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Banking on food
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Banking on food

Hungry for paid staff, the pros and cons of volunteers

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Many of the students at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston who volunteer regularly at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in Hillside were surprised to hear that the executive director of the facility earns more than $200,000 a year and that it has 175 employees. 

“I didn’t even think about whether staff was getting paid,” said Danielle Shanskhalil, 17, from Springfield, who for a period of time made weekly visits to the food bank. Upon learning this, when she was asked to consider whether she would donate money to the Community FoodBank or if she’d prefer her money go to a food pantry staffed exclusively by volunteers, she didn’t hesitate to choose the latter. “You don’t want to raise [money] for people who work there,” Danielle said; “you want to do it” for those in need.

Many food pantries start small, but as they become more successful, they grow beyond the ability of volunteers to run them and have to consider shifting to a professionally staffed model. In doing so, however, they risk creating the perception that contributions are filling up the pockets of employees, rather than the stomachs of hungry community members. Such a change in status also raises internal questions: For an organization whose raison d’être is helping the needy, how high a salary is too high, and how many employees are too many? 

The seven food pantries and food banks that NJJN examined for this series fall across the spectrum and include those run exclusively by volunteers, those run by highly paid and plentiful staff, and everything in between. Without question, all are committed to the mitzvah of feeding the hungry.

One volunteer-driven food bank is approaching a critical stage where the number of people being aided has grown to the point that money may need to be allocated to pay for salaried workers. The Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, housed at the Church of the Epiphany & Christ Church in Orange, started more than two decades ago serving just 20 clients. Today, it serves more than 300 people each month. Those numbers mean the pantry — a joint effort of Christ Church in Short Hills, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, and Congregation Beth El and Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, both in South Orange — could face a new organizational development. 

In conversation with NJJN, Diane Stein and Jodi Cooperman, two of the full-time volunteers who sit on the Interfaith Food Pantry’s board, said they might soon have to make a decision about shifting to a professional staff model. But they fear that donors will balk if the organization brings on paid staff members.

Two others food banks, the Interfaith Food Pantry of Morris County and the Community Soup Kitchen and Outreach Center, also in Morris County, made the change decades ago. Julie Hess of the Community Soup Kitchen called shifting to a professional staff model “vital” to achieving its mission. It has a budget of $1.6 million, five full-time staff members and 14 part-timers, and an executive director with an annual salary of $122,000. 

The Interfaith Food Pantry of Morris County, like its counterpart of the same name in the Oranges, was founded as a partnership among four area churches to serve a small, local population facing food insecurity. Within a few years, it became clear the problem was more widespread than initially determined, and the founder, a single parishioner of one of the churches, reached out to a paid professional to take over. What started as a very small operation now serves more than 4,000 households from 32 towns across Morris County, distributing about a million pounds of food each year. Its annual budget is $3.3 million and it has a staff of 18 and an executive director who makes $140,000 a year.

Regarding salaries and the number of employees, professionals in the field disagree over how much is too much, and how many is too many.

The board of any nonprofit, including food pantries, sets the salary of the executive director. Legal standards are vague, but basically require the salary to be “reasonable” and “not above fair market value,” according to a 2014 GuideStar blog entry by George E. Constantine, a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm Venable LLP. GuideStar is a website that gathers and disseminates information about IRS-registered nonprofits.

James Abruzzo, cofounder of the Institute for Ethical Leadership at Rutgers Business School and a consultant to nonprofit boards and CEOs, told NJJN that the two executive director salaries given above would be hard to criticize — provided the respective agencies’ boards conducted a salary survey to ascertain what comparable organizations pay executive directors, considered reasonable alternatives, and ensured the organizations could sustain paying the salaries. 

Once the executive director is selected, Abruzzo said, it falls to that individual to make appropriate staffing decisions. Suzanne Coffman, editorial director at GuideStar, explained that an organization can pay the staff market rate, determined by looking at what other organizations with similar missions and of a similar size pay their staffs. In other words, “You want to compare food banks to food banks,” she said. 

That’s because, as Coffman pointed out, standards vary “drastically” from nonprofit to nonprofit. So while overhead for food banks is usually relatively low, it can be very high for a nonprofit in another industry, say, an arts organization. But even within the same nonprofit industry, Coffman would compare organizations similar in size, program, and location. 

Using these standards, the two Morris County food pantries fall into roughly the same category regarding size as, for example, Arm in Arm, a food pantry in Mercer County. With a $2.2 million budget, the executive director there earns $99,000, and the total budget of staff salaries is $523,000. While the executive director’s salary for Arm in Arm is a little lower than its Morris County counterparts, the dollar amounts do not appear wildly out of line. 

Naomi Eisenberger, executive director of the Millburn-based Good People Fund, which supports modest charitable undertakings with grants, told NJJN that she decides how to allocate funds, in part, by scrutinizing salaries, numbers of employees, and the impact of a given organization. The Good People Fund tends to provide support to those enterprises with low or no overhead and a lean (or nonexistent) staff, like one of its beneficiaries, the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges. 

From Eisenberger’s perspective, when salaries for heads of food pantries go over $100,000, that appears “high,” but she acknowledged that others would disagree. (Charity Navigator, an alternative to GuideStar that rates philanthropies based roughly on administrative costs versus programmatic spending, gives the Interfaith Food Pantry of Morris County its highest four-star rating.) 

Eisenberger walks the walk with regard to salary and employees: The Good People Fund has just two employees, herself included, and with a budget of $1.7 million, her pay is far lower than those of her food pantry counterparts in Morris County. 

Coffman acknowledged that these kinds of comparisons may be less useful for identifying salaries that fall within a “reasonable” range, like those in Morris County, and more useful in identifying the outliers.

Yet even seemingly high salaries may not necessarily be outside the pale, as they may be similar to other nonprofits. 

Hal Lewis, president and CEO of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, argues that executive salaries in the not-for-profit sector should mirror those in the private sector. In the Feb. 9, 2016, issue of eJewishPhilanthropy, he wrote, “The mythology that social sector work is a zero sum game; that every dollar expended on salaries and benefits is a dollar not being spent on ‘services,’ is fallacious and contrived.” He suggests that if the work requires “raising enormous sums of money, and generating substantial revenue to enable the enterprise’s desired impact, how is it that anyone would recommend settling for less accomplished individuals…?”

Perhaps Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges volunteer coordinators Stein and Cooperman need not worry about giving the wrong impression should they shift to a professional staff model. After having a chance to reflect on the issue of donating to food pantries with paid staff, the Kushner teens were ready to reconsider their initial positions. By the end of the conversation, Danielle Shanskhalil was agreeing with her peer, Mimi Reiss, a ninth-grader from Staten Island, who was ready to split her pot of money between a food pantry run on a volunteer basis and one with paid staff. 

“No matter who you give the money to, it will help,” Mimi said. “Even if you’re paying someone’s salary.”

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