Toshio Meronek

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

Filed By Toshio Meronek | January 30, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Brian Basinger, Lyon-Martin Health Services, Nonprofit Industrial Complex, San Francisco

People fighting the Non-Profit Industrial Complex say that it doesn't take long before the number one heartpostersmall.jpgobjective at most non-profits becomes fundraising rather than the cause they were founded for. It's not a new idea, but it's one that people who pay attention to LGBT politics in San Francisco are talking about since the big, gay news right now includes the local LGBT Center's renting out of some of its space to businesses, and the imminent closure of Lyon-Martin Health Services, which provides health care to many low-income queers and trans people.

Anyone who's ever set foot inside SF's LGBT Center (which has an annual budget of about $2 million) knows it's almost always a ghost town. A friend of mine volunteered there for a few months. She stopped after she got sick of only being offered shifts serving wealthy people crudites at fundraisers, in hopes they'd write checks so the tumbleweeds could continue to be tended a little while longer.

I also know people who've been served by Lyon-Martin and served well. But the clinic's executive director (who is also medical director) makes $145,000 per year (down from $159,000 after budget cuts), and the previous director took in $90,000. Take your pick: any of those numbers is far higher than the incomes of their clients. If the clinic continues to operate (the board says it has to raise $250,000 by Monday to pay off debts; as of January 28th they were at $117,000), donors should demand a re-imagining of the organization's pay structure.

Brian Basinger, who makes $690 per month as Executive Director of the organization he founded, AIDS Housing Alliance San Francisco, makes a good argument against high exec pay in the current issue of the Bay Area Reporter. In an op-ed, he outlines how greed leads the leaders:

As executive directors start making six-figure salaries, they spend more time with their high-income peers and naturally start adopting those class interests. In order to maintain an ever increasing revenue stream, and their increasing personal income, directors spend more time courting wealthier donors, leading to a type of social climbing. They don't want to offend the needs, values, and interests of an increasingly wealthier slice of society to maintain access to that social class and its money. "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." ...

My ideal is that leaders of nonprofits take an oath of poverty, live in the communities they serve, and consciously make themselves reliant on the same systems of care as the people they serve.

I'm with Basinger, who would prefer that EDs at non-profits "take an oath of poverty," but he also suggests less radical alternatives, like pay caps and tying the highest-paid worker's salary to the lowest's.

You can read the full piece here.

(Thanks, Eric Stanley.)

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Totally agree. Whether it's the HRC, or Lyon Martin, activists and service providers for many people who are struggling have no business making 6 figures. Okay, $690/mo in San Francisco isn't realistic either, but when you have multiple people in organizations over 6 figures (and for Lyon Martin, over $70K) then that's not okay. Executives, believe it or not, are not that much more responsible for the success and running of any organization than the "lower staff." And the SFLGBT Center... don't get me started. It's a facility created from the top-down, which will doom any service organization/facility to failure. The initial "A-Listers" who created it refused to listen to community organizations who said rehabbing an older facility would have been much cheaper. But no... it wouldn't have been a fabulous enough 'party space.'

"Non-Profit Industrial Complex"

Look up the term in the dictionary and one finds a purple and yellow equal sign as its illustration.

How about a little perspective here. The median earnings for a generalist physician in the San Francisco Bay area is $200,489.00 ( Median debt load of class of 2010 medical school graduates is $150,000.00 ( Your clinic director is earning significantly less than median salary even before the budget cuts. 90% of the generalist physicians in the area are making more than he is.

The cost of education is ridiculous, of course--my boyfriend goes to UC Santa Cruz and we've had a fun time watching fees increase as UC administrators rake in the dough (the Regents just approved $4 million in staff bonuses as $500 million is being cut from the UC budget by our new governor). But the vast majority of EDs at clinics like Lyon-Martin do not have medical degrees; many have never worked in the health field. I do think there is a difference between a practicing-for-profit doctor who doesn't make an overt claim to wanting to help people, and one who does, and shouldn't that difference presuppose a much lower salary, so that more funds can go to helping the clients being served?

Compared to what docs get paid in that area, I think he is responsible about his salary demands. Who's paying his malpractice insurance? How much over-time his he putting in essentially for free? One shouldn't have to live like a hermit to prove that they're interested in helping people. I don't begrudge a person an honest day's wage for an honest day's work.

I think we clearly disagree on where people's objectives should be when entering the non-profit world, but as I understand it most non-profit clinics (including Lyon-Martin) cover their physicians' malpractice insurance with federal government support.

The current interim ED Dawn Harbatkin is a doctor, I've seen her for services. I think it is awesome and inspiring that the ED of AIDS Housing has chosen to set his income that low, but once again medical is different than other social services.

The board of directors is made up of people who don't get paid for their work and look how great they've been in doing their job.

I'm much more in the middle here. I think everyone should get a fair wage for what they do--especially in the non-profit arena. Fair is fair, and if a non-profit executive is forced to be more worried about the power being turned out at home than whether or not clients are getting the care that they need, this is also a problem. I think we should treat our non-profit employees IN GENERAL a little better.

That said, we have to be reasonable too. If you want to make $200K a year, you shouldn't be looking to work at a non-profit. That's just ridiculous. I do think that overall, salaries are too LOW at non-profits, but there are plenty of executives making WAY too MUCH. I like the idea of tying the highest salary to the lowest. I really think that's a superbly fair way to keep the unnecessary bonus train far away from the tracks.

If we're going to reform our non-profit pay structures, however, we should definitely consider what non-profit employees make compared to people doing similar jobs in the business world. Its often wildly disproportionate. I hate when we throw stones at people who often made a choice to do without because they wanted to do something they really believe in.

...And if overall the employees at a non-profit--who probably aren't making much in general--are still making that much more than the population they're serving... that's not necessarily a problem with the non-profit (although I could be) that's much bigger social problem that we all should really be talking about: why do Americans allow poverty to persist when we could very much wipe it out as a nation if we wanted to?

A licensed physician is a requirement for a medical director's position at a licensed clinic.

This physician's income, given the expensive city that she or he lives in, is well below the median. Doctors make reasonable income given the education and expenses that they bear(malpractice insurance).

I make far less than most of the people that I have prosecuted but far more then their victims. Just saying

This sounds extraordinarily similar to the situation with Howard Brown Health Center here in Chicago (I've been reporting on that for the Windy City Times). Thanks for providing this set of resources on what's going in California; it really helps to put the larger NPIC system in a national context.

I see the points about salary structure and the case for far more equitable structures. And while I understand that his idea of EDs living in poverty is an ideal, I think, honestly, it's as problematic as inflated salaries. That's the kind of system that

a) devalues people's lives and work (how does he live on that much in the Bay Area, and if he isn't independently wealth, how is it possible that constantly worrying about, oh, rent and food does NOT cause a strain on is performance? I don't know Basinger's background, but I do know what it's like to fight for social change while living in poverty. It sucks, and it wreaks havoc on one's mental and physical health.

b) Paying non-profit leaders that kind of pittance simply encourages already well-off/wealthy people to take up the reins of non-profits because they're the only ones who can afford to do so. And that sets up and, indeed, perpetuates a really problematic class dynamic that's already present in the NPIC, the notion that we need an NPIC that will primarily alleviate the guilt of the rich. Who will then direct and affect the lives of the poor by being in charge of the resources allocated to them.

Living in poverty is not a sustainable long-term strategy for effecting radical change.

Touché, Yasmin. Your first point is well taken: it can be tough to help others when you're busy trying to help yourself. On the second: it's true, privileged professionals who run most non-profits today might continue to do so if poverty were made a prereq. But people don't always join movements in order to raise themselves up financially--low wages don't automatically turn off people on already low incomes who want to become leaders. And when it comes to human services, the people at the top should try to know what it's like to count on the services they're providing, and depending on the organization, that could mean the oath of poverty Basinger suggests.

Ah, yes, thanks, okay, that makes more sense:
"And when it comes to human services, the people at the top should try to know what it's like to count on the services they're providing, and depending on the organization, that could mean the oath of poverty Basinger suggests."

Absolutely, yes - and that's where such large non-profits seem to fail. But I still want to how he makes it - not out of puerile curiosity but because I think that, just as we demand to know how much top execs make and why, we also ought to know how anyone could survive on that kind of salary. That's not to accuse him of anything fishy on the side - but I do think the answer could be revealing in terms of how people function or don't in the NPIC.

I would still say, though, to push on and expand my point about who joins non-profits and why: you're right when you say that "low wages don't automatically turn off people on already low incomes who want to become leaders." But I think I would want to say to that: but low wages *should* turn people off. Which is to say: I think we've created an NPIC culture which in many ways fetishizes the notion that low wages are somehow a badge of honour and/or that good wages (that is, reasonable wages that might actually allow you to a vacation every now and then, perhaps) are somehow incommensurable with the kind of organization that provides for leadership training.

I also think that it creates a culture where people from low-income backgrounds, already probably cut off from access to skills like bargaining and demanding wages (especially in the context of a labour/union movement in this country which is so corrupt in so many parts and) are left to think that they should not/cannot/must not think of walking in and saying, say: "Really? Really? You want to pay me $25,000 AND you want my weekends? Fuck you."

I'm also thinking of how race and especially gender might be factors here. Low wage work is usually considered the best option for women in particular, who are also, even today, socialized to think that they should treat their jobs the way they treat their (real or not) families: nurturing and taking a back seat so that others' needs might be met first. I see this all the time, whether in union jobs or at the university, where a woman might agree to fill in as interim DIRECTOR of an institution, for instance, for a quarter of what they'd pay the permanent one. A situation they'd never offer to a man who would probably just laugh at them.

I just think that any structure that actually places low wages on any job ought to be dismantled, period. And I would really like Basinger, if he's reading this, to respond and explain how he surives on that salary in the Bay Area. It wouldn't take him very far even in Lafayette, Indiana.

We've faced that issue here at Gender JUST, a grassroots organization I'm a part of and which has recently sent out a call for a full-time organizer. Our commitment was to first ensure a decent salary and to prove to existing organizations that you really don't have to exploit people to get the best for your org. and that people require more than ideological commitments to continue to thrive with their radical visions.

You're right of course--wealth redistribution shouldn't mean leaders have to be wage martyrs. My point is borne out of frustration with so many non-profit EDs not putting their money/wages where their mouths are, and the hierarchical makeup of many organizations that intrinsically helps EDs set their own high wages as they take away resources from, and effectually help to kill, movements that are already poor. ... I see the race/gender angle you're talking about; that kind of socialization definitely runs deep and we need to change it!

Oh, I so hear you on all that. And I find it...shall we say, interesting that such points of financial crisis, as in the health centers we both know, seem to actually embolden the NPIC structure, not dismantle it! Ick.

Speaking of critiques of the NPIC, I recall there was talk of a Gay Shame broadside titled "Creating Change or Creating Chains?" Do you know what the word on that might be? I was looking for it while hunting for more radical critiques of the NPIC, such as your post (which I've already cited elsewhere). I'd love to start archiving a collection of such work; that seems all the more necessary now.

Do you think the days of LGBT community centers are over? None of them ever seem to be used much any more.

This is an extremely useful post. Thank you Toshio

For sure. Re: the Creating Chains zine, I will send a bundle your way; I'll contact you separately for your address.