Scandal hurts local agencies


March 16, 1992|By LESTER A. PICKER

I've often used this column to rail against those who feel non-profit employees should be paid rock-bottom wages. Last week a reader, a non-profit board member, asked me if I still felt the same in light of revelations about William Aramony, who recently resigned as head of United Way of America.

The answer is yes, I still feel that the overwhelming majority of non-profit employees are underpaid and overworked, especially during these very difficult economic times. Client loads are up and revenues are down.

"Sorry folks, no raises this year," is becoming the non-profit battle cry of the '90s.

But I am angry. Damned angry.

In this column I have supported the work of our local United Way, as it strives to meet the escalating social needs of our community. When revelations of Mr. Aramony's $465,000 salary and unethical perks became public, I was personally outraged, in part because of the tainting of the local organization by the excesses of the national.

And, I'm not the only one to feel used. I've heard from dozens of people in the past two weeks -- assembly line workers, teachers, nurses, executives -- each of them donors to United Way. They're angry, too.

So, how does one make sense of all that has happened? Is ZTC United Way so damaged that it cannot bounce back? Is it worth it for us to donate our hard-earned dollars to an organization that seems to spend it on extravagances? Will United Way learn a lesson from this damaging scandal?

In the past few weeks I've had a chance to speak with United Way officials in many parts of the country. What I've found is a mixed bag of confusion, embarrassment, duplicity and -- like the rest of us -- anger.

Mr. Aramony is only part of the stench emanating from United Way of America. The United Way of America Board of Governors knew full well what his salary was and how ceremoniously he conducted his business.

To be so out of touch with mainstream America and the value systems of non-profit work is more than irresponsible. It is downright immoral. The entire Board of Governors of United Way should resign immediately. In shame.

Somewhere along the line, the United Way board members lost sight of their roles and duties to those who depend on United Way services. They became protectors of the executives. They justified exorbitant salaries and perks, and unethical hiring practices, to avoid confronting their own scandalous corporate salaries during times of earnings declines.

United Way of America needs some serious housecleaning, including its policies toward other federated campaigns. United Way simply cannot maintain its lock on workplace giving. This "keep-them-away-from-the-gates" mentality is partially responsible for the widespread consumer backlash felt today.

Competition is good, whether in manufacturing cars or in boosting philanthropy. United Way of America has to learn to be a better team player. So, should we all stop giving to United Way, to show our discontent?

The fact is that all local United Ways, including our own United Way of Central Maryland, are autonomous from the national. The national provides services, like advertising and bulk purchasing. In return, local United Ways turn over about a penny of every dollar raised.

Norm Taylor, chief executive of our local United Way, says, "We're embarrassed, hurt and saddened by what's happened at the national office. But we have to get on with the healing. People in need have to get served."

Our local United Way is governed by volunteers who run a tight ship. "We pride ourselves in being an open book for the community," Mr. Taylor says. "Our budget is reviewed by volunteers who ask very serious, hard questions." As well they should. In fact, our local United Way board, and all local boards, should have been asking those same hard questions of the national.

For my money, United Way is a good deal. No one wants every non-profit in town hustling funds. John Q. Public is already swamped by fund-raising appeals. United Way does a good job qualifying its members, maintaining high agency standards, identifying local needs, projecting social trends, and making sure our dollars are well spent. I don't have the time to check on every charity to which I would like to donate.

Mr. Taylor, with 24 years of service, is typical of most United Way professionals I know. They are knowledgeable, committed and competent. I see them applying my hard-earned dollars to good use in the community every day.

There are lots of lessons to be learned from the Aramony debacle. Local United Ways need to be more vigorous in getting the message out about what they do. They need to help us all understand that they are autonomous organizations.

And they need to keep administrative costs down, as our local United Way is able to do. United Way executives, at a time of high unemployment, need to internalize this message: "Thanks to you, we're working."

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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