The national headquarters for the United Way system laid off 37 people yesterday as part of a restructuring of the Alexandria-based organization being rolled out this week by its chief executive, Brian Gallagher.

In a statement, United Way of America said it eliminated 43 positions, some of which were vacant. At the same time, it said it was creating 35 jobs, for which those being laid off could apply.

Gallagher, who has been working to overhaul the United Way since his arrival in January 2002, said Tuesday that he is reorganizing the agency so it can "more broadly support" its 1,400 local affiliates, which operate autonomously from the national headquarters.

In his 16 months on the job, Gallagher has been pushing the vast United Way system away from its role serving increasingly as a charity "pass-through" that collects money from donors and redistributes it to charities of the donors' choosing. Instead, Gallagher wants local United Ways to take a more activist role, working with community leaders to come up with "a focused, short" list of regional problems and then steering donors to organizations that address those issues.

"We're not getting out of the fundraising business," he said. "But fundraising becomes a strategy. It raises money to achieve progress."

Also yesterday, executives of affiliates in the mid-Atlantic region -- the United Way of the National Capital Area, the United Way of Central Maryland and the United Ways serving Philadelphia and the state of Delaware -- said they hope to merge some of their administrative operations to cut costs.

Under such a jointly operated system, each United Way would maintain its separate identity but pledges would be handled, and money disbursed, from a central system, said Larry Walton, chief executive of the United Way of Central Maryland. He said the arrangement "would help us to have a more stable workforce. We could be more effective and more efficient."

If an agreement is finalized, a joint pledge-processing system could be operational in time for the fall 2004 fundraising campaign, he said.

The national United Way is encouraging such mergers as a cost-cutting inducement in the face of a growing number of smaller rivals that offer lower-priced workplace pledge drives. Details on overall fundraising for the United Way's 2002-03 campaign are expected in a few weeks. The total is expected to decline for the first time since 1992, when a scandal involving the organization's then-chief executive, William Aramony, sent donations plunging.

But the charity's problems run deeper than just one off-year of fundraising, observers say. When adjusted for inflation, its campaign totals have barely budged since the late 1980s, and its market share of all U.S. charitable contributions in that time has sunk to less than 2 percent from 3.2 percent. Observers blame a string of financial controversies that have plagued the system for 15 years.

Meanwhile, the local United Way has embarked on a search for a permanent director. Interim chief Robert Egger, founder of the D.C. Central Kitchen, took over last fall after Norman O. Taylor was forced out.