Should nonprofit leaders be like boiled broccoli?

Nicholas Kristof had a very interesting column in Tuesday’s NY Times called “The Sin of Doing Good,” focusing on Dan Pallotta and his new book, “Uncharitable.”  Kristoff leads off the column with this question: “If a businessman rakes in a hefty profit while doing good works, is that charity or greed?”

Pallotta ran a for-profit company that invented fundraisers like AIDSRides, events which “netted over $305 million over nine years for unrestricted use by charities” ($35 million / year, for those keeping score) while Pallotta pulled in a $394,000 salary, which is, in Kristoff’s words, “low for a corporate chief executive, but stratospheric in the aid world.”  And if you want to get a whiff of the ire Pallotta inspires, check out this discussion on

Let me start by saying that I know nothing about Pallotta outside of what I’ve read in this article and poking around some on the Internet, so I cannot vouch either way for his person, his values, etc.  However, a bigger-than-life personality who is finding new and exciting ways to raise visibility and funding for important causes certainly catches my attention (hence the manifesto I wrote a few months back).

Here’s Kristof’s money quote from Pallotta, which really makes you think a little harder about this question:

We allow people to make huge profits doing any number of things that will hurt the poor, but we want to crucify anyone who wants to make money helping them.  Want to make a million selling violent video games to kids? Go for it. Want to make a million helping cure kids of cancer? You’re labeled a parasite.

Interesting, huh?

So, for example, we’re OK with Jay Shipowitz, the current CEO of Ace Cash Express (one of the largest payday / predatory lenders in the United States, which makes high-interest loans primarily to poor people) earning more than $750,000 as COO back in 2003 (the last public data I could find; they went private in 2006).  Never mind that that’s triple the average 2008 CEO salary for the largest nonprofits.  (And I don’t even have time here to get into the complexities of Ace Cash Express making headlines by giving nearly $1 million to the United Way.)

The (provocative) question I’d like to ask is is: is making sure nonprofit leaders (and their staff) have pure motives and low salaries more important than getting the results we so desperately need? How do we, as a society, want to reward people for the paths they take in life?

And here’s the broccoli analogy: for years, whenever I made vegetables with meals, I thought, “these are going to be healthy.”  Hence the boiled, flavorless broccoli.  Guess how often I prepared (let alone ate) the broccoli.  Pretty infrequently.

More recently, I’ve discovered if I make my veggies taste good, they become part of almost every meal.  So now they often have olive oil, salt and pepper, and sometimes even bits of bacon or pancetta, but they taste delicious and they’re part of my daily diet, not the exception I dabble in when I’m feeling virtuous.

(And for the ultimate blogging aside: if you want to change your mind about Brussel sprouts forever, prepare them  following Ina Garten’s recipe in her Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.)

So while there’s a woman who I met once – who I’m sure will live forever – whose diet consisted mainly of humongous bowls of salad (no dressing), I don’t think that’s going to work for most people.  Large numbers of people are healthier when whole societies have cuisines that centers on fish and olive oil and red wine (go figure!).

So while I don’t know much about Dan Pallotta, I’m sure we need more openness to new ways of doing things in the nonprofit sector, and new ways to attract, motivate and keep the best and brightest.  Maybe this is through contests or pay raises or incentive pay – for now I’ll defer to others to fill in the details.  But I would love to live in a world where society stands up and says, “These problems are so big and important that we will align resources against them to get them solved.”

Better yet, if someone really were to make a great living solving one of the world’s big problems, don’t you think that person would be just as likely to plow the money they made back in as charitable donations?

Food for thought, anyhow.