United Way's new president

September 03, 1992

Elaine L. Chao, the 39-year-old director of the Peace Corps, is an ideal choice to run the United Way of America and rebuild its image. Recent management irregularities at that charity trade organization have tarnished the good name of the entire United Way movement, which consists of 2,100 independent fund-raising organizations. Those locally controlled charities -- including United Way of Central Maryland -- had nothing to do with the mess in Alexandria, Va., but suffered from the bad publicity.

In succeeding William Aramony, who controlled the United Way of America for 22 years, Ms. Chao has big shoes to fill. We say this despite the fact it was Mr. Aramony who brought so much shame to his organization. Mr. Aramony built the United Way movement from a loose, $700-million-a-year alliance of Community Chest groups into a coordinated, nationwide $3-billion-a-year operation. He devised a system of corporate payroll deductions and developed other innovative fund-raising and sponsorship techniques. United Way of America's board of directors, comprised of chief executives of some of the nation's biggest corporations, share blame for not scrutinizing and stopping Mr. Aramony's questionable expenditures on a number of private and charity businesses.

Aside from firing Mr. Aramony, United Way of America has taken measures to clean its house. A new board is in place, the top management has been overhauled. Nevertheless, the organization's recent problems are sure to affect local United Way fund-raising drives, which will take place in extraordinarily difficult economic circumstances.

Because of layoffs and other uncertainties, United Way of Central Maryland, for example, failed to meet its fund-raising goal last year for the first time in memory. When it begins this year's campaign later this month, the Maryland charity is facing hTC even gloomier prospects. Meanwhile, needs for assistance from United Way-supported social organizations keep increasing as state and local governments cut down their social programs.

United Way of America operates separately from local affiliates. But because of its name and location near Washington, it represents the whole movement. We urge Ms. Chao to become an outspoken advocate for the millions of disadvantaged -- including former United Way donors -- who now must rely on this private safety-net.

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