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It's the United Way 

Big-league charity execs are paid big dollars, while charity leaders on the front lines earn considerably less

During corporate charity fund drives, pressure on employees to donate can be intense, especially if their bosses are keen on impressing the higher-ups. As fund drives for Charlotte's choicest charities rev up and wind down, employees at Charlotte's big corporations, and many small businesses as well, routinely empty their wallets for the community good with various degrees of enthusiasm.

Most people don't miss the money, but some, like Shayna, a single mother of three who does clerical work for one of the big banks, say they find the pressure annoying. Shayna says she earns less than $30,000 a year and struggles to pay her bills.

"I'm my own charity," she said. "I'm pretty much down to cents by pay day. If I have to put out $20 more than I'm expecting, it messes me up."

The pressure is intense in her office, but the money is going to help less fortunate people, she says, so it's okay. When asked to guess the salaries of the presidents of United Way and the Arts & Science Council, two charities she's supported at her job, she said $50,000 a year.

She was shocked to learn that United Way of Central Carolinas President Gloria Pace King is paid $432,069 in salary and benefits, and has a $22,000 expense account.

"That's just crazy," Shayna said. She also said the $242,000 compensation package Arts & Science Council President Lee Keesler gets is too much.

The number seemed to surprise Kay Carter, too. She's the executive director of Second Harvest Metrolina Food Bank, an organization about half the size of United Way in terms of revenue.

"Our whole payroll is not that big," said Carter, referring to King's salary. Carter emphasized that she isn't familiar with how other organizations are run and couldn't comment on whether the salary was justified or not.

"That is on the high end," said Sandra Miniutti, spokesperson for Charity Navigator, a nonprofit group that rates charities according to their efficiency.

It's par for the course in Charlotte, where frou-frou charities that are popular with big corporations and elites pay the presidents and CEOs eye-popping amounts for raising money to dole out to other non-profits.

In contrast, leaders of charities directly involved in the gritty work of helping those in need, or in fighting for a cleaner environment manage to get by, in most cases, on $45,000 to $95,000 a year. A survey released this fall by Charity Navigator found the average pay for a CEO at the nation's 5,000 biggest charities is about $150,000.

United Way and ASC board members defend their leaders' salaries. The organizations do a lot more than dole out money to their affiliate charities, they say. Some 300 United Way volunteers help the agency keep track of how the 99 affiliate charities United Way gives money to are using the funds.

"You have to catch the scandal before it happens in one of these 99 programs," said Ned Curran, chairman of the United Way board. "We can't afford to have the integrity of the organization get impugned by one bad apple . . . It is not just the collection, it is the spending as well."

Curran, president of the Bissell Companies, says it's also important for non-profit managers like King to be able to connect with the corporate donors that keep the organization's coffers filled.

"She has got to be able to sit down with (Wachovia Chairman) Ken Lewis, she has to be able to sit down with (Bank of America Chairman) Ken Thompson," said Curran. "She has to be at that level in those circles because a substantial percent of our collections come from five companies in town."

Frank Blanchfield, chairman of the ASC board, says Keesler is underpaid. He has a staff of 30, Blanchfield says, and must manage panels of volunteers who help distribute the donations.

"The process of bringing that money in and distributing it out is quite complex," said Blanchfield, a lawyer with Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw. "The reasons why we pay him the amount we pay is because we wanted somebody who was a good man and leader and could not only do a good job internally, but be a good spokesman and representative in the public arena."

Carter, of Second Harvest, also manages a large volunteer base, raises money and keeps representatives of major corporations enthused about the organization. Last year, Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina raised $16 million from the public, about $4 million more than the ASC brings in in non-governmental contributions. But Carter made just $73,000, about $170,000 less than the ASC's Keesler.

This trend isn't unique to Charlotte charities, said Miniutti. It's a pattern her group has seen across the nation. Arts, culture and education charities often pay their leaders far more than comparably sized charities dealing with poverty, women's issues and the environment, even though the leaders of similar-sized charities usually have similar qualifications and responsibilities.

Part of the problem seems to stem from a belief among board members of arts and cultural nonprofits, and clearing-house charities like United Way, that they need people who are of a certain social stature to handle their elite, moneyed donors. These organizations are often so entrenched in the community that they are a part of its public identity, as are those who run them. Homeless shelters and food banks are less visible and aren't exactly a "cherished" part of the community identity, so their leaders are often valued less from a financial perspective, though they work just as hard or harder as their frou-frou charity counterparts.

"The high-end donor, they like to give to arts groups, their alma mater," said Miniutti.

The compensation pattern isn't limited to Charlotte's biggest charities. Even among charities that take in $3 million to $5 million a year, the arts, cultural and educational non-profit heads make significantly more than their counterparts at environmental and human services charities. Discovery Place and the Catawba Lands Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust that protects land, water and wildlife habitat in the region, both run on budgets in the $4 million range from a combination of government and private donors.

John Mackay, president of Discovery Place, hauls in a hefty $172,000 in salary and benefits. Mackay is an administrator and former sculptor who helped create museum attractions across the country, including the Discovery Place rainforest, which he helped design.

Davis J. Cable formerly worked at Wachovia Securities as director of real estate research and corporate and investment banking. According to the group's most recent 990 tax forms, Cable, as executive director at the lands conservancy, makes $45,900, about a quarter what Mackay brings in.

The similarly sized local branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation pays its president, Selena Rogers, $85,000 a year. That's more than Cable earns, but still nowhere near what Mackay and other heads of local art, culture and umbrella-style charities make.

Crisis Assistance Ministry -- which at $11 million a year brings in more than twice the revenue of Discovery Place or the lands conservancy -- pays its executive director $91,000. The organization helps struggling families on the verge of homelessness put their lives back together.

Miniutti cautions donors that while CEO compensation is important, it shouldn't be the only factor when making a donation decision.

"What we have been telling donors is that if the charity is really performing well, maybe you can make the case that that is a valid level of compensation," said Miniutti. "But if it is underperforming and the CEO is making that much money, it is definitely a red flag."

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