Regrouping at United Way

DANIEL BERGER

April 11, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

The good news is that the American people no longer trust those who would govern them. The bad news is that some may not trust United Way, either.

Why is that bad? United Way is $3.1 billion voluntarily given in 1990 to 2,100 United Ways across the country for some 42,000 human service and health agencies.

That's a lot of soup kitchens and health clinics and teen counseling and shelters and problem-solving. It's what government can't or won't do and never did.

If people curtail support for these endeavors when misery is up and government service down, the human condition will get worse. United Way is the final safety net.

So trust matters.

Trust was shaken when, after years of rumors, the Washington Post investigated the United Way of America, a trade association for all the United Ways located in Alexandria, Virginia. It found that the president, William Aramony, made $463,000 a year in salary, hired a pal in business difficulties as chief financial officer, made his son head of a spin-off corporation, enjoyed a New York apartment gratis, etc.

Mr. Aramony discharged the finance guy and then departed. A rush investigation commissioned by United Way of America's board found more questionable spending. Kenneth W. Dam, a vice president of IBM, was brought in as interim president. Clean-up and damage control are under way.

How much the president of United Way of America should be paid is a matter of perception. It never raised $3.1 billion. It lives on the dues of 1,400 United Ways of the 2,100 that did. Mr. Aramony headed an organization of $29 million annual revenue and 275 employees. That does not sound like a $463,000 job in charity or business.

United Way of America trains volunteers and professionals. It provides liaison between United Ways, research and statistics, links to national corporations and unions, relations with the federal government, trouble-shooting, head-hunting, national advertising, common slogans -- and national standards. If United Way of America did not exist, it would need to be invented.

Mr. Aramony, a fund-raising pro who took over the national organization in 1970, is credited with the enormous growth, uniformity and professionalism of the United Way movement in 22 years. If only he had retired sooner.

Several major United Ways withheld dues in the wake of the scandal. Mr. Dam said that United Way of America had to borrow last month. If he cannot restore trust and dues, lay-offs and program cuts will come by summer.

In Baltimore and five neighboring counties, United Way of Central Maryland raised $31.4 million in pledges in 1991 for 108 agencies (some are umbrellas -- the total of agencies served tops 300) ranging from the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Association to the YWCAs. Including the government-employee campaigns managed, United Way of Central Maryland raised $39 million.

The backbone of every United Way is volunteerism. Volunteers do most of the work and decide how the money will be allocated. They check against misuse of funds.

United Way of Central Maryland pays 1 percent dues to United Way of America. But the first quarterly contribution in 1992, normally paid by now, has not been sent. The board of 37 volunteers will decide on Thursday what to do.

Norman Taylor became the president (chief paid executive) of United Way of Central Maryland in February 1991. His predecessor, Alan S. Cooper, went to United Way of America as senior vice president, and was named acting director after the scandal hit.

United Way reduces hundreds of appeals to one. Based on payroll deduction, it reduces many decisions to a single annual pledge. United Way has become so accepted in American life it is taken for granted as part of the establishment.

What United Way of America needs to do now is turn its negative publicity and clean-up into greater public awareness of United Way giving and benefits nationwide. It must spread its dirty linen and seek public advice: Turn bad news into good publicity.

I thought that was my idea. In phone conversation with Mr. Taylor, it turned out to be his as well, applied to United Way of Central Maryland.

Between campaigns, United Way volunteers deal with fund requests from agencies and make up allocations, a process that culminates in June. Mr. Taylor welcomes public scrutiny.

''We have to make an opportunity of this,'' he told me. ''We ask every agency to publicize its link with United Way. If people have questions, we can say, this is what we do with your dollars.''

Good can come from all this -- if the clean-up at United Way of America is convincing.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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