Nobody knows yet how many United Way donors have canceled their pledges in anger because the charity's president arranged $300,000 in loans, primarily interest-free and unsecured, for five of his executives. Contributors have a right to be upset when dollars that they donated for charity are used to defray moving costs for quite-well-paid United Way employees, the more so because donors were not told that it was happening. But those who are thinking of pulling out of United Way should be thinking twice. They would be taking out their anger not so much on an institution as on millions of children and adults who benefit from 350 United Way programs.
United Way's leadership knows that it is in trouble, and it has what seems to be a sound plan for damage control. United Way president Francis X. McNamara Jr., who authorized the questionable loans without seeking the approval of the 95-member board, has taken a leave. In McNamara's absence, United Way chairman Roy A. Anderson, a retired chairman of Lockheed Corp., will be in day-to-day charge. An independent citizens' commission, made up of members who are not connected with United Way, will examine all aspects of the charity's practices and policies.
Anderson says that he wants the commission to report its findings in time to make any needed changes before the September kick-off of the annual fund-raising campaign. He also will call on Los Angeles citizens for funds to make certain that the charity does not lose a nickel on two relocation loans that still have not been repaid.
Anderson seems to understand that the fact that the loans were made at all is compounded by a too-informal management style that chose to keep things close to the vest. Anderson wants to open up proceedings--a move that in itself would help United Way work itself out of its predicament.
Despite problems brought on in part by McNamara's management style, the fact remains that he managed to build pledges from $21 million a year when he took over 19 years ago to $85.5 million for 1986--dollars that have made a major difference in the lives of millions of people.
Close to 2.8 million residents of Los Angeles County and western San Bernardino County depend to some degree on United Way. Its money helps pay for programs that range from the Red Cross and scouting to aid for blind children and abused children, battered women and young gang members, family counseling and summer camps, day-care centers and the homeless.
These programs increase in importance each day, it seems to us, partly because while the region's population and problems continue to grow, government's contributions toward dealing with them freeze or shrink. Anderson believes that a citizens' commission examination will find that the worst already is known. We fervently hope so. In the meantime, we plan to reserve judgment, not cancel our promise to the millions of Southern Californians who need help because somebody whom they never met exercised bad judgment.