Age of Transparency


Published November 11, 2009, issue of November 20, 2009.
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When the Forward published a comprehensive story last week on leadership and compensation in the nation’s 75 largest Jewish communal organizations, it relied on data routinely made public by the federal government for all nonprofits. It takes time to find the information, double check the numbers, and draw out the story, but the fact is that anyone with the slightest computer skills can access this information.

We urge you to do so. This is the age of transparency. Donors and citizens have a right to know how tax-exempt money is being spent at the organizations they support and that serve their communities.

The Forward’s survey could not account for every one of the 157 federations and 400 network communities represented by the Jewish Federations of North America, nor did we examine the practices at countless other worthy institutions. Part of our journalistic mission is train a skeptical eye on the way communal monies are raised and spent, but this is not only a job for journalists these days.

So, for instance, it’s appropriate to ask whether the CEO of your favorite charity is earning too much, not enough, or just what he or she deserves. The Internal Revenue Service rules state that executives of nonprofits should receive “reasonable compensation.” Historically in the nonprofit sector, the custom was that the CEO’s salary was no more than 10 times that of the lowest-paid employee, but clearly that practice has been abandoned at many communal organizations. Should it be reinstated?

To help readers ferret out this information and make informed decisions on their own giving, we have posted on a question-and-answer with Brant Houston, Knight Chair of Investigative Reporting in the journalism department at the University of Illinois. He describes how to access and read the tax form known as the 990.

And if you want more information, visit the Web site of Charity Navigator, an independent service that evaluates the financial health of 5,400 of America’s largest charities. There you can discover how many Jewish nonprofits operate and compare to others in their respective fields.

There may be a nagging sense among some people that to question is to imply mistrust. It shouldn’t. To question is to demonstrate that you care about holding leaders and institutions accountable for doing the best they can on all our behalf.

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