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Charlotte’s United Way hires Sean Garrett as new head

Charlotte’s United Way has hired a new executive director who’s young, has worked for United Ways his entire career and will bring top-tier fundraising experience to an agency still rebuilding after an executive pay scandal rocked the community in 2008.

Sean Garrett, 32 and currently vice president of development for United Way Worldwide in New York City, will begin the job in Charlotte on March 1 – just after the end of the United Way’s 2014-15 fundraising campaign.

United Way of Central Carolinas – its official name – raises millions of dollars, mostly from workplace campaigns, to help 82 health and human service agencies in Mecklenburg and four surrounding counties.

Garrett will succeed Jane McIntyre, who announced in August that she was resigning after an agency makeover that was widely credited with bringing stability and credibility to Charlotte’s United Way.

It lost both six years ago amid controversy over the nearly $300,000 salary and a subsequent lawsuit payout for then-Executive Director Gloria Pace King. Donations dropped by $14 million as public trust in the agency plummeted.

McIntyre, who was paid $152,397 last year in salary and benefits, cut pay and also reduced staff by half. And United Way’s annual operating budget went from $10.5 million to $5.6 million when she announced her retirement.

Even with a recession, McIntyre grew annual giving and, so far during her tenure, the United Way has paid out $83 million. She says it’s on target to meet the current campaign’s goal of $21.6 million.

Garrett will make about $180,000 in salary and benefits, United Way officials said, with the same retirement plan as other United Way employees and “no bonuses, no unusual benefits.”

United Way Worldwide, where Garrett has worked since 2010, is the parent company for United Ways and makes sure they are integrated in their approach to tackling poverty and other crises.

United Way’s new leader will be paid much less than top executives at YMCA of the Central Carolinas, the Arts & Science Council and Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont.

In a conference call interview Thursday, Garrett said he hoped to “continue the trust” McIntyre has restored, develop a “very public profile that is there to listen” and “begin to focus more externally.”

McIntyre and Ed O’Keefe, chairman of the United Way board and the search committee, were also on the call.

Thanks to McIntyre’s internal improvements, Garrett said, he’ll have a stronger organization behind him.

“And I’ll have the luxury,” he said, “to work with all the leaders in the Charlotte community and determine how we can come together and, frankly, what United Way can uniquely do on particular issues to help individuals in this community live happier, better and more stable lives.”

McIntyre, who said she was impressed with Garrett’s understanding of the importance of building relationships, has agreed to stay on part time for a few months to introduce him around town to leaders and donors.

“We have donors who are really anxious to meet him,” she said. “As two of them told me – some of our larger ones – ‘It’s very important you bring this new person to me and tell me why they’re going to be good.’ ”

Garrett has never managed a staff as big as the 50-member one he’ll inherit at Charlotte’s United Way. But O’Keefe said the board got an early commitment from the agency’s finance and administrative leadership team to work with McIntyre’s successor.

A New York native whose family moved to Atlanta when he was 11, Garrett has worked with United Ways since college with stops in Madison, Wis., Chicago and New York, where he raises money from sources that include foundations and corporations.

Garrett credited his parents’ dedication to service as the reason he decided to go to work for – and then stay with – the nonprofit organization. His father worked for nonprofits, including United Way, all his life, and his mother is a teacher of special needs children.

“At a very early age in my life,” Garrett said, “I was brought into an environment where we worked with others.”

Brian Gallagher, CEO of United Way Worldwide, said in a statement that he has followed Garrett’s career since he was selected for United Way’s annual management training program.

Gallagher added that Garrett is a good choice to carry on McIntyre’s efforts to restore the local agency’s reputation.

“He’s one of the most principled, ethical people that I know, and builds trust quickly and deeply,” Gallagher said of Garrett.

O’Keefe, who headed the search that began in August and drew more than 250 applicants, said Garrett’s fundraising talents and wide experience with United Ways made him rise above the others.

“When you look at Sean’s experience,” O’Keefe said, “you could see this is true personal dedication to the way the United Way can convene, can bring together, can act as that community leader, while at the same time delivering significant funding.”

Garrett’s relative youth may also have been a selling point, with O’Keefe adding that the search committee was looking for “a long-term leader.”

Garrett said he and his wife, Emily, a banker with J.P. Morgan Capital Corp., have reached a point where they want to plant roots.

With a 2-year-old son and a baby on the way, he said, “we really want to be part of a community. We both, right now, work in jobs that take us all around the country and all around the world. Charlotte could not be a better fit for us. People are welcoming of new folks. We just can’t wait to be part of that.”

And even though he’s a lifelong New York Giants fan and his wife roots for the New England Patriots, Garrett said they are warming to the idea of the Carolina Panthers.

Friday morning, Garrett is scheduled to be in Charlotte to meet with the United Way staff.

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