salaries – a moral matter

This turning out to be a very ‘hot’ summer! Heat, however, is taking on a different dimension in the recent DSCF1745newspaper disclosure on the salaries of the CEO’s of some of our well-known Charities. The disclosure is generating much conversations, numerous columns in newsprint, scrutiny and debate, which in itself is not a bad thing, providing we do not return to “business as usual”. In response, the Charities are scuttling to do their own PR work to manage the fallout and holding on to their donors, lest they lose them in what is an already downward trend in giving.

Among the responses of the Charities, we find some fascinating descriptors being employed to justify their work and the need to pay CEO’s mind-boggling amounts. Some of the  phrases include: “commitment to transparency and accountability”, “a fair reward for a job that involves long hours, large amounts of time away from family and overseeing a large and complex organisation”; “real leadership” “knowledge”, “skill” and “talent” need to be paid for to get the best person etc.

Lost in the conversation is a sense of commitment to vocation and the common good. In fact, I felt as if ‘the common good’ – that is, where private interest is subordinated to the common wellbeing of all, seems like some outdated notion. Any distinction between running a profit making venture or business and operating an organisation aimed at improving the lives and well-being of marginalised people were blurred and seems lost. This becomes even more scandalous for those Charities working from a Christian ethos. For many, especially those already cynical about faith institutions, these Charities seem to have lost sight of Jesus’ teachings, especially his “sermon on the mount”.

The argument that “top pay” leads to better management and a successful organisation remains unconvincing especially since the evidence (from most sectors) seems to suggest otherwise: leadership disrepute and compromised morality. The (il)logic of the high pay argument is precisely what our financial institutions use to justify their large pay-outs, leaving us with screwed up economies and a cesspool of corrupted practices.  This is besides the fact that it is not impossible for Charities to find graduates and unemployed professionals with charitable souls who can do the task just as well, for less pay and with greater commitment.

The more urgent and vexing question, however, is how much should one earn to do such a job and to live comfortably on? The amount that people are paid is a moral matter and needs to be discussed openly. This is especially the case given the disparities and the fact that so many people are unemployed! Perhaps, it is a good idea for Charities to learn from each other – especially those that employ the principle of mooring executive pay to an agreed multiple of the organisation’s minimum or average salary. If Charities can do this then they may have a moral platform on which to engage the banking institutions, corporations and politicians (among others) on issues such as exorbitant salaries, and other related practices.

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