United Way of America 1996-2001

The country was shocked when the Washington Post began reporting on the financial improprieties, mismanagement and abuse under United Way’s then President in late 1991. In the ensuing months, the organization had become the unwitting symbol of an erstwhile venerable nonprofit organization whose reputation became tarnished by scandal and controversy. By summer of 1992, the organization’s president was forced to resign amid charges of using donor funds to support a lavish personal lifestyle. 64% of Americans had heard of the organization’s problems. Public outrage caused contributions to plummet.

The United way of America’s Board of Governors launched a nationwide search for a new leader. Out of more than 600 candidates, one name rose to the top: Peace Corps Director Elaine Chao. She had a reputation for integrity, proven skill in leading large, complex organizations, and a seemingly boundless reservoir of energetic, can-do optimism and determination. As the United Way of America’s new president and CEO, Elaine Chao hit the ground running by reaching out to local organizations to build a common vision to restore integrity and public confidence in the United Way of America. Elaine Chao’s first steps at United Way were bold. To show that a new era of responsibility and integrity had begun, she cut her own salary by half, and declined all perks and special benefits.

Then she worked with volunteers and professionals in the United Way movement to restructure the governance framework of the organization, established a code of ethics and an ethics committee, eliminated bloated expense accounts and extravagant practices in a new austerity budget, installed financial controls to create new transparency in the organization’s financial transactions, and personally visited local United Ways around the country to carry the message of reform and accountability. The new governance structure implemented at United Way of America became a model for the nonprofit sector.

The United Way of America is the national umbrella organization for local United Ways around the country that fund health and human service agencies like the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, food banks, homeless shelters, and hundreds of others, providing a web of support for people in need.

“The United Way is back on its feet thanks to her leadership, a success story again.”

Brian Gallagher
President of the United Way on her time as President of the United Way

“My goal at United Way was to create a new reverence for integrity and respect for supporters.”

Elaine Chao