Leadership and vision needed at United Way


August 23, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

There are events a columnist hates to cover, where there are no good guys, no real bad guys, and enough mistakes and misery to go around.

I'm speaking of United Way of Central Maryland. If Maryland philanthropy could somehow be boxed in Jurassic Park, our United Way would be the lumbering brontosaur. These days, the dinosaur is desperately trying to adapt to a changing environment. Its survival is at stake.

A couple of weeks ago, four United Way middle managers in the public relations/communications area were called into their supervisor's office and told their jobs had been eliminated. Clear out your desks and leave immediately, they were told.

They shouldn't have been too surprised. Since 1991, about 20 percent of United Way positions have been eliminated, says Adele Thomas, vice president of Human Resources.

A weak economy, coupled with problems with United Way of America, are only partly to blame. More to the point, in my opinion, has been United Way's slowness to change.

Norm Taylor, chief professional officer, calls the downsizing currently taking place a process of "rightsizing" the organization. "We've got to move more quickly, to respond to changing needs in the community. We've got to be more customer-oriented. This is a new thrust for United Way."

Pressed by United Way's volunteer corporate leaders, the local organization has been under the gun recently to reduce overhead. Several member agencies are unhappy that recent campaign goals have not been met and that the allocations they need so badly have been reduced.

Adding insult to injury, there's an increasing trend for workplace donors to designate their charities directly, bypassing United Way member agencies. This trend alone has caused at least one large group of members to seriously explore leaving the United Way system.

So, under the gun of a changing marketplace, and under the microscope of public scrutiny, United Way has been attempting to cut overhead and to be more responsive to its many customers, including volunteers, member agencies, work sites and donors. For those of us rooting for this worthwhile institution, that's good.

What's bad is the manner in which United Way has downsized. Summoning loyal employees, some with more than 10 years' experience, and telling them to clear out their desks immediately is not my idea of model behavior for a social services agency. Certainly, a better job could have been done, especially since the job performance of these employees was never in question. Their jobs were simply eliminated and will not be refilled -- the agency will rely on outside contractors during peak periods.

In all fairness, United Way's upper management did give these employees an extra month on payroll, in addition to their normal severance, which could be viewed as the equivalent of a month's notice.

But money is not the sole issue here. The self-respect and dignity of valued employees is also important.

I spoke with people both in and outside United Way who told me that employee morale is at an all-time low. That, too, is not unusual during a transition period and could be expected to improve in short order, given an appropriate strategy.

However, no one I was able to contact could tell me exactly what that strategy entails. The impression I was left with -- incorrect, I hope -- was that the organization is having a series of knee-jerk reactions to external pressures.

I firmly believe that we need United Way in this community. Despite its current problems, it continues to do good things for all of us. But we need more than just another aging institution. We need a healthy, dynamic, productive United Way that is able to focus on the core social problems that plague our neighborhoods.

United Way must develop a coherent, sensible strategy around which all its customers -- including its employees -- will rally. Or, it must do a much better job of communicating its existing strategy.

From a marketing perspective, too much negative news has emanated from United Way for the past two years. It's time for United Way to reassert its leadership. The only way is through strong leadership with a vision, and a solid plan for reaching that vision. Those two items have been lacking at United Way of Central Maryland.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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