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Nonprofit Management

United Way’s William Aramony and What We Missed

The nonprofit sector could have learned from Aramony’s experience.

Two months ago, William Aramony, the former CEO of the United Way for over 22 years, passed away of bone cancer. Aramony can be credited with many of the successful partnerships and areas that the United Way aligns itself with today, including its partnership with the National Football League and the community-wide campaigns across the US that people associate with their local United Way chapters.

Unfortunately, Aramony may be better known for his very public challenges. Do a simple Google search on his name, and you’ll see that most of the more than 16,000 results highlight information about charges against Aramony for defrauding the United Way of more than a million dollars. As many I know have described it, it was the most public drama that the nonprofit sector had ever seen and fueld part of the movement to regulate the sector.

I never met William Aramony, but my life has intersected with his work many times.  I remember how excited I was to meet one of my childhood football idols, Chuck Foreman (the famous Minnesota Vikings running back) at a Minneapolis United Way event when I was young. Growing up poor, the local Minneapolis United Way community campaign was responsible for many of my family’s Christmas presents each year. In a small way, he had a hand in these efforts.

Later, in my professional career, I have mentioned Aramony periodically while providing technical assistance. For example, when talking about board development, I’ve mentioned what can happen when board members do not provide proper oversight and show similarities to the “Aramony case.” There a number of books that cite the Aramony case as an example of unethical work or bad leadership. Having lunch right after the New Year with some colleagues I brought up his name, and the universal response was, “Oh, the United Way scandal.” It makes calls to mind how baseball historians refer to the White Sox under the cloud of the 1919 World Series’ Black Sox Scandal, where several players were accused of intentionally losing games.

When I think of Aramony I feel conflicted, but I also feel the sector missed out on some opportunities to learn from him and to appreciate his work.

There is a lot the sector could have learned from Aramony’s experience, and I would have liked to hear from him directly about his involvement in the scandal. The best person to talk to us about how to fix something is someone who has been negatively involved. I like recent stories like Catch Me If You Can, where people who learn from their mistakes come back as forces for good as a way of reconciliation. I don’t know what he could have told us, but I would have really appreciated hearing from him on subjects like how power corrupts or what safe guards we can put in place to prevent situations like his from happening again. As I also like happy endings, this would have been a better ending to a real-life, challenging story.

I think the sector has also missed out by not highlighting Aramony’s great work he was after his jailing in 1995. While in prison—according to his family—Aramony “created model job training and mentoring programs that gave soon-to-be released prisoners a second chance by helping them find a good and productive place for themselves within their families and communities” (www.williamaramony.org). Also, between his release in 2001 and his death, Aramony worked to bridge divides between faiths by “building relationships with Middle East political and religious leaders based upon the Abrahamic traditions that are the foundation of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.” He said he regarded this work “the high point of his life.”  I like to think that I would have conveyed his good work alongside my discussions on his involvement in the United Way scandals. Reconciliation has such a great power, and I think the sector may have missed it.

The great Pablo Eisenberg said this about Aramony recently: “In an odd way, we shall miss him.” While I find it hard to miss someone I never met, I do feel like I will remember and think about him in the future for probably the same reasons that will miss him. His good work touched my life directly, his challenged work helped me to build a better sector, and I hope the sector will remember both as it moves forward.

Rest in peace, William Aramony.

Read more stories by John Brothers.

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