Creative Genius from Hardship?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 22nd, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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As the media begins to warm up to the end-of-the-year giving frenzy when we see the annual stories on what should a donor look for in judging a nonprofit, we can expect to see coverage of salaries of nonprofit leaders, questioning if certain executive directors make way too much.  (Well, maybe, if nonprofit leaders full of themselves hadn’t decided they needed to be called CEO instead of Executive Director they would have flown more below the radar.  What’s in a name, anyway?)  I’ve stopped counting how many are in the daily Google alerts!  Makes my blood boil.  But more than the actual articles written by the reporters, I find the readers’ comments far more interesting.

Recently, I read one that wondered if the CEOs of Susan G. Komen for The Cure and the American Cancer Society didn’t pay their senior executives, including CEOs, such “exorbitant” salaries “how many MORE women could have been cured of breast cancer.”  According to Komen’s 2009 Form 990, the CEO made under $532,000 while the organization brought in just under $160 million; according to the 2008 990, the American Cancer Society, brought in just under $430 million and paid its CEO just under $690,000, though the Deputy CEO was paid over $1 million.  These salaries hardly seem exorbitant relative to the size of the company each was directing.

These salaries are no where near what individuals running for-profit companies of these sizes are making.  And yet, how often do people wonder—out loud—how much credit card fees could be if Visa didn’t pay their CEOs such “exorbitant” salaries (his salary was “only” $950,037 in 2009, but his annual compensation for that year, with added cash, stock and other options bonuses, and some “other” category of a mere $95,000 totaled $12,403,981)?  How much cheaper sneakers could be if Nike’s CEO did not get paid $1.25 million in 2007?  And the list could go on and on.  But until the financial collapse of 2008, these truly exorbitant salaries were the norm and no one squawked.  But when it comes to the compensation of the heads of nonprofits, we squawk, deride, berate, abuse, and more, with no consideration to the challenges of running a nonprofit business or the return nonprofits provide their communities every day.

Now the other side of the coin.

In a recent survey by IBM of 1500 CEOS from 60 countries and 33 different industries, CEOs believe that the most important characteristic that CEOs will need to bring to the table to lead in the world of the future is?  Drum roll, please!  Creativity! I just love this.  And even though I push all wanna-be nonprofit executive directors who are seeking a graduate degree to push forward their careers towards an MBA, I’m not seeing that degree fostering a lot of creativity though it does provide the always essential skills of running a business.  And it is okay, because the nonprofit workplace fosters creativity in spades!  What do we do when the funder gives us less money than originally indicated? We innovate.  When the demand for our services surpasses our current capacity to provide?  We juggle.  When our technology outlived its functionality three years ago?  We beg—its own form of creativity.

Not sure how much organizations will need to pay for creativity, and the critics will surely grouse.  But creativity will reap its own rewards for the individuals who possess it and the organizations they lead.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.