Friday, September 24, 2010

Disturbing Thoughts

I hate this.
I hate thinking about it.
I am probably over-reacting.
Help me out.

I was part of a group that was asked to make a contribution to help feed the poor in the Caribbean, specifically Haiti. After being told many times that the organization had the highest rating from, I made out a very modest check. I have used charitynavigator to investigate worthy charities in the past and have found them to be an excellent resource. Unfortunately, and I do mean unfortunately, the website also publishes the annual salaries of the rated charity CEOs. I have stopped giving to certain charities, many of them Christian, because of (in my view) the excessive salaries of the charity heads.

God did not put me or anyone else on this planet to judge other people or their salaries, but when Jesus told Simon Peter to, "Feed my lambs", I think that command informs donations to those who do. The monitoring websites provide valuable financial information vis-a-vis administrative expenses and direct mission expenditures. Besides these figures, the only other place that can give a potential donor a clue about the Board of Directors is the salary of the CEO - so I give that weight. I was on the internet shortly after I wrote the check and for no particular reason, I checked the website. The CEO salary was $340,000.

I sent a letter to the charity requesting my donation back, never expecting to see the check again. To the organization's credit, I promptly received the check and the letter below. I have blacked out specifics in the correspondence because I have no desire to attack a particular charity on a practice that seems to be wide-spread. Besides, I admit I may be totally wrong on this so when I am driving up this avenue of inquiry I don't want to hit any innocent bystanders on the way. Charities rely on voluntary contributions, not taxpayer funds.

"August 9,2010

Dear James,

I hope that you are well and enjoying God's peace. We are in receipt of your letter regarding the salary paid to ***our President and C.E.O. *** came to *** at a reduced salary from his previous position. He is a strong leader and was brought into our organization because of his ability to reduce costs effectively. Our Board of Directors voted on the amount of his salary when he was hired and members of the board continually evaluate his performance. According to all surveys that have been published by non-profit watchdog publications, our managing directors' salaries are well below the average of any non-profit organization of this size. Please be aware that the salary figures also include the cost of insurance and other benefits - medical, dental, long-term care, long-term disability, life, group travel and unemployment insurance, as well as 403 (b). Please also note that the Chronicle of Philanthropy has ranked *** as the **** **** in the U.S. Last year we grossed approximately $1 Billion in donations for the poor in the countries we serve, so it would be only fair to compare salaries at *** to charities of a similar size. Salaried professionals employed by *** have the necessary education, background, qualifications and management experience required to run our organization. In order to fulfill the goals of our mission, we must remain competitive in the job market in order to attract the very best people in our specialized field.

As you might imagine, because of working so closely with the poor in the 17 countries we serve, many of our employees from the very top to the bottom of the pay scale choose to support *** with financial contributions on a regular basis. They are our extended family, and it would be difficult for us not to do so. We are anxious and grateful to help the poor, and this is a voluntary and a very personal decision prayerfully made by each individual. We do respect the privacy of all donors, including ***. Because of our strict privacy policy, I cannot divulge amounts donated to our ministry by individual donors, but I can say without reservation that I am personally aware that *** has always been extremely generous to the ministry of *** over the years. In fact, he and the *** family totally supported our ministry during its 1st five years of existence.

We are very proud to report that in 2009 less than 4% of funds received were used for administrative expenses, which means that over 96% actually went to programs that help the poor. You will find that we have excellent rating with Charity Navigator, Ministry Watch and Forbes Magazine. I truly hope that I have answered your question satisfactorily and that you will seriously consider joining us in our fight against poverty. If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at ***. Please find your gift of *** enclosed.

May the peace of our Lord be with you.
A servant of the poor
Director of Donor Services"

The Director makes some strong rhetorical arguments defending the salary. I have no argument with the CEO. I have yet to refuse any income offered to me or said, "Wow, you paid me too much last year!" Nor have I seen a sign by a store register proclaiming, "all prices as marked; non-profit workers take 30% off." We all live in the real world and contend with real world prices. No, my concern is with the Board. The compensation may be reasonable, but $340,000. per year is in the top 1% of wage earners in the US ( -$340,000 and up). As stated previously, many charity heads, many Christian charity heads, make a lot more money than this CEO.

I am bothered that I am bothered by these thoughts. I regard myself as an optimist, but we seem to live in a time of constant stress and events that engender cynicism. In the age of Wall Street wretched excess fueled by their Board of Directors' compensation committees, the federal government's assault on capitalism through bailouts and inept regulation, and the always lurking presence of the twin sisters of power; accommodation and lack of accountability: I admit to confusion.

And this may be my problem. When I give to a cause, I am under no illusion I am on the parapets feeding the poor. I worked with someone that in the past that had signed up an an Aid worker in Africa back in the 70s. As I remember, he intended to stay for a year, but only lasted 3 or 4 months. He told me that he never had one good night's sleep, knew he was exposing himself to unknown illness, and not always given the basic resources to do the job. His feelings about this occupied a territory between personal disappointment and begrudging pride of accomplishment. I know that when my pen moves across a check I am performing a very, very small part of the "Feed my lambs". The organizations and workers are the ones doing God's work, but the donors do play a part and my perception of that part may be the problem. When I give money, however modest, it is still my money. A donation is not like a commercial transaction - I give you money, you give me stuff: when you give me stuff, I have relinquished ownership of the money. Charities aren't like that - the donation becomes wind of the charity's sail - the donors are always there because their money is always there: no product is ever exchanged.

This point is simple and self-evident, but when I see a charity's board of directors awarding extremely high salaries I wonder if that point is forgotten. I don't believe there is malevolence in this - just human nature. I also realize that everything is relative. If I made $340,001.00 a year I would consider this CEO underpaid. So after reading the letter and some thought I was going to send back the check, but that 1% still bothered me.

Res ipsa Locquitor

I sent a check instead to Doctors Without Borders. A smaller charity, but one whose CEO makes $118,000 per year.

My thoughts are still unsettled about this.

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