This week the Froward published an article that exposed which executives of major American Jewish organizations took personal pay cuts while firing staff and which did not. Out of the 21 organizations surveyed only nine of the executives did so. Three of them refused to comment. The rest laid off employees while their own salaries remained sky high. While this shows a complete lack of leadership and commitment to people less fortunate than themselves it may not be unethical. The ethical dilemma here is another one. Is it proper for executives of Jewish non-profit organizations to be paid a base salary in excess of half a million dollars?
One must not forget that these are organizations that regularly send us letters begging us for our hard-earned cash. Often they paint dire pictures of urgent need to inspire us to give more. While I am not suggesting that donated money goes exclusively to pay big salaries. Certainly most of the contributed money goes to important programs. But that is beside the point.
In Judaism one of the most prestigious communal jobs is that of a Gabai Tzedokah (community fundraiser). The Talmud states that the verse in Daniel: “And they that turn many to (Tzedakah) righteousness (will shine) as the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:3) refers to collectors of charity (Baba Batra 8b). Clearly fundraisers for a righteous cause have always been seen by Judaism as very important and respected members of the community.
However, in Talmud times fundraising was an unpaid communal position. And even if fundraisers were paid it was the minimum amount needed to live. But now fundraising has become a profession, rather than a calling, and good fundraisers make very large salaries.
Where are Jewish ethics?Whether very well paid professional fundraisers are entitled to the same level of respectability as the old fashioned charity collectors is a question that Jewish ethicist have grappled with. The consensus seems to be that there is a clear distinction between a very well paid professional fundraiser and one who raises funds for communal purposes and gets paid a minimal amount (Mishnah Halochot 4:237). The former is seen as acting in a self serving manner (Yad Eliyahu, 54). The latter is loaded with praise. In fact the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Yosi is quoted as saying, “May my lot be of those who collect charity” (Shabbat 118b).
Now clearly one can argue that Jewish organizations need to pay their executive with salaries that are competitive in the market. Howard Rieger of the United Jewish Communities argued exactly this point in the Forward article. He said that, “In a competitive marketplace for management talent, not-for-profits needed to weigh the urge to cut salaries for the sake of appearances against the need to pay enough to retain top-flight employees.” Unfortunately this market reality does not fit in with our higher sense of Jewish ethics and morality.
There must be a clear distinction between communal service and making money. To be sure, there is nothing immoral about being an entrepreneur and the accumulation of wealth. As long as one gives charity, making money is a fine endeavor. There is, however, clearly something wrong with a person trying to build wealth by leading a charitable organization. A person who makes the decision to work in the non-profit sector must realize that they are trading the potential for attaining wealth for a life of meaning and fulfillment. It is this tradeoff that Judaism extols and praises.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts