United Way: Tarnished Image

April 10, 1992

Americans are justified in their anger over the extravagant misuse of charitable donations by William Aramony, who was recently forced out of his $463,000-a-year post as president of United Way of America in Alexandria, Va.

According to an assessment released last week, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on trans-Atlantic Concorde flights, limousine service, clothes and golf equipment, even romancing a Florida woman. During his 22-year tenure, he hired friends and relatives, compensating them royally. Such expenditures, the report concluded, "evidence, at best, an insensitivity to the loss of confidence they engender in a public that gives, often at personal sacrifice, to meet the needs and suffering of others. At worst, they convey to the public a disregard for UWA's very mission."

Mr. Aramony feels wronged. "I have built the United Way into the philanthropic organization it is today," he says, claiming he is the victim of a "modern-day Salem witch-trial-by-press-release."

It is true that Mr. Aramony was largely responsible for the development of the United Way movement into America's most successful fund-raising machine. But something clearly happened over his 37 years with the charitable cause. The original idealism and values were lost. It is tragic that Mr. Aramony now self-destructs in a way that endangers the very future of the movement. Even more tragic, however, is the sense of betrayal felt by many United Way contributors. A trust once lost is difficult to re-establish.

The nation's 2,100 locally governed United Way drives operate independently of the UWA, based in Alexandria, Va. Yet for years they have paid assessments to that training and promotion organization, which now has an annual budget of $29 million. Dozens of local drives now are balking at paying their contribution, saying too many questions remain.

A new board of directors at UWA is trying to rectify the mess. Once the house-cleaning is over, a new, smaller UWA seems in the offing. It will have an uphill struggle to re-build its reputation. At a time when needs are great, the United Way movement is on trial.

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