Who gets hurt when the well runs dry?

Arthritis Pain Services is not a household phrase in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. But to residents suffering debilitating arthritis and fibromyalgia, it's a crucial lifeline. The agency provides pain management education to victims of those diseases, helping them live more active, comfortable and productive lives.

It's one of 91 agencies receiving money from United Way of Central Carolinas – and an excellent example of what's at risk if upheaval and poor decisions made by the board drive away donors from this year's fund drive.

People have every reason to be dismayed at what has happened. They have every right to demand more financial transparency and more openness from the United Way board of directors. But if donors opt not to give to United Way, the people who depend on affiliated agencies are the ones being punished.

Is that right? Think it over.

United Way of Central Carolinas has kicked off its annual fund raising campaign amid an economic slump that's daunting enough. Yet the agency has dug itself an even deeper hole.

Gloria Pace King was relieved of her duties as CEO in August because of negative public reaction to a decision to pay her some $1.2 million in salary and a contribution to her retirement fund last year. The board chairman resigned as well, saying he'd lost his ability to lead.

That level of compensation is significantly higher than executives earn at comparable or most of the larger United Way agencies. It's also lavish for an agency that raises its money from thousands and thousands of donors who pay small amounts weekly from their paychecks.

Yet the problem goes deeper: The board has not been timely, clear or transparent in explaining how, when, why and by whom that compensation package was devised.

Some donors have demanded apologies and vowed not to give another dime. Many others are silently reconsidering their support, wondering whether United Way is a good steward of charitable dollars.

United Way has named a capable interim chairman, Mac Everett, and designated a review panel to investigate what happened. But the board also needs to open its books to the public – now – and show them how donations are spent.

Even so, the operations of the agencies supported by United Way dollars aren't in question. Nor are the urgent human needs behind the services they provide.

If this year's fund drive falls flat or short, United Way will recover. The agencies it supports – particularly the smaller, less visible ones – might not. Giving is a personal decision. But it's also a critical thread in a community's safety net.

We should demand straightforward answers and reforms from United Way of Central Carolinas. But we must be honest with ourselves, too, about who's hurt when the well of charity runs dry.

Abhor the actions of the United Way, yes. But don't punish people in need.