Executive salaries in the Jewish community — as elsewhere in both the nonprofit and corporate worlds — often correspond very little with the size, complexity or profit of their organizations. Ultimately, it is the board that determines the executive director’s salary. And though the organization’s size and financial soundness must be taken into account, it is clear that this decision is also the result of other powerfully influential factors. Understanding them better should have an effect on communal policy.
The political skills needed to head many organizations and the wear-and-tear generated by organizational politics coupled with the endless grind of fundraising and the long, irregular hours make an executive’s job considerably unattractive. Supply and demand thus have an impact on salaries.
Read the Forward’s special op-ed section on How to Handle Our 1%, including Leonard Saxe on Creating a Tax for Jewish Education, Moses L. Pava on Following Ethical Guidelines and Shifra Bronznick on Hiring and Paying Fairly.
The relatively small size of the talent pool for executive directors, school heads and executive vice-presidents is made worse by the reality that most organizations have no ongoing training programs for future top executives. Whether anyone with the right skills is available outside the organization ends up being a matter of luck. The shortage can create bidding wars.
In many organizations, the development director and the executive director are the two professionals whose work most directly affects the bottom line. Organizational success means that people in these two positions can make salary demands of a kind not available to anyone else.
The job descriptions of executive directors are often radically different from those of most of the staff members in their organizations, which is a major factor discouraging promotion from within. For most organizations, the ideal executive director would be a visionary leader with excellent political skills, someone who can provide first-rate supervision and oversee tough-minded budget creation, a person with deep understanding of the organization’s mission and how it fits into its community, a person who is an excellent fundraiser and relationship builder and, at the same time, is a mensch. These skills are not all needed by lower-level professionals, and people with this considerable list of skills are scarce.
Then there is the triangular relationship between the board, the staff and the executive. Ideally, it should be characterized by mutual trust and open sharing of information, and I know some organizations that operate just that way. But, for the most part, an absence of respect and partnership leaves staff feeling demeaned, the board unsure of its understanding of the organization and the executive director feeling like a shock absorber. People who work under these conditions deserve to be compensated for the difficulty of providing this essential but exhausting buffer.
Some executive directors have long served in their organizations, developing very close relationships with their boards. In general, that is a wonderful thing. But when that relationship is too cozy, there can be a loss of careful oversight that ensures effective, efficient operations. It also means that an executive’s salary can rise at the executive’s request because of the way he or she shapes and influences the board.
There are several things we can do to ease the shortage of first-rate executive directors. Through training, lobbying and education we can eliminate the imbalance between the number of male and female executive directors, expanding the pool of those seriously considered for executive positions. By organizational, citywide, regional and national training programs, we can grow a cadre of Jewish communal professionals capable of assuming executive director positions. Perhaps more important, we can reshape job descriptions and organizational politics in a way that makes taking on the mantle of leadership more attractive to capable people.
Fairness in hiring and compensation cannot be achieved by external regulation. It requires the considered and judicious leadership of officers and board members. It is the fiduciary responsibility of every member of every board to ensure that the issues of compensation throughout the organization are examined openly and that compensation is set fairly. If a salary or a benefit package is too high or is inadequate, it is up to every board member to discover that and do something about it.
David A. Teutsch is the Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization and Director of the Levin-Lieber Program in Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. His most recent book, “A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living,” won a 2012 National Jewish Book Award.