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King leaves mixed legacy at United Way

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Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As an emergency-room nurse and supervisor in a Cleveland hospital, Gloria Pace King says, she was “very good at triage, at anticipating, at leading staff.”

That experience, she says, helped prepare her for her 14 years as CEO of United Way of Central Carolinas, a high-intensity job that ended last August with her ouster over her compensation.

Yet despite raising over $500 million for United Way, she says, she does not consider herself a fundraiser.

“You’ve got to see the need, you’ve got to articulate the need, you have to be the person who’s capable of strategy,” she says. “I consider myself a visionary.”

King’s legacy in Charlotte is likely to be one of opposite extremes, say people who worked with her.

A passionate and driven fundraiser, King increased funds United Way raised in its annual campaign to $45.3 million in 2007 from $18.5 million in 1993, the year before she became CEO.

She was an entrepreneurial and strategic leader who developed new volunteers and partners for United Way and its member agencies, and who worked with her peers throughout the United States to make United Way of America and its local affiliates more diverse and inclusive.

But her management style also made United Way a tough place to work and led to high staff turnover.

And the compensation controversy eroded trust in United Way and in nonprofits generally, and hurt the 2008 fund drive, which already faced big challenges because of the plunging economy.

Those are the views of staff and volunteer leaders at United Way and its partner agencies, some of whom agreed to comment only if they were not identified. They cited the then-pending task force report on King’s compensation and possible litigation by King over her ouster.

The report, released Dec. 12, said King had pushed for a big increase in her retirement benefits despite concerns of a lawyer advising United Way.

More than anything, King likely will be remembered for her fundraising prowess and for the compensation uproar, which in turn likely will spur improvements and renewed trust for United Way and nonprofits in general, say people who worked with King.

“Gloria was a very strong fundraiser and led a strong fundraising campaign,” says Janet Singerman, president of Child Care Resources Inc., a United Way partner agency.

But a United Way board member says King likely will be seen as “one of those classic figures” who leave a conflicting legacy.

King “bolstered the organization, taking it to new heights, making it an organization that has a national reputation for doing good work, both in fundraising and advancing the cause of measuring impact in dollars raised,” the board member says. “But at the same time excesses occurred, and those excesses in the end harmed the organization.”

Under King’s leadership, the annual United Way fund drive in Charlotte became one of the most successful in the United States.

In her final drive in 2007, Charlotte trailed only four other big local United Ways in per-capita giving.

And the number of donors giving $10,000 or more each grew to 791, second-highest in the United States, with those donors contributing a total of $10.1 million, up from 53 who gave at that level in 1993 and contributed a total of $592,000.

Deborah W. Foster, executive vice president for strategic alliances and inclusion at United Way of America, says King was a strong advocate who pushed for local United Ways to remember their fundraising role as they worked to rebrand themselves as organizations that make an impact in their communities.

King, who chaired the National Professional Council, the group of local United Way CEOs that advises United Way of America, also was entrepreneurial and challenged the United Way system to “think about other ways to leverage resources,” Foster says.

But an executive of a partner agency who worked closely with King says United Way under King “was a challenging and at times difficult organization” that “a lot of people left.”

“At some level, leadership has to be responsible,” the executive says.

The United Way board member says the board put pressure on King several years ago to take steps to increase the staff retention rate.

“I think she was a high-pressured individual, expected a lot from people, demanded a lot from people,” the board member says.

A United Way senior executive says King “had high expectations of the employees who were there for producing quality work,” and was “tough but fair.”

The executive says “everything about this United Way,” including staff, financial processes and fundraising strategies, “is among the best in the country.”

Like the hospital emergency room that first employed her, United Way is a “very frenetic business,” King says.

“I wanted an organization that lived up to the community’s expectations and my expectations,” she says. “If you don’t have the kind of personality and stamina to live in that environment, you will not be successful.”

As a black woman, and one who is not shy about being “direct,” King says, she also faced challenges in the way people viewed her.

“We are perceived as being strong women through virtue of our heritage and history,” she says. “But everybody can’t work with it. They don’t see it as personality. They don’t see it as, I really want what’s best for you and push you to rise to your potential.”

The United Way board member says the ultimate impact of the King controversy will be a stronger United Way and nonprofit sector.

“The sad thing is the organization is going to have to go through some soul-searching, some reinventing of itself, and will be the better for it,” the board member says. “And other nonprofits will benefit as well from the lessons learned, but at the cost of her position, and at the cost of board members who will face criticism for lack of oversight.”

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