Holding Nonprofit CEOs Accountable for Greedy Salaries

BY JOHN MONTAGUE

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently released its most recent survey of executive compensation at nonprofits. Last year, while unemployment was rising, giving was down, and many nonprofits were forced to conduct layoffs, salaries of nonprofit CEOs rose by 7 percent. Although nonprofit boards set compensation levels prospectively, it is nonetheless troubling that many of these executives chose to sacrifice staff and program goals while not voluntarily taking pay cuts themselves. Of course, executive pay cuts alone would not solve the funding crises at these organizations, but with CEO salaries at many nonprofits approaching half a million dollars, top managers do have it within their power to save a number of jobs and not-insubstantial portions of their program goals.

It is especially shameful that the behavior and compensation levels of executives at Christian nonprofits are indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. Nonprofit boards frequently justify swollen pay packages by contending that they need to attract the best talent to lead their organizations. This arguable proposition has considerably less force when the executives claim to be “called” by God to their positions.

Worse, a careful perusal of Christ’s teachings makes these leaders seem downright hypocritical. It was Jesus who told his disciples, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) and “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). And it was Paul who worked as a tentmaker during his ministry, laboring to support himself instead of living off of the generosity of others: “We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow” (2 Thess. 3:7-9).

Last week, Franklin Graham became the latest well-known evangelical to be accused of such hypocrisy. Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, is CEO of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and the relief organization Samaritan’s Purse. Last year, he received total compensation of $1.2 million from these positions. Yet the BGEA laid off 10% of its staff earlier this year due to the economic crisis. After coming under fire from the Charlotte Observer, last Tuesday Graham asked the boards of both organizations to suspend contributions to his retirement account. Then, on Friday, he requested that the BGEA eliminate his salary. However, he will continue to receive $535,000 per year from Samaritan’s Purse.

The problems with Graham’s behavior are manifold and they raise legitimate questions not just about the motivation for his “calling” but also about the foundations of his ministry. The Bible makes it clear that it is impossible to love God and neighbor without having this faith manifest itself in action. Why did Graham only consider taking a pay cut when his distended compensation came under public attack and not when the BGEA had to conduct layoffs? Why would Graham have chosen to put 55 of his employees out of work while drawing a salary of $669,000? How can Graham urge others to sacrifice from their meager wages to support his charitable work while living such a lavish lifestyle?

Several years ago, Graham bragged about his generosity to reporters, telling them he gave away over $40,000 per year. These boasts ring hollow in the court of the Jesus whom Graham claims to follow, and they sound outright discordant when compared to the sacrifices Graham asks others to make for the support of his charities. Has Graham not read what Jesus said about the poor widow’s gift?

Unfortunately, Graham is not alone in his hypocrisy. The Charlotte Observer and secular nonprofit watchdogs should be commended for holding Graham accountable for his behavior. Christians should take this example to heart and not blindly give to organizations without examining where their money is being spent. Many resources for investigating nonprofits are available on the Internet. For example, Charity Navigator rates the efficiency of large nonprofits. With a free registration, GuideStar offers access to the IRS Form 990s for nonprofits of any size, which include information about program activities and executive compensation.

Before blithely writing a check to a charity, Christians should make sure that the organization is stewarding its own resources wisely and that it is not, for instance, spending more than a million dollars per year on lawn care, as the BGEA was doing. Even if the organization is using its resources poorly, Christians should not underestimate their own power to influence its management through private and public pressure. Write a letter to the organization, post information on a blog, join a public campaign, but do not just idly give. Giving wisely is part of the generosity and stewardship to which we Christians are called.

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3 thoughts on “Holding Nonprofit CEOs Accountable for Greedy Salaries

  1. That’s sad, but not surprising. You’re right in that giving wisely is part of the stewardship Christians are called to, and this entry reminds me that rebuking and shedding light on what is blatantly wrong is also a part of a Christian’s stewardship. With a good combination of knowledge of what’s happening and wisdom to determine appropriate action and speech in response for each situation, accountability would be more existent than it is now in the Christian body.

  2. I feel like scandals exactly like these are the reason that many Christians (and non-Christians) so frequently withhold donations, as well. They ignore advertisements on television and in magazines and even supplications within the church because they are doubtful about where the funds will go. My grandmother calls my grandfather an idiot for sponsoring a child through WorldVision and scoffs at the Smile Train Foundation which claims to repair the cleft palates of children, based on her own experiences with corruption. It’s wonderful that you provide sources for potential patrons to research programs: Since tithing, giving and sharing are so fundamental to living in Christ, we need to ensure that we find a way to help those in need no matter how many CEOs may block our path.

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