Fast Growing, Well-Paying Charity Jewish In Name Only

Guild Exemplifies Trend of Secularizing Nonprofits

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 23, 2011, issue of March 04, 2011.
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As the head of a charity ranked among the fastest-growing in the nation, and with an overall compensation package of more than $800,000, Alan R. Morse just might be one of the highest-paid nonprofit executives in the Jewish world.

But as president and CEO of the Jewish Guild for the Blind, Morse is not a well-known figure in the Jewish community. In fact, in his view, the charity he heads, despite its name, is not Jewish at all. “We are a healthcare organization, the largest of our kind in the country, and not a Jewish Federation or social agency,” Morse stated in an e-mail exchange with the Forward.

The Jewish Guild for the Blind, like several other Jewish charities in the field of social services, has somewhat of a dual identity. It defines itself as “non-sectarian,” and most of those benefiting from its work are not Jewish. But the group’s name, its history and its leadership all point to a Jewish connection, one that does not escape the eyes of current and potential donors to the organization. While exact figures are not available, many of the Guild’s major donors come from the world of Jewish philanthropy and the group frequently reaches out to potential Jewish contributors.

In this, the Guild represents a certain trend in the nonprofit world, as organizations that once were founded to provide services mostly to Jews — or in the case of hospitals and universities, to also provide employment to doctors and academics shunned by non-Jewish institutions — have quietly broadened their missions to accommodate and serve a much more diverse audience.

“Many organizations were originally formed to meet specific needs of the Jewish community, but then they started to spread out,” said Paul Burstein, professor of sociology and member of the Jewish studies program at the University of Washington. He added that some organizations, especially hospitals and health care providers, reached a point where they no longer needed to cater to the specific needs of the Jewish community, preferring to broaden their reach and “show the world they are not narrowly focused on Jews.”

The Guild dates back to 1914, when it was founded as The Guild for Jewish Blind. In 1950, according to Peter Williamson, the group’s public relations director, the name was changed Jewish Guild for the Blind to reflect the fact that it provides services to all in need, regardless of faith. The Guild’s latest brochure sent out to donors recently drives home this point, depicting children and adults of all ethnic backgrounds receiving services from the organization. Among the highlights detailed in the brochure is a visit by Santa Claus to a Guild school just before Christmas.

According to data collected by Charity Navigator, a website that evaluates performance of not-for-profits, the Guild is among the fastest-growing charities in the nation. From 2005 to 2008, its revenues grew 74% and spending on programs increased 87%, compared to an average growth rate among most charities of 3% to 5%.

The rapid growth can be attributed to its expansion into the field of providing managed care plans for elderly blind and visually impaired people. This program was approved in 2007 to operate Medicare and Medicaid plans. The Guild also expanded its work in the field of diabetes treatment and prevention.

The Guild offers clinical and behavioral services for the blind, as well as rehabilitation and managed long-term home care for elderly people suffering with poor vision. It also operates a school for students aged 5 to 21 and provides training for those caring for the blind. According to its annual report, 15,000 individuals benefited from the Guild’s work last year. With a staff of 560 employees, it operates facilities in New York, Massachusetts and Florida.

This vast array of services is made possible by a budget of more than $50 million, most of which is received as payment for services including Medicaid and Medicare. Only 10% of the Guild’s annual budget comes from donations.

Alan Morse joined the organization in 1968 and has worked his way up the ranks, establishing a reputation as a leading expert on treating the visually impaired and on delivery of services for the blind through the healthcare system. He has been at the helm of the Guild for 20 years.

Morse turned down requests from the Forward for an interview and responded with a brief statement.

When it comes to compensation of its top officer, the Guild would rather compare itself to other nonprofit health care providers than to CEOs in the Jewish world.

According to the Guild’s latest available tax filings, Morse earned a basic salary of $199,775 in 2008. In addition, he made $513,706 from related organizations, which Williamson said are “subsidiaries that are wholly owned by the Guild.” Morse also received $130,021 in “other compensation” bringing his annual pay to $843,502. The next highest paid officer in the organization is its executive vice president, Elliot Hagler, who receives a combined compensation of more than $370,000. Both receive part of their pay directly from the Guild and part from the corporations set up by the Guild to provide various services for the blind.

“There are two ways of looking at the rates of compensation in the nonprofit world,” said Tom Pollak, program director at the National Center for Charitable Statistics, which is part of the Urban Institute. One is through the prism of Internal Revenue Service guidelines that allow charities to pay salaries comparable to those in similar operations both in the nonprofit and for-profit world. In that realm, Morse’s compensation does not stand out as unusual for a head of a large healthcare organization.

The other way of looking at nonprofit compensation levels, according to Pollak, is examining “the subjective evaluation of what should be the salary in the nonprofit world.” And here, it is up to board members and donors to decide what constitutes a reasonable compensation.

According to the latest annual Forward survey of salaries of Jewish communal leaders, only a few can match the pay levels at the Guild, and only one — the president of Yeshiva University — surpasses Morse’s total compensation from the Guild.

“If your conclusion is that JGB compensation is among the highest, you obviously aren’t looking at the right peer group,” Morse wrote to the Forward, suggesting that Jewish nonprofits would not be a comparable peer group. Williamson, the PR director added: “We are not a Jewish organization.”

Indeed, according to a February 2009 report prepared by the IRS, average compensation for CEOs at nonprofit hospitals was nearly $500,000, with heads of large facilities earning much more. Large health care services providers, such as the Guild, are usually considered to be in the same compensation bracket.

By comparison, North Shore Long Island Jewish Hospital — another institution with “Jewish” in its name that serves a broad public — provides much higher levels of compensation to its senior executive. The huge hospital complex, with a budget of over $1 billion, paid its CEO more than $2 million in combined compensation in 2008.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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