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On the notion of ‘fairness’

February 26, 2013

Published here on February 20, 2013

Goodwill, the source of Macklemore-esque “grandpa style” clothing, is sweating under the negative media spotlight because its executives allegedly make too much money. But its solitary media appearance is undeserved, as more than one local non-profit awards its executives ample salaries — some more than half a million dollars.

Last week, The News and Observer reported that Dennis McLain, president of local Goodwill Community Foundation, earned more than $430,000 last year in pay and other benefits. His wife, Linda, the vice president of GCF, brought home $365,000. More recently, The News and Observer’s editorial team argued that the McLains should take a pay cut because their salaries “seem wrong.”

“It seems an extravagant amount when the need is so great in the eastern North Carolina area the foundation serves,” The N&O editorial staff wrote Sunday. “By comparison, the governor of North Carolina makes less than $140,000.”

First off, can we please leave the governor out of this? I understand using comparative levels of power as a measure for compensation, but it’s a crummy example. Last year the Red Cross paid its president Gail McGovern $621,779. Why don’t we stick to using contrasting salary examples only from the non-profit world?

With that aside, regardless of any notions of “unfair,” Goodwill is not the only culprit.

Triangle Business Journal reported on the top-paid nonprofit executives in the Triangle, along with their respective nonprofits’ revenues in 2011 (Note that this is the same year from which The N&O drew most of its data). Goodwill made the list with $36 million in receipts. This means the charity handed 1.19 percent of its annual revenue to Dennis McLain.

The N&O was quick to point out that Doug McMillan, CEO of the YMCA of the Triangle Area, earned only $289,444. The YMCA brought in nearly double the receipt value of Goodwill, meaning McMillan received about half a percent of revenue.

However, the United Way of the Greater Triangle awarded its CEO 1.8 percent of its revenue. Dana Boole, CEO of the Community Affordable Housing Equity Corp, received 2.8 percent. Dennis McLain, no matter how unworthy you deem him of his annual salary, should not have been singled out as earning a figure that is “more than excessive,” as the N&O editorial stated.

Granted, the story most likely broke due to alleged nepotism and murky overseas trips by McClain. However, as more than two thirds of the original article was dedicated solely to pointing out the McClains salaries, this story didn’t deserve its “above the fold” status on the Sunday paper.

Lest you think this entire column is based on a petty complaint, the bottom line is this: Who cares about how much the McClains made last year? If they are improving the standing of Goodwill so that the non-profit really can “provide and create education, employment and life enrichment opportunities for people who desire to improve the quality of their lives,” as its mission statement claims it does, then why should something like executive salaries matter? It’s not as if Goodwill employs the AIG executives who awarded themselves bonuses after the federal government bailed out their company.

So to The N&O: If you want to report on alleged nepotism, then report on alleged nepotism. If you want to report on board members receiving special consideration from the charity, then report on that. And by report on these things, I don’t mean stick them at the bottom of an article about salaries.

I completely understand the shock value of an $800,000 salary from a nonprofit. But criticizing executive pay to men and women who do a good job is treading into murky water. Success cannot be criticized simply for success’ sake.

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