Saturday, December 11, 2010

More change for less kaching

'Tis the season to give, to really think about how to find some of the fruits of our labors to donate to organizations that do good work. But how do we think about this? We live in an era when funds are scarce and yet, as it turns out, many nonprofits still treat their operations like a business that competes in the for-profit world, that is, a business that must expand and increase the salary of its executives or risk losing these high producers to another organization.

Some of us are disgusted by this entire model. It has always bugged me, but of course I come out of the world of poverty and low level community organizing, so I'm biased, I confess. When I started finally accepting some pay for doing community organizing, working for Waging Peace in northern Wisconsin, we three organizers paid ourselves $4/hour. We told our donors they were getting a lot of bang for their buck and they agreed. We only disbanded, finally, when one of us went back to school (me) and one retired (the wonderful Madge Michels-Cyrus). We personally knew our donors and cared for them. They knew our lifestyles--cabins in the woods in all cases, solar and woodfired--and they knew they could count on us supporting their local groups across the northern stretch of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. We didn't come in to lead them; we came to support them. We did trainings, not takeovers. We didn't compete; we collaborated.

So when I look at the salaries of nonprofit executives, up some four percent in 2010 to almost $150,000, I gag. The head of the Wildlife Conservation Society brings in more than $725,000. The CEO of the YMCA of Greater Houston squeaks by on a bit more than $661,000, and the Grand Poobah of the rightwing Heritage Foundation manages on $947,999. Don't you just want to send him $1 to help him get over at $948,000?

Some of the charities display the most (greedy) family values, that is, that find a way to compensate multiple members of the same family, include Christian Relief Services, which pays out $151,000-$166,000 to three members of the Krizek family. Or how about the three members of the Jones family in the Feed the Children nonprofit, who make $167,000-$258,000? That very pious Trinity Broadcasting Network has at least three members of the Crouch family pulling in $214,000-$419,000. And of course there are the various charities that telemarket, often resulting in up to 95 percent of the donations received via phone solicitation going to the for-profit telemarketing firms.

I personally give nothing to the big ones. It's hard not to feel churlish walking past the Salvation Army bellringers, but their CEO tries to hide his income and the organization admits that other officials make more than $150,000, leaving those bellringers out in the cold, quite literally. I save my few extra $ for the Nuclear Resister, Mercy Corps, the Center for Intercultural Organizing, Oregon PeaceWorks,

the Homeless Children's Playtime Project,

and a few others (including the one I work on, PeaceVoice, for the Oregon Peace Institute). I know the people where I give. I trust them and I know that they live modestly and do good work. I am fairly abrupt with telemarketers and save them and me by almost instantly saying, "Sorry, I never donate by phone," and then I quietly hang up. The American Red Cross and the United Way and UNICEF all need to get by without me, which they certainly do, paying their CEOs huge salaries and devoting massive amounts to overhead, offices, and a relatively small percent to providing actual services and help.

Open your hearts, but use your mind. Show kindness, but be calculating. Save your change for a group that will actually work for change. Then give until it hurts, or at least until it pinches a bit. You'll recover and you'll help many others too.

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