• September 17, 2014

It’s Time for Charities to Hire Women CEO’s and Pay Them Fairly

Philadelphia, where I spent most of my professional career, is not in all respects a progressive city, but women there play a significant role running foundations, cultural institutions, colleges, and other nonprofit groups.

So when I arrived in New York in 2008 to become editor in chief of Forward, the national Jewish news organization, I was eager to get to know other Jewish women leaders.

My publisher took me around to meet the important heads of organizations in the Jewish nonprofit world, and it soon became apparent that they were all men. I finally resorted to writing notes to women I saw quoted in articles and requesting to meet with them.

They had to be there, right? Or did they?

I decided not to let that question just stay with me but to find a way to answer it through journalistic research.

That’s how my news organization started surveying the leadership of the biggest nonprofit federations, Jewish denominations, and advocacy, education, and social-service groups that focus on matters of concern to Jews. Our fourth annual edition, published last month, shows the answers to two simple questions: Who is in charge, male or female? And what does he or she earn?

The results have been shocking and should provoke conversation at all nonprofits, because our findings are consistent with other surveys pointing to the gender gap in pay and responsibility at too many charities and foundations. The process has also pointed to a disturbing level of secrecy at organizations that use their religious exemption as a shield to avoid reporting salaries for work that has little to do directly with religious practices.

The first year’s findings were probably the most astounding. Of the 75 organizations we surveyed, only 11 were led by women. And three of those 11 were in interim roles. None of the large federations had a woman permanently at the helm. Ever. Just think about it: More American Jewish women served on the United States Supreme Court that year than had ever led a major federation. And that was before Elena Kagan was appointed.

We also found a serious gender gap in pay. Women were paid only 61 cents for every dollar earned by male leaders. That is all the more galling considering that about three-quarters of the employees in Jewish federations and nonprofits are women.

We printed all the information in the newspaper and posted it online. Lots of women reached out to me in thanks. But honestly, I didn’t hear much from the men in charge.

So we did the survey again in 2010 and found that a smaller share of women headed organizations than in 2009. What’s more, they continued to lag behind men in pay and did not receive the same increases in salary as the majority of the men got, even in the darkest period of the recession. The number of women serving as chief executives of federations, advocacy and public-service groups, and religious institutions dropped to nine.

In 2011, the survey found stagnation. Even though we added two new organizations to our list that were run by women, the overall number remained stubbornly at nine.

By then, people were starting to take notice, partly out of embarrassment: Once they saw that we were committed to reporting on what was going on at Jewish organizations year after year, they couldn’t pretend this was going away.

And beyond the gender gap, last year we heard a lot of anger from readers—anger that, at a time of economic crisis for so many Jews and other Americans, a few men (and they were all men) were earning fantastic sums just to run a charity.

Stephen Hoffman, the head of Cleveland’s federation, for instance, earned $644,518.

There was something deeply troubling about this inequality. In an editorial, I called it “our 1 percent,” to borrow the language of Occupy Wall Street.

I also find it troubling that many Jewish organizations hide behind their religious designations to maintain secrecy about their operations.

I understand the constitutional theory that exempts synagogues, churches, and mosques from having to even file a 990. Excessive entanglement by the state is a threat to all religion.

But leaders of organizations whose jobs are more like lobbyists than clergy can pull down the constitutional curtain and make it impossible to know what they are earning, what they are spending, and whether they are really accountable to the public.

Our 2012 survey showed that the number of women had increased slightly, to 10, thanks to the appointment in April of Janice Weinman as chief executive of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, which, mystifyingly, had not had a woman in charge for several years. And Ms. Weinman is earning $410,000, more than any other woman on our list, helping to narrow the gender gap in pay. It’s now 66 cents on the dollar.

Still, only one woman heads a major federation, Jennifer Gorovitz, chief executive of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, is the only woman in charge of a religious denomination. Without Ms. Weinman’s earnings in the mix, the median salary for women on our list would be three-fifths of the median salary for men.

Our findings show that the gender crisis at Jewish organizations is worse than in the rest of the nonprofit world, but not by much. Over the years, I’ve been approached by women of other faiths who are certain that similar trends exist in their organizations, but they lack the wherewithal or the support to do this kind of research.

Why is there a stubborn resistance to recruiting, promoting, and appropriately paying women in the top echelons of American philanthropy?

I don’t have a satisfying answer. In the Jewish world, though many of the organizations created a century or more ago have been run by the same men for a very long time, even some of the newer, more progressive groups are dominated by men.

It’s time for a broader conversation about gender and compensation at nonprofits. As The Chronicle’s salary studies have also shown, the disconnect is growing between the million-dollar salaries earned by some charity leaders and the pay offered to the workers in those organizations. That’s one reason some governors and state lawmakers are seeking to limit executive pay at nonprofits.

Personally, I don’t believe that women are automatically better nonprofit leaders. But neither are men. We should seek the best leaders possible, and that won’t happen if the applicant pool is artificially shrunk because boards of directors or the search firms they hire can’t imagine women in the top roles.

Nonprofits are supposed to work for the common good, and they receive a special tax status specifically because of the services they provide to society. In exchange, each organization must be held accountable to meeting its ethical obligations to promote equality by its employees, its donors, and everyone who benefits from a charity’s work.

Jane Eisner is editor in chief of The Forward.

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