United Way Chief Departing Sans Windfall

Article excerpt

Because of the criticism, Elaine L. Chao has turned down a $292,500 going-away present from her place of employment.

Unbelievable.

OK, OK. So that's one heck of a going-away present. So all the sirens are sounding. So all the red flags are going up. You're leaving? Sorry to hear that. Here's $292,500. Have a nice rest of your life.

Mrs. Chao did nothing improper, of course. In fact, she did a lot of good things at her place of employment.

But it wasn't the competence that counted. It was the $292,500.

It's just a thought, but what if the level of appreciation had been $2,500? Would that have made everyone feel better?

Mrs. Chao is the outgoing president of United Way of America who has restored the reputation and dignity of the charity organization in her three-plus years at the helm.

She succeeded William Aramony, who is in prison after helping himself to United Way's piggy bank.

Predictably, Aramony's troubles led to troubles for United Way. The charitably minded didn't feel so charitable toward United Way after Aramony hit the fan in 1992.

It took Mrs. Chao's stewardship to make United Way vital again. She repaired the public relations damage. She instituted an ethics code. She set a tone. For example, she refused an increase in her $195,000 annual salary. She did her job, and did it well.

Seven of the 37 board members with United Way thought so much of Mrs. Chao's efforts that they passed around a 100-gallon hat and came up with $292,500.

You are talking the well-heeled here. You are talking about a group that raises $3.1 billion annually. Their appreciation may be no greater than the average person's, but their ability to show it is.

Mrs. Chao intended to accept the $292,500 send-off until it became an item of interest to the news media.

There was a question or three. There was an uneasiness. There was this notion that $292,500 just didn't feel right.

It didn't help that six of the seven board members expressed their appreciation behind the veil of anonymity.

Members of the news media hate anonymity, inevitably smelling a rat, although they grant anonymity all the time to those who serve their news-gathering purposes. …