Beyond Excess: Finding Better Rewards for Our Leaders

Opinion

By Mordechai Liebling

Published December 29, 2010, issue of January 07, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘Excessive! Outrageous! Obscene! Immoral!” and “Many of them deserve it. That is the only way to attract talent.” That was the range of comments I heard in response to the Forward’s recent survey of Jewish communal leaders’ salaries.

These responses highlight that we, as a community, need to have a frank discussion about how we compensate our leaders. With younger Jews already not as inclined as their parents and grandparents to give to Jewish philanthropies, there is great concern that Jewish institutions will eventually face significant shortfalls. The perception of excessive salaries will only exacerbate the problem. We need a climate of confidence in our communal salary structures.

To create trust we should begin by asking some important questions: Are executive salaries fair and appropriate? Are they necessary for an organization to fulfill its mission? Are they in keeping with Jewish values? These are questions to be asked both on a case-by-case basis and on a communal level.

As far as fairness, organizations need to make sure that the processes determining top earners’ salaries are free from favoritism, self-interest, bias or deception. Also, for the sake of fairness and getting the best person for the job, the Jewish community, through education and formal resolutions, must create the expectation that every organization will examine gender bias in its salaries and hiring practices.

We should also examine whether CEOs’ salaries conform to prevailing standards. There are several possible measures: How does a CEO’s salary compare to the other salaries within the organization? How does a CEO’s pay compare to leaders’ salaries at similar organizations in the Jewish world and beyond? What percent of the money raised by the organization, or of its total programming costs, goes to its leader’s salary?

Salaries in larger organizations are often inflated by the fact that the board is typically composed of the largest donors (more so the executive committee, which generally sets the salary). To board members whose incomes are in the high six figures or more, paying a CEO several hundred-thousand dollars may seem appropriate, as they recognize that the CEO is doing a job as challenging as theirs. But they should be asking themselves: Would the organization’s median donors think that the salary is appropriate?

As to whether the level of compensation is necessary for the organization to fulfill its mission, boards should think about the following criteria: Is the added value that this particular person brings to the table commensurate with the salary? Have we investigated the belief that we need to offer this much of a salary to attract the caliber of person we need?

The overriding Jewish value is that boards are the financial stewards of freely given tzedakah, and as such they need to make sure that the money is used for the purposes for which it was given in the most efficient and economical manner. Boards need to remind themselves of this.

The questions regarding fair and appropriate salaries, however, raise a larger issue: Today, many in the upper-middle class live a lifestyle defined by over-consumption and amenities that are not affordable to the large majority of the population. Nonprofit CEOs are exposed to this lifestyle by interacting with their board members. It is a lot to ask them to not want this lifestyle, especially when many work 60-hour weeks and spend considerable time away from their families. And yet, can we justify tzedakah dollars going to support this lifestyle?

Our communal leaders should be role models, not models of the misguided value our society places on over-consumption and over-work. Our community needs to wrestle with questions of “How much is enough?” and “How do we create executive positions that allow for a balanced life?” If we do so successfully, we can provide a model for our whole society.

Granted, striking the right balance will be challenging. Many of our nonprofit CEOs spend half or more of their time raising money. They need to have both self-respect and the respect of others. Given this reality, one might ask: In a culture where so much of both is tied to earnings, will leaders command the respect they need from donors and others if they are modestly paid?

Jewish text offers us an alternative value structure. In our tradition, those who get paid a minimal amount for raising communal funds are put on a far higher rung than those who are well paid. We should draw on this wisdom.

Pay is one kind of reward, but it is not the only kind. Making sure that communal work is honored and appreciated is the best way to attract the highest caliber of leaders to our institutions.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling is director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He is a former executive director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and former executive vice-president of Jewish Funds for Justice.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.