Salary and Morality


It’s not unusual for me and my dad. We have different opinions on everything from taste in food to the question of how much money is appropriate to spend on clothes. But to disagree on values, or real social concerns, that is a whole other story. When it comes to the issues that can cause discomfort if raised at a dinner party, my dad and I most often see eye to eye. So when my dad told me he thinks non-profit executives are getting paid too much, I did what any warm-blooded girl would do- I took personal offense.

The conversation wasn’t my choice, I should mention right off the bat. After picking me up from the train station in Connecticut, my dad told me he read a survey of Jewish non-profit executive salaries. He didn’t need to say much for me to quickly guess what my dad meant: Non-profits shouldn’t pay high salaries. At that moment I closed my ears and jumped on the offensive, knowing that it was my duty, as both a non-profit professional and a good daughter, to set the man straight. Why should someone, after all, have to ever sacrifice a nice income for doing good work?

As you may have already guessed, my dad’s real argument (which I only learned once I took out those defensive earplugs of mine) was a great deal more nuanced than simply that non-profit employees shouldn’t earn good salaries. The question my father raised is this: How much money is too much for a non-profit executive to earn?

To answer this would require answering a whole slew of questions first. Like, how do we gauge what a non-profit should pay any of its professionals? Where is the funding for the executive’s salary coming from? And what kind of non-profit are we dealing with in the first place?

I wish I had answers to these questions, but as you may realize by now, I have few answers to anything. All I know about this is issue is that there is no one-size-fits-all statement. Knowing just the salary of a given non-profit executive is not enough to say whether or not that salary is too high (or too little).

1 comment
  1. I’m going to fill in some of the ellipses above that I’m sure you know but just didn’t include. You’re right, we feel there’s a certain morality here. The reason nonprofits are born is because their birthers (not to be confused with the anti-Obama kind) deem that they have a higher goal. They are born to Serve Some Greater Good. (That is, of course, why they are blessed with tax-exempt status – every extra penny should be routed to Serve Some MORE Greater Good.) They are born to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, show czarist Faberge eggs to wellheeled Louboutined women in camel cashmere coats. They also run schools, hospitals, and charitable giving organizations like Federation. Or family foundations. One of those – say the Creative Coalition in Washington DC – pays its CEO $35,000 a year. Another – perhaps a small private day school – might offer its headmaster $200,000 a year. Yet a different not-for-profit – let’s take a great American private university – sets down remuneration of $4,000,000 (plus a very nice house, with plush entertainment budget) to attract the best talent.

    The Boards of Directors of these esteemed AND genuinely vital organizations may deem that the effective CEO of, for example, Planned Parenthood will raise so much more in funds and esteem for the organization that to complain about her million-dollar compensation package would be shortsighted. The Board of the NRA may see that their CEO is so skilled at Congressional intimidation that he should be paid more than $2,000,000 so as to prevent his defection to say the APA (Anonymous Pedophiliac Association). What’s the point? Nonprofit or not, it’s all about what the market will bear. Doesn’t matter that it fulfills certain requirements laid out by regulation 501(c)3 of the Code of the Internal Revenue Service (which is really all a nonprofit is).

    What your dad is saying – and he’s got a point, though it doesn’t go far – is that it’s unseemly – it feels unctuous almost – for people who Serve Some Greater Good to benefit TOO much while there’s still so much Greater Good that needs to be served. (As you well know, however, it is quite remarkable how easily such executives adapt to doing well while doing good.) On the other hand, when you look at the particular institution in question, it becomes easier to parse. You run a medical clinic for the underserved? It’s an insult to the sliding scale patients if the staff is outfitted with a fleet of Cadillacs, angora scrubs, and MontBlanc pens. On the other hand, if you run a symphony orchestra, your chief needs to show, exhibit, exude musical literacy, refinement, excellence. Now, determine what the market will bear…

    I sorta agree with your dad. But that’s also sorta beside the point. Not the way it works…

    Love to read your thoughts! ALWAYS interesting ideas…

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