Who should profit from charity?

Nicholas Kristof mused on Christmas Day in the New York Times on whether NGOs should pay high salaries.  He seems to come down – though equivocally – on the side of saying that sometimes they should:

In the war on poverty, there is room for all kinds of organizations. Mr. Pallotta may be right that by frowning on aid groups that pay high salaries, advertise extensively and even turn a profit, we end up hurting the world’s neediest.

“People continue to die as a result,” he says bluntly. “This we call morality.”

I think there is a dilemma here only if you retain the mindset that aid agencies and NGOs are providing charity to the world’s neediest.  If this is charity, then perhaps there is something incongruous about “profiting” from charity.  (One of the commenters on the New York Times forum calls it “a moral repugnance”.)  Today this is charity; and even so, the utilitarian in me thinks we should pay higher salaries whenever the return – in terms of higher output from securing better staff – exceed the costs.

But there is much less of a problem if we see development assistance as social justice.  In the 20th Century, most of Europe turned its backs in the  on Victorian concepts of charity and workhouses to deal with poverty in their midst in favour of building social institutions to protect all their citizens.  In the 21st Century, our view of foreign assistance will, I believe, undergo a similar change: we will see foreign assistance as an act of solidarity and social justice, as part of what it means to live together as part of the same society.  The world’s poor will have rights, not depend on charity, and there will be institutions whose job it is to protect those rights. When development assistance is not charity but justice, we will not think it strange to provide a decent income to those who deliver it, any more than we think it strange to pay our judges well.

Update: Wronging Rights has a discussion of this too.

7 thoughts on “Who should profit from charity?”

  1. “In the 21st Century, our view of foreign assistance will, I believe, undergo a similar change: we will see foreign assistance as an act of solidarity and social justice, as part of what it means to live together as part of the same society.  The world’s poor will have rights, not depend on charity, and there will be institutions whose job it is to protect those rights. When development assistance is not charity but justice, we will not think it strange to provide a decent income to those who deliver it,”

    Oh, I do hope not. Replacing charity with a self-serving bureaucracy doesn’t sound to me like a step forward.

  2. Tim – The bureaucracy that I see delivering aid (and which I used to work for) is anything but “self-serving” – arguably less so than the many charities and NGOs (especially the ones with religious motivations).

    Owen

  3. I’m not sure that moving to a ‘social justice’ conception of development assistance cures the tension between high salaries and the kind of work that agencies concerned with development are supposed to be doing.
    If all other things remain equal, that still leaves us with some serious work to do on adjusting the outputs we use to measure the performance of development professionals so that those who are making salaries are being rewarded on merits that actually combat poverty (and not on an ability to tell donors what they’d like to hear).
    And I don’t see how making it an industry of social justice instead of an industry of aid & charity deals with the question of whether or not it’s ethical for us to treat development work as an industry in the first place.

    I’m still new to this whole ball game though – that’s my excuse for having a bunch of questions and half-formed thoughts and few opinions or answers.

    1. Amanda

      I agree that we need to do a better job of measuring the outputs of development professionals (though this could be said of many other professionals too – including many civil servants).

      But I do think that treating development work as a service rather than a charity does change the dynamic. When people give to charity, they expect the people who carry out that work to be selfless, and to limit overheads (including their own salaries) to the lowest possible level. Of course, we don’t want people in any service to earn more than they are worth; but we accept in other walks of life that people doing a professional job should be able to earn a decent living and be paid what they are worth. Treating development work as a skilled profession rather than a charity does seem to me to change people’s expectations of what the people doing it should be paid. Most doctors enter their profession for admirable motives such as the desire to help their fellow humans; but we are happy to pay them what they are worth, rather than expecting them to do it out of the goodness of their heart. Development workers should be the same way.

      Owen

  4. Owen, thanks for this post. Kristof’s piece was timely and interesting, and has generated some interesting debate and discussion.

    One thing that strikes me is that the international agencies often provide some of the highest salaries in the sector, and the correlation with high performance/impact isn’t obvious. At the same time, I definitely think that attracting and retaining the best talent is going to be increasingly important in poverty alleviation – as tools wen all use get more sophisticated. So experimenting with different forms of compensation should absolutely be on the table.

    I blogged about this here with a post titled “Should nonprofit leaders be like boiled broccoli” at http://sashadichter.wordpress.com/2008/12/26/should-nonprofit-leaders-be-like-boiled-broccoli/

    And the Tactical Philanthropy blog’s post engendered a heated conversation with Dan Pallotta that’s very interesting:
    http://tacticalphilanthropy.com/2008/12/uncharitable

  5. Dear Owen,

    I wrote extensively in my new book about the Puritan roots of our current charitable mindset. The Puritan’s believed that the self was despicable in the eyes of God, and that the self must be negated. The residue of those beliefs still permeates much of the discussion about aid. The question is not, “Who should profit from charity?” That is a question still policing the self. The question is, “What will most quickly allow us to eradicate poverty?”

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