Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Charity Begins at $250,000 a Year

Curiosity killed the cat, but it maims me at least three or four times a day. In a recent case, I was curious about a news report on Joe.My.God that said the American Jewish World Service charity was soliciting funds to help gays in Uganda.

Riiiight, I thought. Like any minority group cares about any other minority group. I know gay men love to read Latina, and straight black men actually cry when their copy of Out gets lost in the mail.

I knew there was one of two explanations: either AJWS was doing something extraordinary, or this was a ruse to make some pocket cash. I decided to find out which.

Three days later, I'm an expert on charity tax returns, and unfortunately wise to the sins bookkeeping can disguise. See, a charity's expenses are divided into three parts: fundraising, administration, and program expenses. Charity watchdog groups like Charity Navigator use the program expenses total to judge whether a charity is a ripoff or not. In this case, they quoted AJWS's tax return that said 81% of donated money goes to program expenses, which is quite good indeed, and gave them four stars.

Unfortunately, this isn't the right figure to use. With AJWS, for example, this total includes millions in categories like "Travel" and "Other." I emailed Charity Navigator and asked, "If AJWS's president used all their money on first-class vacations allegedly in search of deserving beneficiaries, wouldn't their rating actually go UP?"

Needless to say, I didn't get a response.

Just for a sanity check I looked at the tax returns for Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang.  They spend 92% of their revenues on program expenses.  Know what comprises those "program expenses"? It's 100% grants and allocations. For AJWS it's 56%.

I posted my concerns on JMG and eventually drew the attention of AJWS's president. Ruth Messinger relies a bit too heavily on the incommunicado Charity Navigator to vindicate AJWS's expenses in my mind. After all, they're just quoting from a form where, according to Wikipedia, "the accuracy and reliability . . . is questionable.  Form 990 categorizes a charity's expenditures into three broad categories that are open to accounting manipulation." She says the millions in "Travel" and "Other" are due to their lobbying, educational outreach, and other work, so the 81% figure is correct. And you know what? I believe her. But there's one other little figure that writes them off in my book.

Her salary.

In the gay community, GLAAD is nothing if not controversial. Their work often seems overshadowed by their networking and partying, fueled by relentless fundraising. When they do poke their heads up to take some kind of action, as often as not it's a misfire. I emailed them on three separate occasions alerting them about Jay Leno's latest homophobia, and never once received a reply.

For this, GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios makes a quarter-million dollars a year. And, according to various blogs -- The Petrelis Files, for one -- he's actively trying to hide this fact.

Ruth Messinger makes more. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $270,000 per year. And in the period from 2006 to 2008, she garnered somewhere between a 15% and 26% raise. (Numbers are complicated.)

Ms. Messinger has the balls Mr. Barrios lacks. "As for our salaries," she explains, "our professional staff deserves to be compensated fairly for the work they do.  My own salary is based on the fact that I run a 108-person organization that has grown from $2.8 million to nearly $30 million over the course of my 11-year tenure."

And now we get to the root of the problem. Maybe I'm living in the past, assuming that people who work for or run charities won't get rich doing it. (Yes, I say an income of $250,000+ per year is "rich.") Is this unrealistic? Is it bizarre to think they'd take a reasonable salary, content with the mental rewards they get from doing good?

Well, of course.

As is sadly evident, the world is divided into two parts: the poor people who struggle to keep their heads above water, and the rich who want stuff from them. Which strikes me as, um, slightly backward. I always cringe when I see a president, or president's wife, exhort the masses to volunteer. What, so the work they do merits money, but the work we do doesn't? It sets a bad precedent. If we start helping in our schools for free, for example, why should anyone be paid? The school boards discover their paltry budgets are more than sufficient, and every year they get cut back just a little bit more.

Taken this way, Ms. Messinger's words get the rest of us off the hook. Because -- correct me if I'm wrong -- she apparently thinks smart, competent, hard-working people can make $270,000 per year before the overflow siphons to a deserving cause.

I'll be happy to take her up on that.

1 comment:

Yet Another Steve said...

Ow, ow, ow, you made me THINK! No fair!

On the other hand, I'm now doing some serious and, apparently, long-overdue re-evaluating of the organizations I support. So, I'll forgive you, just this once.