Ah, yes, the twinkling lights, the tinkling bells, the emails and the phone calls: ’tis the season to be hit up for donations. And hit up again. And again.
Like the holiday season itself, the annual big beg starts in the run-up to Thanksgiving.
How to deal with it if you don’t have unlimited disposable funds? A dollar or five to everyone who asks is the solution of the truly generous. The real philanthropists among us are those riders on the el who reach into their own sometimes threadbare pockets and give to anyone desperate enough to work the cars.
I’m humbled by this when I see it, which, in this spectacular and screwed-up city, is amazingly often.
But let’s say you’re a little more stingy—er, discriminating—than that. One simple way to turn your despicable Scroogyness into rational and therefore acceptable behavior is to apply the handy-dandy executive pay test.
It works like this: if the nonprofit’s top exec is making more in a year than you can hope to save over your lifetime, you, regretfully, and with the greatest respect for the cause, just say no.
That’s what I did when I got the annual call from some nice undergrad at Northwestern University. I’m a Northwestern alum but, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s latest listing, in 2016 NU president Morton Schapiro was paid $1.6 million. That’s down from the $2.3 million he made in 2014, but not down enough to pass the executive pay test—at least, not as applied by this English major. I told the kid he might do better by dialing up graduates of NU’s Kellogg School of Management. He told me I was underestimating the impact of small contributions.
He’s right, of course: if I dig deep and give one hundred bucks, it’ll only take 15,999 more people like me to cover Schapiro’s salary in a down year.
You may be surprised to learn that those big, prominent nonprofits soliciting your holiday donations, and maybe a place in your will, are very profitable for the administrators (and in some cases, the artists) in charge. How did that happen? Mostly because executive salaries are set by boards of directors, and these boards, especially at prestigious institutions, are comprised of the richest people those same administrators can round up, folks to whom a half-million dollars sounds like, if not pocket change, nothing more than a reasonable salary.
And in this brave new shame-free Trumpian world, it seems no one’s embarrassed about taking a one-percenter salary out of donations wangled from the less fortunate.
Not that they broadcast their internal largess. Most organizations don’t include financial details in the puff-piece annual reports they issue for public consumption. But nonprofit executive pay is public information and, thanks to groups like Guidestar and ProPublica, easy to access online.
It can also surface if employees are pissed off. When the Lyric Opera orchestra went on strike last fall amid belt-tightening by the organization, CEO (and also general director and president) Anthony Freud’s compensation, which was $781,000 in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016, became an issue. Lyric also paid its music director, Sir Andrew Davis, $915,000 that year.
Meanwhile, over at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, president Jeff Alexander made a little over half a million dollars in fiscal 2016, while internationally esteemed conductor,Riccardo Muti, who’s listed as an independent contractor, was paid nearly $1.5 million. (OK, in the classical world, Muti’s the equivalent of, say, Cubs lefty pitcher Jon Lester. And next year Lester will make about $25 million.)
A half-million was also the going rate in 2016 for MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn, Goodman Theatre executive director Roche Schulfer, and Chicago Shakespeare executive director Criss Henderson. Goodman artistic director Robert Falls made just under $570,000, while Chicago Shakespeare artistic director Barbara Gaines received $580,000. At the Art Institute in fiscal 2016 (which ended June 30, 2017), newly appointed president and director James Rondeau was paid $593,895.
When “students and friends” recently pushed back against the announced sale of the Old Town School of Folk Music’s longtime Lincoln Park home, the compensation of executive director Bau Graves became an issue. An online petition signed by thousands noted that, “despite the lack of enrollment growth, and the School’s financial difficulties . . . Graves’s total compensation rose 52 percent from 2009 to 2016.” Graves, who is currently on a leave of absence, was compensated $254,871 in 2016.
Meanwhile, administrators at smaller organizations, especially arts organizations, are still scraping by, making financial sacrifices every day to do the work they believe in (hello, Theo Ubique, Project Onward). If they hit you up, fellow skinflints, you’re on your own. v