Editorial: Reputation is everything

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Community leaders in the Charlotte area have faced tough decisions in the wake of last year’s United Way controversy. Between a pay scandal concerning the CEO of the Charlotte-region United Way and a faltering economy, the agency has $7.5 million less to share with member agencies. This week, board members announced painful allocation decisions that focussed on necessities like food, clothing and shelter.
Rowan County’s United Way has not been faced with such a shortfall. That’s because the local organization has at least two advantages.
First, Rowan has a separate United Way organization and its own campaign; it has no connection to the Charlotte organization. While the $1 million-plus salary for the metro area United Way chief was making headlines and shocking donors, the director of the Rowan organization was making far, far less ó about $70,000 a year ó and running a lean operation with strong accountability.
Second, last fall’s United Way campaign fell short by only 4 percent in Rowan, with the community pledging $1,887,603 toward a $1,971,200 goal. As campaign leaders said at the time, that is outstanding in a recession-stricken area. What’s more, the United Way was able to fill that gap with funds it had on hand, thanks to conservative management practices. With ongoing, generous support from area businesses and individuals, the local United Way not only delivered on the allocations it had planned for member agencies, it also reached a helping hand to people who have lost their jobs. In an 18-month period, the agency paid out $230,000 to help displaced workers save their homes, pay their rent and utilities, buy school uniforms and supplies for their children and retain or take advantage of free three-month YMCA memberships.
Even with the Rowan United Way’s strong performance, area nonprofits face a challenging situation. Charitable giving by Americans fell by 2 percent in 2008 as the recession took hold, according to an annual survey ó only the second year-to-year decline in more than a half-century. Agencies to whom people turn as a matter of survival ó social-service charities ó were hit hardest, suffering a 12 percent drop in donations.
People who make charitable contributions want assurance that their money will be used effectively to help the people and causes they intend to help. One lapse in judgment by a charitable group’s executives or board can discourage gifts and send out ripples of decreased services. The risk is especially great when a large umbrella group raises funds for many agencies over several counties. The Charlotte United Way learned that the hard way. All charitable groups can learn from this unfortunate experience.