This writer is a big supporter of the concept of United Way – with skepticism for the actual practice. The concept is simple – there are many social service agencies in all communities that compete for the limited local dollars available. The idea of the United Way was to eliminate all of the individual fund raising efforts and to ‘unite’ in one effort. The United Way Board distributes the money according need and worthiness. That is just smart. From each according to his ability – to each according to his need.
We have been a long time United Way supporter , always donating at least a ‘fair share,’ and usually more. We were the Chairman of the United Way Campaign for my company in 1986 – we raised over $100,000! for the local effort. We were and continue to be proud to support the United Way.
But we have also learned of the pitfalls. And there are gross and egregious mismanagement of funds by agencies that receive donations from the well intentioned United Way. We have been community activists for many years, learning in the back room negotiations of well intentioned- and some not so well intentioned – community leaders. We will give two egregious examples here:
The local YMCA receives about $200,000 from the local United Way. They do all of the wonderful things YMCA’s are supposed to do – basketball, swimming, before and after school programs – many good things. This local YMCA has a massage program. For many years they employed two male masseurs, and for $100 added to your regular membership a man could get one massage a week. That is less than two dollars a massage. The YMCA Board was studying the budget and found that they were losing $28,000 per year on the massage program – some of us protested. Others dismissed the protest, saying that not all Y programs would make money. And, they added, the rich white men who got the massages were big contributors to the YMCA – the implication was that they had paid their way. We continued to protest. We suggested that we were using United Way money to subsidize massages for “rich fat white men.” We were apparently not very politically correct because some of those folks got real mad at us. The protesters won the argument – the massage rates were raised to a ‘break even point.’ The United Way no longer subsidized the fat rich white men – sorry – we cannot resist the imagery.
The second example continues to this day. The local community mental health center receives about $300,000 per year from the United Way. It is a large agency and performs a necessary service for the community. Here is the problem. They report their financial situation to the United Way – along with salaries for their Executives. But they do not report as compensation the huge bonuses that are granted to the executives every year. Again, the United Way is subsidizing rich white men!
What to do, what to do?
The local United Way has a variety of committees to investigate agencies and they look for the right stuff. They just do not take their investigations far enough. If these agencies want free money then there should be more accountability. Another problem in small communities – the people who sit on the United Way Board play golf on Wednesday afternoons with the Board Members and Executives of the agencies that they support. Some sit on the United Way Board and Agency Boards. The appearance of impropriety cannot be denied.
Finding the methods that rich white men have discovered to skim money from social service agencies is tricky business – but the United Way had better get with it. Many people, like this writer, know these things happen. We generally do not say anything because of the greater good – the harm a scandal would cause is generally seen as greater than the good that would come of it.
The world is changing – today we have some well-to-do Black folks sitting at the Board tables, learning to enjoy the fruit that has always been there for rich white men to pick. People learn – you scratch my back – I’ll scratch yours. Mountain Gorillas have know this for thousands of years.