Snooki & Morrison, Wise Use of Nonprofit Dollars?

Recent events make me wonder, what’s in the drinking water in northern New Jersey? Have people lost their sense of proportion? You be the judge. There are two stories that are entwined and raise an interesting stewardship issue for nonprofit organizations.

Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, of Jersey Shore television show fame, was recently paid $32,000 to make two one-hour campus appearances at Rutgers University. (The money came from the mandatory activity fee paid by students.) By contrast, Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, will be paid $30,000 to deliver the commencement address for Rutgers next month.

My brain hurts! Snooki was actually paid $2,000 more than a national treasure!!! To make matters worse, this is happening at a major university. This would still be a startling situation even if Snooki had been paid $2,000 less than Morrison. Couldn’t tomorrow’s future leaders spend their money to host a somewhat less frivolous, more enriching speaker? Was this really a worthwhile use of student funds?

Photo by César Ochoa/Groupe SER via Flickr

Lest you think that Jersey Shore Snooki is an unusually wise 23-year-old who is being unfairly picked on by me, allow me to share some Snooki-wisdom with you from her appearances at Rutgers, courtesy of the New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper:

“When you’re tan, you feel better about yourself.”

“I can’t be with anyone pale, that would be awkward.”

“Study hard, but party harder.”

In fairness to everyone, I should point out that the reason Snooki got paid more than Morrison is because the great author elected to cut her customary speaking fee in half. But still, it’s a sad commentary on our cultural priorities.

However, the story gets even more depressing if we look beyond the news headlines. Unlike with Snooki, I have great respect for Morrison and her body of work. Yet, I must wonder, as The Star-Ledger addressed in a recent editorial, is it really wise for Rutgers to pay Morrison, or anyone, $30,000 for a commencement speech during these economically challenging times? Interestingly, paying a commencement speaker is a break from the Rutgers tradition. The Star-Ledger points out that last year, citing state budget cuts, Rutgers froze salaries, canceling pay raises for all employees. On a regular basis, according to the newspaper, Rutgers goes hat–in-hand to the state legislature looking for more money. Of course, the university has a large fundraising program as well. And, a tuition hike, which makes tuition nearly twice as high as it was a decade ago, continues to assure that Rutgers remains one of the most expensive public universities in the nation. The newspaper suggests that limited nonprofit dollars (whether they come from taxpayers, tuition-paying students, or donors) really should not be used to pay for a commencement address, at least not now. The newspaper editorial concludes, “If these were fat times, we might agree. But Rutgers has managed to get speakers at zero cost in the past. Why mess with that tradition now?”

Instead of paying for a commencement speaker, Rutgers could use the funds for its academic programs, as The Star-Ledger suggested. Or, the $30,000 could have been used to fund two additional scholarships. (For a New Jersey resident who commutes to Rutgers, tuition and fees cost $12,560.)

The Star-Ledger editorial reminds us that nonprofit organizations must be extraordinary stewards of taxpayer and donor funds if they wish to receive more. In part, this means using limited, precious resources on core mission fulfillment. Unlike where Snooki is concerned, I have no doubt that Morrison will deliver a meaningful address. But, during these challenging times, is it really money well spent or, as The Star-Ledger suggests, is Rutgers “tone-deaf”? It’s a question that New Jersey legislators and Rutgers’ donors will answer in the months ahead.

On a lighter note, I want to offer a compromise solution for next year. I’ll speak at next year’s Rutgers commencement, if asked. Why not? Like Morrison, I’m also an award-winning author. Ok, I didn’t win a Nobel or Pulitzer, but I did win the Association of Fundraising Professionals-Skystone Partners Prize. Well, since I’ve only won one prize compared to Morrison’s two major ones, I’ll only charge half as much saving Rutgers $15,000! And, for all the fans of Jersey Shore, I promise to wear a Speedo when delivering the commencement address. (Note: The photo in this post is not me. You have to pay $15,000 to see me in a Speedo. Sorry, no refunds.)

That’s what Michael Rosen Says… What do you say?

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7 Responses to “Snooki & Morrison, Wise Use of Nonprofit Dollars?”

  1. What do you expect in a culture of diversity, relativism and tolerance when everything is trivialized and homogenized to the point where there are no differences or discernment? We have traded substance for style, the enduring for the ephemeral.

  2. What does it say about AFP’s leadership to have chosen a disgraced, disbarred, perjuring and philandering ex-President to make the keynote speech at AFP’s annual convention, to say nothing of the unconscionable waste of membership dues to pay his speaking fee, which, incidentally, ought to be fully disclosed?

    There is no escaping the fact that we are judged by the company we keep.

    • Jeff, thank you for your comment which serves as a helpful reminder about the ethical issues involved in speaker selection. I know that there were a number of folks at the conference who share your view and were not pleased about Clinton’s appearance. I should point out that there were folks who were not happy a few years ago when James Baker delivered a keynote at the AFP Conference; there are some who view the former Secretary of State as a war monger who helped George W. Bush “steal” the election. There were even those who objected to having Rev. Desmond Tutu as an AFP Conference keynote speaker given what some perceive as his pro-terrorist/anti-Israeli rhetoric. Even Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, raised some eyebrows as an AFP Conference keynoter given her behavior; by the way, the Duchess is one of my all-time favorite keynote speakers. Frankly, I’m not sure where a professional association should draw the line when selecting speakers, but there certainly should be a line. Now, before I get too far off topic, let me bring things back to another point of this week’s post: Should money be spent on core mission or big-fee speakers? So, how much did AFP spend this year to bring in Bill Clinton, Queen Latifah, and Blake Mycoskie? Were the speaker fees paid for out of member dues, conference charges, or restricted endowment funds? If the fees were not paid entirely out of restricted endowments, was this a wise use of member/attendee/sponsor funds? Could AFP’s core mission have been better served by using the funds on other programs or by reducing the admission cost of the conference during this challenging economic time? I’ve invited AFP to respond to these questions and Jeff’s comment should they wish to do so.

  3. I would think that Rutgers would recognize that the long term value of adding two more scholarships to students in need would far outweigh the “wisdom” Snookie could provide in two hours. Then again, there are a lot of things I think make sense that doesn’t seem to happen for one reason or another.

    In some ways, this situation makes me upset as a fundraiser simply because we (as a university) MUST become good stewards of the money we raise if we want people to believe in our mission and continue to support us financially. Hiring an “aspiring vet technician” (see Wikipedia) from, how should I say it, an intellectually lacking television show does not seem to be a good fit with ANY university’s mission or core values.

    At least with the commencement speaker the individual has academic merit and can provide valuable insight into her field of expertise and how to make a positive difference in the world. It was expensive, but it aligned with what academia stands for and can be seen as an expense in celebration of those who have worked hard to graduate from a good school.

    • Jacklyn, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. In fairness to Rutgers, I must point out that Snooki was paid from the mandatory student activity fee rather than from tuition, state, or donor funds. Regardless of the source of the funds, however, I would have hoped that the students could have found a somewhat more worthwhile speaker. For example, Jon Stewart would have been entertaining, but he also would have provided some good for thought. By contrast, Snooki is all about nonsense.

      Unlike with Snooki, Rutgers is using its funds to pay for Toni Morrison. While I think an argument in favor of this can be made easily, the issue remains: Should Rutgers spend this money, in this economy, on any commencement speaker? Hiring Morrison is not frivolous, but it is a luxury. Is this the time for a public university to spend money on a luxury rather than core mission?

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