By Alfred C. Liggins III, CEO of Radio One, Inc. (parent company of 107.9 WRNB)
Earlier this week, the New York Daily News shined a spotlight on Reverend Al Sharpton’s non-profit organization The National Action Network. Highlighting Sharpton’s executive salary, the story attempts to portray activist Sharpton as someone more committed to building his personal fortune than advancing his mission of social justice.
Instead, articles like these points to a growing pattern of unfair and exaggerated scrutiny of Black leaders.
What seems most newsworthy to the Daily News is that NAN paid Sharpton a salary of $250,000 last year, even as the organization was still paying off its tax debt. Despite their acknowledgment that Sharpton has been more generous than most, often donating his sizable speaking fees, and has forgone a salary for the past two years, the paper still led with the headline: “Tax Debt Doesn’t Stop Sharpton’s Salary.” [11/23/10].
So while the Daily News touted that Sharpton paid himself $250k while NAN is in the red, the undisputed facts are that Rev. Sharpton only received a net of $50k because the NY Daily News intentionally left out the fact that Rev. Sharpton had recently loaned almost his entire salary to NAN. Similar to what was done to Shirley Sherrod who became a sacrificial lamb when reckless charges were made against her by a blogger who posted a misleading and highly edited video of her and recklessly charged her with racism, Rev. Sharpton was disparaged by the Daily News who printed distorted and misleading information about his finances even after Rev. Sharpton went to meticulous extents to make sure the writer had all the facts. (Neither the writer or editor of the article were available for comment.)
A former presidential candidate, Al Sharpton has focused his work on securing civil rights for all Americans for the last three decades. His National Action Network has been at the forefront of these actions from anti police brutality efforts (such as Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell in NYC), partnering with the NYPD to buy back guns and decrease violence, touring the country with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Newt Gingrich to decrease the racial achievement gap, protesting military exercises in Vieques, to last summer’s Reclaim the Dream March on the 47th anniversary of The March on Washington. This work has enhanced our democracy.
Over the past few years, there has been increased attention given to CEO salaries within the non-profit sector. The IRS, the entity responsible for regulating charities for the federal government, has increased their focus on CEO compensation to help uncover fraudulent non-profit activity. They have even redesigned the tax return forms charities submit to them annually, in part, to provide greater transparency around non-profit compensation. Given this, Sharpton’s $250,000 salary award (which becomes $83,333 each year when averaged over 2008-2009, the years he didn’t collect one) becomes even more appropriate.
According to a recent study by Charity Navigator, the average CEO of an educational non-profit earns an average of $272,000 annually. For a large charity with > $13.5 MM expenses, the annual compensation rises to more than $280,000. High profile organizations, like Sharpton’s, also command far higher executive pay. The CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society has a $503,000 base salary, the head of the NY Philharmonic $850,000. Conservative non-profit groups like The Brookings Institution pay $425,000, the Heritage Foundation $947,999 . Given these statistics, it’s clear that significant salaries are warranted for leaders who are sought after for their ability to manage multi-million dollar institutions and are tasked with the huge goal of serving those who are less fortunate. Reverend Al Sharpton is one of those leaders.
As the country struggles to survive the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it can’t do so without non-profits. The past few years have hit non-profit organizations across the US pretty hard. Earlier this fall, a survey of the top 400 non-profit charities found that income was down in 2009 and even though half expected to do better in 2010, the funding levels remain down by almost $7 billion. These non-profits will not be able to close the funding gap and continue to be effective without great leadership. And these leaders from civil rights groups to aid groups have to be paid fairly.
In a climate of increasing racial division that has ironically come about since the election of President Barack Obama, the attack on Sharpton is part of a pattern of increased and unfair scrutiny of Black leaders. In the same article, the Daily News also reported on an unresolved tax bill by the Sharpton led civil rights organization as a new development, even though the taxes in question made headlines several years ago. At that time, Sharpton responded that he worked out a payment plan with the IRS, a point the Daily News story only acknowledges. The suggestion is that Black leadership is disproportionately corrupt. But these tactics have no place in civil society.
My mother and I have worked with Reverend Al Sharpton for over thirty years, fighting to bring human rights and economic empowerment to African-Americans across this country. He has dedicated his life to this cause. I call on all Americans, especially those in our media outlets, to resist attempts like these to fan the flames of racial division with the spread of misinformation, and instead, join together with us in our universal fight for justice and equality.