Controversy may reduce contributions

The controversy surrounding the compensation package for the head of the United Way of Central Carolinas has some donors saying they will reduce their contributions this year, according to a recent poll.

Among those who had heard of the controversy, some 29 percent said they would reduce their donations this year and wealthier people said this the most often. About 26 percent of those polled said it would not affect their donations, according to the Carolinas Poll, conducted by the Observer and NewsChannel 36.

As United Way raises money for next year, the survey found about half of the residents in the area served by the United Way of Central Carolinas were aware of the controversy about the pay and retirement benefits to United Way President Gloria Pace King. Of those, about 54 percent said they think the controversy will greatly hurt the United Way's donations, according to the poll. About 35 percent said donations would be hurt slightly and 9 percent said it wouldn't hurt.

Graham Denton, chairman of the board of the agency, said in a statement Sunday, “The United Way of Central Carolinas has been listening to the community's concerns, and the message has been received loud and clear. We look forward to addressing these concerns in the near future and announcing measures that will restore public confidence and trust in our organization and return the focus to the mission at hand – building support for the nearly 100 agencies and 200 crucial assistance programs that help our neighbors in need.”

The results come amid the continuing controversy over King's compensation, which is among the highest compared to those in United Ways around the country. The debate was sparked when it was reported by the Observer and NewsChannel 36 that the United Way's board of directors added $822,000 to King's retirement benefits last year, an increase over the $108,000 paid in 2006. It plans to pay between $450,000 and $500,000 into her retirement account each year for the next three years. All told, she received more than $1.2 million in compensation last year, including bonus and salary.

The Charlotte board has said the additional retirement payments were needed to make up for short payments in previous years. It has declined to explain why the catch-up payments were needed or say how it set the size of King's pay package.

The United Way of Central Carolinas is ranked among the United Way's top 20 largest fundraisers. The watchdog group Charity Navigator gives King's agency high marks for efficiency. King, president and CEO since 1994, has declined comment since reports about her pay surfaced in June. Her board has defended her salary and benefits as appropriate among top-performing executives. It has praised her ability to recruit big donors, who have played an increasingly important role in the agency's annual fundraising campaign. During King's tenure, the agency has become second among United Ways in the number of donors giving at least $10,000.

She has hired prominent Charlotte lawyer Bill Diehl to represent her in negotiations with her board of directors stemming from what has become a growing controversy over her pay and benefits.

King could not be reached Sunday.

Interviews Sunday with the people who had been polled found a range of opinions.

Phillip Gray, a small business owner from Concord, was one of those polled. He said he'll ask his employees whether they want to give money to United Way or another charity this year. But with the controversy over King's compensation, he said it's likely the company will support another group.

“There's so many worthwhile causes,” Gray said. “Where (the United Way) used to have a monopoly and that was always the first thing I thought of … if they could afford to do that, they probably don't need my three hundred dollars.”

Tommy Patterson, who lives in Mecklenburg County, said he thinks the controversy could adversely affect the campaign some this year but it's not likely to have any kind of long-term effect.

But he still gave money this year. “It really didn't affect me when I gave my contribution,” Patterson said. “I know the United Way does a lot of good things. I've always tried to give regardless of whatever is going on.”

Some people surveyed said King's compensation is no different than that of a top bank executive or leaders of other nonprofit groups.

“I think this is being blown out of proportion,” said Beverly Carter of Charlotte. “If they (the board) would have done this correctly, it wouldn't have happened this way.”

The United Way raised $43.5 million last year. It supports 91 organizations in Mecklenburg, Anson, Cabarrus and Union counties, as well as the Mooresville-Lake Norman area. United Family Services, a social services agency in Charlotte, gets $1.7 million a year – more than a quarter of its revenues – from the United Way. Victoria Cherrie contributed.