Governor Douglas Attacks Non-profit Salaries?

Burlington Free Press: My Turn

Jan 31, 2009

So now we begin feeding on ourselves. Rep. Patty O’Donnell’s recent press conference calling for those in the non-profit sector earning over $60,000 and whose agency receives more than 50% State funding to take a mandatory cut of 5% is a sad indicator of the daunting lack of creativity in our leadership. It is also an insult to those working to provide the services at which government itself has largely failed.

This would be fine were it a call to generosity rather than a punitive mandate. It comes, however, on the heels of Governor Douglas’ attack on the sector in which the lion’s share of Vermont’s job creation is occurring and which performs many of the jobs that his own administration has failed at.

The non-profit sector is not perfect. It needs critical self-analysis in both mission-efficiency and governance. There are opportunities for consolidation of overheads, if not missions. But community-based services have often proved more effective than consolidated state services.

For the Governor and Representative O’Donnell to lash out at the sector that is more efficient at delivering community services than the government only reinforces the increasing sense among more and more Vermonters that this administration has no clear vision for our future. It’s managing its past failures when it should be managing our present and planning for our future.

There is vital work going on in Vermont at the community level. Much of this is under Montpelier’s self-referential radar. It’s driven by volunteers, non-profit agencies and entrepreneurial business leaders who are dealing with their past and laying the groundwork for their future.

Another sad and endemic phenomenon in Vermont is the notion that no one should make more than $60,000. I pick that number only because it is Rep. O’Donnell’s number. Governor Dean used to brag about his annual rejection of a raise. What he came to later understand was that in keeping the Governor’s salary static at $110,000, he inhibited his own leadership ability to attract experienced professionals to lead agencies larger and more complex than all but a few Vermont businesses.

America is indeed the laughing stock or shame of the rest of the world for its egregious corporate and finance compensation packages, but Vermont? Here we are discounted for our lack of opportunity to earn and retain wealth. We like to believe we offset this with deeper and more enduring values of community, but one need not preclude the other.

According to an analysis of compensations packages for leaders in the non-profit sector distributed by Rep O’Donnell at her press release, most leadership salaries range in the $60,000 to $130,000 range. The number rise significantly if that leader is a medical professional, although still considerably less than doctors in conventional practice. Do we honestly believe these leadership salaries should be trimmed?

Asking for leaders to donate a share of their compensation in all sectors to the common good is laudatory and consistent with Vermont’s ethic of neighbor helping neighbor. The United Way and other agencies do this as a matter of course.

Perpetual performance review is the job of a Governor. This administration’s would do well to focus on improving its own performance, assuring that it is doing the job voters elect it to do rather than looking to the non-profit sector which must often deal with the consequences of government’s own underperformance.

It is a time to share, but it is also a time to plan and reinvent. A call to feed off one another serves no one. Is Rep. O’Donnell willing to reduce her one embarrassingly low salary as a Vermont legislator?

Bill Schubart is a retired businessman, author and commentator

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