Thursday, September 20, 2007

US Foundations have become far too risk averse

Yesterday, the Financial Times reported that the average pay for head of a US Non-profit Foundation now exceeds $300,000. What's going on here? Who needs that kind of a salary to lead charity work? Here's what I suspect is going on. Basically, US foundations don't want the burden of having someone motivated solely by altruism at the helm. No, that would be perceived by foundation boards as far too risky. That's the conclusion we should draw from this report: High salaries speak mainly to the fact that today, US foundations are extremely risk-averse.

Case in point: Today blogger Fonzi reported that the National Endowment for Democracy -- a Washington DC based non-profit organization -- just awarded it's "2007 Democracy Award to Spotlight Press Freedom" to Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn. The trouble here, in Fonzi's view, is that this journalist came out in support of last year's military coup. Does that sound like someone deserving of a prestigious democracy award for 2007? Hmm. . . I wonder what Kavi might have done to merit the award?

Well, a quick glance at Kavi's background is most revealing:
A tireless campaigner for press freedom throughout Southeast Asia and, indeed, throughout the world, Kavi Chongkittavorn is the assistant group editor of Nation Media Group, publisher of The Nation, Krungthep Turakij and Kom Chat Luek in Thailand. . . He was a bureau chief in Phnom Penh, Cambodia from 1988-1990 and Hanoi, Vietnam from 1990-1992. He also served as special assistant to the secretary general at the Jakarta-based Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from 1993-1994 before returning to journalism.

In 1993, Kavi was a Reuters Fellow at Oxford, and in 2001, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. He was named the Human Rights Journalist of 1998 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights by Amnesty International, Thailand. From 1999-2003, he was the president of Thai Journalists Association. Since 1999, he has chaired the Bangkok-based regional free media advocacy group, Southeast Asian Press Alliance. Kavi also serves as Jury President for the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, UNESCO, which consists of fourteen professional journalists and editors from all over the world. . . .
Kavi has an outstanding resume, an exemplary resume. And to today's over-paid, risk averse foundation chiefs, this kind of resume is a gold mine: Kavi has received prestigious fellowships from Oxford and Harvard. He's done a stint at various multinational organizations (ASEAN, UNESCO, etc). What does it matter what a journalist has actually written lately, if they have a resume like that? Just as surely as many of today's highly paid foundations heads will support the more fashionable cause over the more controversial one, they will select a great resume over courageous reporting. That way is safer.

Or so it seemed to America's National Endowment for Democracy. At first glance, Kavi's resume makes him look like a safe choice. But this US foundation was incredibly lazy; they obviously didn't do much reading (strangely, as his work needed no translation). It looks as though the NED didn't really care who got its award this year.

Now, NED looks ridiculous.

Because absolutely, you don't want to be seen as handing out your "democracy awards" to people who don't speak out against military coups.
And you certainly don't want to bestow such honors to the assistant editor of a publication -- in this instance, The Nation -- that has become a shameless apologist for a military coup, a once proud newspaper that is today little more than a propaganda arm of the Thai junta.

I have nothing against Kavi Chongkittavorn. I presume he is sincere in his convictions, and he is evidently a very accomplished professional in the field. To Kavi I send my congratulations. I wrote this not to harp on one Thai journalist, but to ask how a major US non-profit could have made such an egregious mistake.

We live in a time when the head of a major charity can earn half a million US dollars a year -- or more. We also live in a time when hundreds of brave journalists risk imprisonment and even their lives to report facts: a number die every month in prisons and by soldiers' fire. More often than not, these journalists' resumes are not particularly impressive. Yet, this does not matter. Not where words or pictures are inspiring and true.