Don't make local United Way pay for national scandal


The timing could not have been worse. Last week, three former top United Way of America officials were indicted by a federal grand jury. Last week local United Ways across the country kicked off their traditional fall fund-raising drives.

The juxtaposition of the two events -- the morass of past lows and the high hopes for the future -- was painful even for critics of the United Way system.

In reality, the federal indictments are simply another milestone in a system that is now well along the path to righting itself.

Next will come the trials, perhaps new and embarrassing disclosures, and a verdict before the mess can largely, but not entirely, be put behind them.

The United Way of America scandal is a good example of the resiliency of democratic institutions.

Initially tipped off by concerned employees, solid investigative journalism by Chuck Shepherd of the Washington Post led to the two-year investigation by the FBI, IRS and the U.S. Attorney's Office, and to the current indictments.

But there's another side to the story.

On the heels of the disclosures of how a few individuals betrayed a public trust, UWA began a painful re-examination of how it operates. Today, reforms are in place that assure greater accountability and more control by local units, who now have 15 of the 45 board seats. A board-level ethics committee was established. Continuing reforms are on the horizon.

However, in the discussion of UWA's past errors, too many otherwise informed and community-minded people tar our local United Way with the same brush. That is unfortunate -- for all of us.

UWA is really nothing more than a pay-for-services vehicle for local United Ways, albeit a rather valuable one. Our own United Way of Central Maryland, for example, each year gives less than 1 percent of net campaign proceeds, 0.65 percent to be exact, to the national organization.

These funds buy critical services such as the NFL partnership program, national advertising and public relations services, professional training and conferences, a National Academy for Voluntarism, assistance with local campaigns, research services and many others.

In a recent visit to our local United Way, Norm Taylor, president, and Judith Trest, vice president for marketing and communications, showed me a campaign video distributed by UWA for the locals. It is uplifting and nothing short of exceptional, another service provided from the local "dues."

Local United Ways are not controlled by the national organization.

"Each is separately incorporated and governed by local volunteers," says Joseph Blair, president and chief executive of Baltimore Life Insurance Co. and 1994 chairman of the local campaign.

As I reported a few weeks ago, volunteers at the United Way of Central Maryland undertook a two-year examination of its mission, strategic direction and operations.

The scandal at the national office contributed to the need for the soul-searching process, which I view as a distinct positive to result from that whole mess. That process resulted in a solid report that will guide the organization through the challenging times ahead.

Thanks to hard-working volunteers and staff, our local United Way has never been under the gun for any ethical or fund accounting concerns. Instead, it used the crisis created by UWA to take a fresh look at marketing, fund-raising and fund allocation methods.

What I find, as both a critic and booster of United Way's work, is a refreshing and focused view of its role in the community.

In fact, the way it handled this latest indictment issue, making its public affairs staff constantly available and responsive, demonstrated a welcome new openness.

As we move into the new United Way campaign we all have a responsibility to be informed about how our charitable dollars are used. To lump our local United Way with the now past problems of UWA is unfair. To use that confusion as an excuse to not contribute would be unconscionable.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100.

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