Category Archives: Nonprofit Organizations

CEO pay and global health politics

Yesterday, Scott Weathers had a great piece calling out the short-sighted, faux-outrage of Ian Birrell, a British journalist whose main focus seems to be taking pot-shots at DFID and the UK’s investments in development assistance more broadly. To sum up, Birrell takes umbrage with the relatively high salary of Seth Berkley (more than $500k annually [update! turns out the salary is only approx £220k!]), the CEO of GAVI, the vaccine alliance which works to make childhood immunizations available to populations around the world. Birrell writes:

The astonishing pay arrangement is the latest outrage, exposed by The Mail on Sunday, of charity chiefs pocketing massive salaries and bonuses while taking British aid to fight world poverty.

Gavi is one of six new groups paying exorbitant amounts to senior executives. Two weeks ago, we revealed how seven major charities were doling out salary packages of up to £618,000 a year.

International Development Secretary Priti Patel demanded an end to ‘excessive profiteering’ when she was questioned over our revelations by the Commons’ International Development Select Committee two weeks ago.

But, as Weathers well points out:

Birrell’s criticism also reveals a common mistake when we talk about the “do-gooder” sector: misguided attention to inputs, rather than outputs. Instead of allowing organizations to determine how they can most effectively spend their money themselves and judging their performance based on results, critics like Birrell would rather focus on the narrowest examples of what they consider waste and fraud. This spending ― rarely put into financial proportion or given proper context ― often amounts to a small fraction of what we spend improving the lives of the poor. However, these examples are then often generalized to an entire sector in order to justify slashing donor funds that support life-saving aid.

While Birrell is playing an ideologically motivated, anti-aid game, it’s also true that relatively high pay for executives is the norm, especially for large development contractors. And, there are often large pay gaps within the pay structures for staff in capital cities / NGO headquarters versus site-based, country national staff. Weathers cites a blog post, but there is a lot of literature showing that CEO pay has very little to do with past performance and has small effects on motivating future performance: it’s mostly a function of the bargaining position of a given executive in relationship to their board of directors. NGOs, like for-profit corporations, are caught up in the same types of isomorphic pressures that cause them to look more and more like one another, often both in structure and in function, as norms, policies, and best practices diffuse through the field (Powell & DiMaggio, 1991).

So, while I agree with Weathers that CEO pay cannot be a wedge used to diminish support for vital development assistance programs, I worry about the political effects of NGOs succumbing to the market-based forces of the broader institutional field in which they are embedded. Throwing up our hands and saying that its just the “market at work” for exceptional talent at the very top seems not only an insufficient answer, but also tone-deaf politically. As Kristof Decoster quipped on twitter, relatively high CEO pay is an all too easily cherry-picked argument for aid critics:

For me, all of these issues are deeply political and not simply a matter of costs and benefits. We can make all of the “rational” arguments we want by demonstrating quantitatively the cost-effectiveness of relatively small investments in CEO pay compared to the enormous benefits of lives saved. But, I worry that this line of reasoning serves to depoliticize the whole issue of delivering effective health services to the poor. We need leaders and their organizations to embody an active resistance to market forces rather than reproduce inequalities that are at the root of health injustices in the first place.

Powell, W. W., & DiMaggio, P. (1991). The New institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Community Organizing, Reflection, and Humane Values

In our increasingly individualistic and commodified world, from an assembly line education system to purchasable wedding speeches, there appears to be little emphasis on cultivating humane values such as cooperation and compassion. This seems to be especially true in the context of the corporate world. When I think of offices, an image of a cold and heartless gray tundra emerges. The scene usually includes robots working hunched over behind desks, typing furiously to crunch the numbers, motivated by the money. With that said, when I walked into the Partners in Health Boston office, I was happily surprised when greeted by colorful walls, vibrant photographs of PIH’s sites across the world, and humans!

The office-wide Tuesday Update meeting was illuminating as I began to get a sense of how things are done at PIH. I had expected the meeting to consist of setting timelines, doling out tasks, and reporting on progress—all characteristic of the robotic scene I had associated with corporate America. I certainly did not expect humane values to be the topic of a staff meeting in a paid work environment.

The meeting was run by PIH’s Executive Director Ophelia Dahl, who led a discussion on the organization’s core values: pragmatic solidarity, integrity, humility, commitment, and optimism. In addition, she stressed the importance of reflection—both on the work itself, but also on how they approach the work, and why they do it. Because the nature of PIH’s efforts involves life and death, time is always of the essence. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that despite this urgency, time taken for reflection was deemed worthwhile, and even necessary in order to meaningfully engage in the movement for global health equity.

By reflecting on humane values and the intentions behind them, we cultivate skills that prepare us to handle difficult situations and face complex problems (like the ones PIH staff work with every day) with focus, calm, and clarity. It is clear that people here are working for much more than a paycheck, and giving more of themselves than can be measured in an eight-hour workday.

As a Community Coordinator for Partners In Health | Engage, my community is constantly reflecting on what worked, what didn’t, and what we can do better. These moments of short-term concrete reflection are not only helpful for continued organizing, but also serve to unify my team in our larger purpose. Reflection on even broader topics, such as core values, can garner even deeper sense of shared purpose, motivation, and solidarity. While working in community organizing, reflection is critical in order to make values explicit and meaningful. This practice serves to cultivate a sense of shared humanity, bind people together, and motivate them to volunteer their time and energy for a cause they truly believe in.


By Victoria Leonard

Victoria is a junior at Brown University studying Political Science and Religious Studies. She has traveled to Senegal and Ghana to work on food security and clean water projects. She enjoys doing yoga, cooking, and swimming in the sea. 

Brand Democracy

TheBrandIdeaI just stumbled upon a new book that was tweeted about by the Stanford Social Innovation Review (they provide a great excerpt) called The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy and Affinity. The book looks amazing and I just bought it. I intend to read over the next week or so and hope to have a review and some comments on it shortly.

One of the things that resonated with me most strongly about the book’s description and the brief excerpt linked above is the need for organizations engaging in social change work to dispose of the outdated idea of brand protection and control. The idea that a brand is something defined primarily by a logo and tagline and that a central office can command and control the evolution of brand is outdated. Brands are fluid and dynamic interactions between the ways that organizations portray and communicate their work and the ways that stakeholders, donors, volunteers, participants, clients, etc perceive that communication and actually interact with the work. These ideas remind me very much of Seth Godin.

Giving up some degree of control of brand is one of the more interesting tensions inherent in introducing grassroots community organizing into an established nonprofit organization. Community organizing demands volunteer leadership. Developing volunteer leadership demands that individuals not formally employed by the organization accept responsibility to create shared purpose within the community they hope to mobilize. Enabling volunteers to accept that responsibility means giving them responsibility and ownership over their work, but also over the brand, the very essence of the organization.

I was struck by this quote:

“Brand Democracy is the process of engaging internal and external stakeholders. It means that the nonprofit organization trusts its members, staff, participants, and volunteers to participate in both the development of the organization’s brand identity and the communication of that identity. By brand Democracy, we do not mean that everyone gets to “vote” on the brand, but it does mean that there is stakeholder participation. Internal and external stakeholders are engaged in the process of defining, refining, articulating, and communicating the organization’s brand identity. In this way, everyone develops a clear understanding of the organization’s core identity and can become an effective brand advocate and ambassador. Every employee and volunteer authentically and personally communicates the essence of the brand. As a result, the need to exert control over how the brand is presented and portrayed in order to ensure strict consistency is largely eliminated. Noah Manduke, president of social sector brand consultancy Durable Good and former chief strategy officer, Jeff Skoll Group, conveyed the essence of brand Democracy, explaining that organizations need ‘a deliberate process that brings people from awareness (I know) to understanding (I know why) to adoption (I know how) to internalizing the brand (I believe).'”

I’m excited to dig in!