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United Way CEO: Let's get past this

Forgive, even if you can't forget.

That's the message the United Way's new interim CEO has for the public as the agency prepares to launch its annual fundraising drive next week.

In an interview Thursday with the Observer, civic activist and former Wachovia executive Mac Everett, 61, said he won't dwell on or discuss the pay controversy that cost former president and CEO Gloria Pace King her job.

“People maybe have a reason to be angry, I don't know,” he said. “…What's done is done. I hope people will choose to get beyond this for the time being and let's focus on the campaign. You don't have to forget. But I do believe you forgive.”

King was relieved of her CEO duties this week in response to growing public ire over the United Way board's decision to pay her $1.2 million in salary and retirement benefits last year.

The board issued an apology, admitted it was mistaken and created an independent review panel headed by attorney Robert Sink to investigate the compensation and suggest improvements to the agency.

The board then asked Everett to serve up to four months as CEO. His monthly salary will be $20,000; Everett said he did not consider working for free. “It's a full-time job,” he said.

In a nearly hour-long interview, Everett declined to discuss King's performance and why she was relieved of her duties. He said he would not advocate releasing the meeting minutes associated with King's salary and benefits prior to the campaign's conclusion. The release, he said, should be left to the independent panel.

“My main focus is the campaign. I've made a commitment not to exceed four months,” he said. “… It's a pretty critical time for the United Way. The staff is ready and prepared for the campaign. My job is just to support them.”

United Way serves 91 agencies. Some have expressed concern that the controversy over King's salary issue will cause a drop in donations. A Carolinas Poll, conducted by the Observer and WCNC-TV, showed 29 percent of those who had heard of the controversy planned to reduce their donations this year.

Everett declined to go into detail about how United Way would meet the challenge, saying staffers would use “focus and discipline” in reminding potential donors of the community's pressing needs.

“What's happened has happened. And I'm going forward.”

Q&A WITH MAC EVERETTE

Mac Everett, the retired Wachovia executive in charge of this year's United Way fundraising drive, sat for a nearly one-hour interview Thursday with Observer staffers.

Everett, 61, retired four years ago as head of Wachovia's head of corporate and community affairs. He is tournament chairman of the Wachovia Championship and was a recent chairman of the board of trustees at UNC Charlotte. He's been involved with the YMCA, Charlotte Chamber and the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission. In appointing him, board members said his name was “synonymous with community service in Charlotte.”

In the interview, he focused on the campaign and refused to discuss the board's handling of former CEO and President Gloria Pace King's compensation. He said those questions will be answered later this year by a task force headed by Charlotte lawyer Robert Sink.

That group is expected to reveal its findings by year's end. Although the fundraising campaign likely will be over by then, he stressed his belief that potential donors' anger and concern will be outweighed by their desire to help the needy.

Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Are you talking to people yet? How are they feeling about the United Way?

They're feeling that they probably haven't been communicated with as well as they should have. Unfortunately, there will be people who will point to the controversy at the United Way as a reason for not giving or changing their giving habits, when in fact I think a bigger driver is the economy.

Q: What would you say to United Way donors who are skeptical about giving this year?

With the economic times of today, there are many people who are going to need services of a United Way agency this year who didn't need it last year … All you have to do is look at the price of gas or the price of groceries to see that. Anybody that's willing to look past the controversy at the United Way to the needs can see that the needs are greater than they've ever been before.

Q: Will the United Way do anything differently in this year's campaign to address the anger of potential donors?

People maybe have a reason to be angry, I don't know. God gives us one day at a time, and God gives us the freedom to use each day as we see fit. I choose to look at the positives in a day and look at the future and not dwell on the negatives of the past. What's done is done. I hope people will choose to get beyond this for the time being and let's focus on the campaign. You don't have to forget. But I do believe you forgive.

Q: But the anger over King's pay package is affecting donor reaction to the upcoming campaign, and it's been left to you to sort through it.

No it hasn't. It's being addressed in other ways. Frankly I don't want to know any more than what I know about it. This may sound funny to you guys whose job it is to sell newspapers, but I'm just not going to dwell on the past.

Q: So there's not going to be a new approach to the campaign because of this controversy?

You're exactly right. It's going to be blocking and tackling. Making the calls. Sitting in front of people. Telling them what the needs are, and saying to them, ‘Look, what's done is done, and we've got people to take care of in this community.'

Q: Wouldn't it make sense to release all internal information and documents now so the public can see what went wrong?

I disagree. You need all the facts, and then release them in an orderly way. And that's what Bob Sink's going to do. You can't hand out raw information until it's put in context.

Q: So there's no way for potential donors to find answers?

I'm not looking for answers. Here's what I believe. I believe this about sin. People say you've got to resist sin. Well, if you resist sin, it's always in your mind. What you've got to do is replace it with something good. And that's what I'm doing.

Q: How does the United Way regain the public's trust?

You can't do it quickly. It's a process. It's going to take a lot longer than this campaign. It's going to take a lot of positive actions on the part of a lot of people. To me, this campaign is the first step in that process.

Q: Average workers say they have felt pressured in their workplaces to contribute to the United Way, only to see that their money hasn't been properly overseen. Do you have any comments about that?

We have to go about a process of reestablishing trust and confidence with those people. It may be time to evaluate some different ways of doing things. I don't know what (those ways) are at the moment, but that's certainly a suggestion I plan to make to the next CEO.

Q: What are your thoughts on Ms. King?

Gloria and I have been friends for a long time. The United Way has done wonderful things under her leadership.

Q: I understand you're focused on the campaign, but what the board chooses to do or not do concerning transparency will affect it.

We're going to be as transparent as anybody wants us to be over the next four months.

Q: Ms. King's expense account records, for example, should they release that? Would that help you in your job?

I don't know. That's totally up to them (the board). What did I just say?

Q: Will you be giving your opinion or guidance to the board?

If somebody asks me I'd be glad to give my opinion to them.

Q: If you were asked, would you tell them to release the expenses?

I haven't been asked.

Q: We're asking now.

Let me stop you right there. We're not going there. I'm focused on the campaign.

Q: How did you all set the $20,000-a-month pay that you would receive as interim CEO?

I didn't set it. I found out about it in the newspaper.

Q: Really?

When I talked to them last Friday there were some ranges talked about.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on whether a campaign goal should be set this year?

I do, but I'm going to share that with the regional campaign cabinet and the board before I share it with anybody else.

Staff writer Kerry Hall contributed to this article.
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