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United Way opens fund drive today

After weeks of upheaval from a controversial CEO pay plan and abrupt leadership changes, Charlotte's United Way sets itself today to the task for which it was created: Raising millions of dollars for local charities.

The agency's annual campaign kicks off at 8 a.m., ushering in a month that has become the traditional time for United Way drives throughout the region.

All have reason to worry. The nation's sluggish economy is predicted to bite down on contributions. Also worrisome, donors throughout the region continue to express anger over a decision by United Way of Central Carolinas to pay its former CEO $1.2 million in salary and benefits last year.

Gloria Pace King was relieved of her duties last week because of negative public reaction, and on Wednesday, Graham Denton resigned as chairman of the agency's board, claiming he'd lost his ability to lead.

The agency, which supports 91 charities and raised $45 million last year, hopes the worst is behind it. It took the unusual step of notching down the pressure by not setting a monetary campaign goal this year.

Along with Mecklenburg, the Charlotte office serves Anson, Cabarrus and Union counties and the Mooresville/Lake Norman area of southern Iredell.

Area United Ways not affiliated with Charlotte are concerned that an unforgiving public will blame them for King's pay package. United Way operations in Gaston, Iredell, Stanly, Cleveland, York and Lancaster counties say their volunteers have fielded questions about the controversy in Charlotte. In some cases, donors have demanded apologies and vowed never to give another dime.

Pat Stewart, executive director of the United Way of Iredell County, said shortly after the Charlotte controversy erupted she got a call from the vice president of an important donor company, canceling his personal pledge.

“Anything that happens at one United Way, no matter how far away it is, has the potential of impacting your local campaign,” she said.

In response, the Iredell agency put out a fact sheet stressing its accountability. It also published Stewart's salary.

“What worries us most are the people who are upset, but don't call us,” she added. “I received one hand-written letter on the back of a solicitation letter, saying they were not going to support our campaign because of what's going on in Charlotte. They didn't give a name, so I can't call them back with the facts.”

Outlying agencies say their chief strategy has been to explain that most United Ways are separate entities, not connected by a single board of directors.

Even if their efforts succeed, a pricklier issue remains. Commuters who donate to Central Carolinas can earmark money for their home communities. In Iredell County, this accounts for more than $100,000 each year. In York County, it's $350,000, or 19 percent of that United Way's budget.

“If there is a problem in Charlotte, there is going to be a problem here,” said Kim Keel, president of the United Way of York County.

“What appeared appropriate for Charlotte would not play well here. Obviously, it did not play well there either.”