King made agency into a national star

Even her toughest critics admit that Gloria Pace King was good for Charlotte.

As president and CEO of the United Way of Central Carolinas, she consistently topped her aggressive campaign goals, raised public awareness of local charities, and asserted herself as a spokesperson for women's causes and diversity.

She was well paid, too.

King's 14-year tenure came to an abrupt end this week, when her board said it was wrong last year to pay her $1.2 million in pay and benefits.

Critics have accused the board – which voted on the pay plan – of being out of touch with reality, or just plain insensitive to the average people who scrape together their donations.

The board has refused to release details of its pay discussions, and King has declined interviews, which is a departure from her style. If anything, she has a history of being outspoken and bold about her decisions, most of which helped turn a once stagnant nonprofit agency into a national model for United Ways.

For King that was only the start.

She once said in an interview: “I want the most admired United Way in the world.”

No backing down

King, 63, has faced controversy before, including bad publicity over everything from her free parking pass at the airport to a 1995 decision to cut support to 33 United Way agencies. However, it's her pay and benefits that have dogged her tenure almost from the start.

In 1994 – her first year in Charlotte – Pace's salary of $120,000 prompted letters to the Observer, such as the one from Christopher Smith of Mooresville, who asked: “Is it ethically prudent for a single charity organizer to earn more than 98 percent of all American families?”

Salary came up again in 2003, when her pay had doubled to $254,711, in addition to $30,058 in benefits and $18,268 for expenses. At the same time, the agency was outpacing other large cities in overhead costs: 15 cents of every dollar – or about 4 percent higher than what was recommended.

King was unapologetic, noting her operation was bringing in more money per capita than 90 percent of the nation's large United Ways. “Nobody knows better than us how the donors feel about the stewardship of their money and the return on the investment,” she said.

Not everybody believed her. The next year, Cabarrus County government broke away and began its own charitable fund, partly because some county employees were uncomfortable with King's salary and administrative costs.

Outspoken, demanding

Allies describe King as “scrappy,” “outspoken” and “passionate.”

It's her initiative that endeared King to the board in 1994. She was one of two finalists picked from 175 applicants. At the time, King was a divorced mother who worked as a senior vice president of the United Way of Cleveland.

Russell Robinson, who was on the job-search committee, says King stood out as someone who could be seen as a leader in a town full of powerful corporate heads.

He remembers her initiative. After being invited to interview for CEO, Robinson says King drove from Cleveland to Charlotte, and spent several days getting to know the city.

“When she appeared before our committee,” he recalls, “she knew the name of every committee member, what they did, and – when we started in with the interview – she was telling us what she saw as the needs of the community.”

Over the years, he learned she also had a penchant for speaking her mind: “If she disagrees with you, she'll tell you in an amiable way.”

Others saw that differently.

At least 10 people who said they were afraid to criticize King publicly described her in private as temperamental and prone to criticizing her staff in public. “Gloria runs an operation that is based on keeping her employees … fearful,” said one.

Still, none can deny that King helped Charlotte's United Way earn a national reputation. The agency had failed to meet its campaign goals two years prior to her arrival. Since then, it has gone from raising $18 million annually to $45.3 million.

“Charlotte's United Way, quite simply, became a star in the system,” says Jim Hynes, the 1995 campaign chair.

“That's why this whole thing is such a tragedy for Charlotte. Everybody is a loser. She was constantly being recruited by other major cities … She has been a national superstar.”

Staff writers Eric Frazier and Kerry Hall contributed.