Too-generous pay could hurt United Way mission

News that last year's compensation package for the president of United Way of Central Carolinas was more than $1.2 million has raised as many eyebrows in the Piedmont as a go-go dancer at a church picnic.

The package included $365,000 in salary and bonus and more than $822,000 in a contribution to her retirement plan.

Granted, it's naive to think someone who's doing a good job running a large nonprofit in a city like Charlotte is going to work for a puny sum. Few who are familiar with the United Way would dispute that its president, Gloria Pace King, deserves a good salary. But in these sagging economic times it's easy to foresee that many people who donate generously to help the United Way help the needy will be disturbed by a pay package that, compared to most people's, is so lavish.

An Observer investigation in 2002 looked at United Way pay and found Ms. King's pay ($303,000 in 2001 with $30,058 in benefits) was fifth-highest among executives for the 50 largest United Ways.

The agency's public image wasn't helped, either, by the clumsy way it originally dealt with reporters' questions about the $822,000 that went into Ms. King's retirement plan. Calls by the Observer to the agency Tuesday weren't returned.

Board chairman Graham Denton later explained the $822,000 was an unusually large amount, to make up for not having increased its contributions beginning in 2000 or 2001 to fund a special retirement plan for Ms. King. Why weren't the payments made earlier? “It's obviously a nonprofit organization. It may not have the depth of understanding of these topics,” Mr. Denton – who retired in 2007 as Bank of America Corp.'s Charlotte and N.C. market president – told the Observer's Kerry Hall.

It's possible, of course, the nonprofit did misunderstand those complexities. Yet its executive committee in recent years has included not only Mr. Denton but Bank of America and Wachovia's CEOs.

It's disingenuous for United Way leaders to say, on one hand, that they look at comparable corporate pay when setting Ms. King's compensation and on the other hand that they're just a nonprofit that maybe doesn't understand the intricacies of executive pay packages.

The United Way is an important community agency. It allocates money to dozens of valuable groups such as Crisis Assistance Ministry, the Metrolina AIDS Project and Charlotte's Uptown Shelter. Its leaders should have a clearer understanding of how damaging it could be to the agency's standing in the community if many potential donors are turned off by corporate pay that's, in a word, excessive.