain how King's salary and retirement benefits shot up to $1.2 million, among the best – if not the best – package in the country for a United Way exec.

People can't be blamed for wondering whether every cent they give this year will go to IRS penalties or to interim director Mac Everett's paycheck or to some other mysterious, unknowable expense, maybe Bill Diehl's barber.

Fact is, United Way's overhead is at about 15 percent, which isn't exorbitant in the charity business.

What is over-the-top is the agency's mule-headed stubbornness about coming clean.

So here's the advice to United Way's board: Get all this out in the open. All of it. Disclose the details, demystify the spending and suffer the fallout.

And do it now. Don't wait for attorney Bob Sink's investigation. People are wondering what you're hiding. And if something is being hidden, they deserve to know it now, not after they've signed that pledge card.

United Way has bumbled its public relations strategy. And when you're a charity, public relations is mighty important. But it's not everything.

What's everything is public trust.

Mark Washburn: mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

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