DISGUSTING MEMORIES of greedy executives raiding a sloppily managed agency of precious charitable donations still haunt the earnest, public-spirited community members leading today's United Way of the National Capital Area. Repairing the perceptions of a tainted operation takes time, but the organization is back on track and worthy of support. Decisions to give are personal, to be sure, but contributors who understand the unique impact of a finely tuned, one-fund effort -- efficiently channeling critical support to people with special needs, through agencies that do not have the resources to do their own fundraising -- should look closely at the United Way campaign that gets underway Sept. 13.

Those who shamelessly pocketed money meant for the needy, cooked the books and misled inattentive board members have been routed. Salaries have been reset to reasonable rates, staffs and branch offices have been consolidated, auditing procedures and overhead restrictions are in place, and allocations are undergoing thorough reviews.

Chief Executive Charles W. Anderson, an experienced leader of one-fund campaigns, concluded upon taking over 14 months ago that this region's United Way operation "lost its way" 10 or 12 years ago; now it is conducting needs assessments to determine where United Way support can produce "measurable outcomes." Community representatives and experts will be looking at issues that may need special emphasis, such as infant mortality, help for AIDS victims and assistance for older residents.

During the dark days of scandal, many longtime contributors understandably withheld their support. But much of that withholding did not show up in greater donations to other charitable organizations. At the same time, cash-strapped governments curtailed their programs. The true victims -- the homeless, hungry and helpless -- should not have to endure yet another hard year of curtailed assistance because of past abuses of public trust in the local United Way. Already, dedicated business leaders and residents from across the region are volunteering time and expertise to spur the exceptional levels of generosity that this region used to reach through the United Way one-fund approach. They, along with those who must depend on the United Way to make a difference in their lives, deserve renewed public encouragement.