Money Isn’t the True Measure of His United Way Success

He started out playing light jazz on fledgling FM radio stations. The first two went under and, at the third, he opened a letter one morning from the Federal Communications Commission that ordered him to “cease and desist” programming. It seems the station owner was in a bit of hot water with the feds and had forgotten to tell his budding executive/deejay.

So it began for Merritt Johnson, way back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, when he had a vision of what FM radio could be--even if you couldn’t make much money at it. His vision proved correct, but he couldn’t afford to wait around for it. So when a friend told him in 1963 that something called the United Way was replacing the Community Chest in Los Angeles and that he could probably get him a job, Johnson signed off on radio.

We rush ahead 33 years, where Johnson, now 61, will go to work for the last time Thursday as president of United Way of Orange County. He’s been here since 1970, when he joined a Newport Beach chapter that was then one of 16 in the county and that raised $280,000 a year. Local chapters merged in 1984, and when Johnson retires, he’ll leave behind an organization now raising about $20 million annually.


I asked Johnson this week if he’s thought about how much money the agency has raised during his tenure. “Somebody asked me to do that,” he said. “I had a friend once who retired and calculated all of that, and it was a big number. And he used it as a point of great pride. I can’t tell you what that number is [for his tenure], because I’ve purposely avoided it. Money isn’t the whole thing. Money helps things happen, but it isn’t the measure. It isn’t the true measure.”

Johnson doesn’t sound the least bit worn out by his 25 years in a county not known for its per-capita charity. What worries him most, he said, is corporate downsizing and the absence of mid-level managers who historically were the core of United Way’s fund-raising.

“Oh, does that give me a scary feeling,” he said. “You may have top-level people who care, but where’s the leadership within the corporate setting? . . . United Way is probably in one of those paradigm shifts, and we probably don’t see it all that clearly. Technology is racing to the extent that there’s depersonalization that’s a serious problem. There are many companies that still campaign [for funds] in the traditional manner, and we love it, but I have that underlying fear that we’re going to be missing something.”

That pressure won’t face Johnson any longer. Nor will he have to worry about his dirty little secret anymore. “I’ve never played politics all these years,” he said. “Few people know that I was, and am, a Democrat.”

He recalls a meeting from his first few months in Orange County, where a prominent person was railing against a local Democratic candidate. “She looked over at me and said, ‘Mr. Johnson, we haven’t heard from you.’ I thought, uh-oh. I said I was really too new to make any judgments.”

Although some of his Los Angeles friends chided him for “escaping” to Orange County, Johnson said he saw it differently. “I guess part of my job was to gently lean on people with another point of view. Think of the opportunity to come into a community that, generally, had lots of feelings that weren’t my own. About isolating, keeping people out--I’m of the opinion of bringing people in, solving problems, that diversity is great, that walls and gates are not necessarily good for a community.”

That philosophy led Johnson one morning--during the Los Angeles riots of 1992--to pick up the phone and call Rusty Kennedy of the Human Relations Commission and ask if there wasn’t something Orange County should do. Kennedy said yes, and Johnson committed $100,000 in contingency funds to form Orange County Together.

Johnson has never had a high public profile, and it’s not just because he’s camera-shy. “I like what [Chinese philosopher] Laotzu said. . . . I really do. Things come out of centering one’s life and balancing one’s life. When you lead, you don’t have to be the leader. You don’t have to be out there haranguing. It’s the true leader who doesn’t do those things.”

I asked what he sees for himself, now that there’s no office and no fund-raising pressures. “I’ll tell you what I’m looking for,” he said. “I talked to a person who said, and I believe this, that I will be amazed at what happens. This is also some Taoist thinking. If you strive for something, you may not get it. If you let go, it will come to you. This guy said, ‘You’ll be just amazed. Do the things you want to do and let serendipity take its course.’ ”

The only certainty is that he and his wife, Jeanne, an elementary school teacher, will go on another African safari. “I’ve got so much video from three African trips, and we’re going to take a fourth one this summer, that I could engage myself for months just editing video,” he said, laughing. “It’s dazzling what you can do with a little Sony camera. Just astounding.”

Dana Parsons’ columns appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.