Putting the 'profit' in non-profit?
(Updated Aug 2023) On August 17, 2023, the news broke that Ron Forman was going to retire from his lucrative position at the helm of the "non-profit" Audubon Nature Institute. Since he was paid a whopping $4,695,767 in compensation in 2021, perhaps retirement finally looked affordable?

Sadly, while Ron Forman's salary never wavered from its ever-rising trajectory, the rest of the employees of the Audubon Nature Institute haven't fared so well.

ANI's 2019 tax forms show 1384 employees, a peak for the organization, with "salaries, other compensation, employee benefits" totaling $30,471,144. But in 2020, the employee numbers had dropped to 966, and the "salaries, etc" number had dropped to $19,905,721. In 2021, the employee numbers had dropped yet again, to 659, although "salaries, etc" only dropped to $19,555,203—largely because "compensation of key employees" had gone up—surprise!—by Ron's $4+ million extra compensation, even though the "other salaries and wages" of the ordinary employees decreased by the same amount, to a low of only $10.5 million.

About Forman's excessive compensation, the 2021 ANI Form 990 dutifully states: "Audubon Nature Institute, Inc. has a discretionary 457 Executive Retirement Plan for one of its officers, President and CEO L. Ronald Forman. The plan provides additional compensation based on years of service and estimated pay at retirement. The assets of this plan are owned by Audubon Nature Institute. The plan was developed in 2004 as a best-practices strategy to retain seasoned professionals in senior leadership positions. During 2021, Ron Forman received a contribution of $142,081 to his 457 retirement plan. With the approval of the Audubon Nature Institute Board Compensation Committee, Mr. Forman received $3,913,194 in distributions from the 457 plan. The Committee accelerated the vesting requirement for a portion of the deferred compensation based on Mr. Forman's forty-eight years of service, the uncertain economic environment, and the desire to remove deferred amounts from the Institute's books. The payout represents 96% of Mr. Forman's deferred compensation, with the remaining 4% to be paid out at the end of his contract term. The distribution was properly reported on his 2021 W-2."

As CEO of the “private non-profit” Audubon Nature Institute, Ron Forman has always been paid far more than any comparable colleagues by a relentlessly wide margin. Consequently, we continue to be as surprised about this situation in 2023 as we were in 2002, when we first began to report it.

Ron Forman also receives his very substantial compensation—especially for a “non-profit” CEO—even when the organization he runs is struggling financially; even if he's actually spending his time doing something else; and even if the ANI has publicly stated that he has received a pay cut!

The ANI’s 2020 tax return confirms yet another false claim of a mythical Ron Forman pay cut—the third, by our count. On April 28, 2020, the ANI published a press release that stated: “While Audubon’s doors are closed to the public, dedicated staff are still onsite each day caring for the animals, which cost nearly $70,000 to feed each month. Unfortunately, because of the financial impacts of COVID-19, Audubon has reduced full-time staff by nearly 50 percent and reduced the salaries of some full-time employees by 25 percent. The salary reduction includes Audubon's executive team and CEO and President Ron Forman has taken a 50 percent pay cut.” (See newsroom.audubonnatureinstitute.org/audubon-nature-institute-projecting-to-lose-21-million--during-covid-19-closure)

However, Forman’s reported 2020 salary on the ANI’s 2020 tax return was $569,038 (plus $181,837 in other compensation, for a total compensation of $750,875), an increase from his 2019 salary of $563,453!

The ANI had previously claimed that Ron Forman had taken a one-third pay cut in 2005, a year that saw severe damage to ANI facilities from Katrina and resulted in the layoff of 700 out of 900 employees, but the decrease in his compensation from 2004 to 2005 ended up being only $5,487. In 2006, when he supposedly took an unpaid leave of absence in order to run for Mayor of New Orleans, his compensation soared $134,910 over the previous year!

Also on the 2020 tax return, the ANI reports a liability of $4.5 million in "Accrued Compensation," presumably due to their use of Executive Retirement Plans for officers like Ron Forman. For example, former Executive VP William Kurtz, who left in 2019, received over $2 million in previously deferred compensation from the ANI in 2020.

The ANI’s executive compensation has been controversial for decades—partly because the amounts seem excessive for an organization that frequently operates at a loss, but mostly because the compensation paid to its highest-paid executives includes public monies in the form of New Orleans property tax revenues, and the rent-free use of vast amounts of public property. While these public monies are technically collected on behalf of the public Audubon Commission, the AC functions less like the ANI’s employer, and more like the ANI’s rubber-stamp tool.

The ANI began participating in a discretionary 457(f) Executive Retirement Plan in 2004, for what were its three top-level officers—Ron Forman, Dale Stastny (who retired in 2011), and William Kurtz (who retired in 2019)—which is a deferred compensation plan expressly designed to provide additional, and seemingly limitless, pre-tax compensation to highly-paid key employees. There are no contribution rules for 457(f) plans, and an employer can contribute any amount—essentially deferring as much compensation as the executive likes, and the employer is willing to pay. The ANI claims on its IRS Form 990 to be in compliance with rules determining compensation of these employees; however, since these rules include "compensation being set by an independent Board of Directors" (which the ANI Board is NOT), and "salary decisions based on competitive market data" (which we have repeatedly shown is NOT the case), such compliance remains questionable.

Ron Forman's compensation as compared to ANI revenues.

The following chart compares the annual revenues of the ANI over a multi-year span as compared to Ron Forman's pay raises.
*The 2021 Total ANI Revenue number included more than $10 million in government grants, when previous government grants were in the <$100,000 range. Without that extra $10 million, the Total ANI Revenue number for 2021 would have been $22,341,482, with a net profit/loss of (-977,339).

From ANI's IRS Form 990's

Year Total ANI Revenue (Net Profit/Loss)   Ron Forman's Base Pay (and Total Compensation)
2021 $32,674,283* (9,355,462)* $619,050 ($4,695,767, including $149,394 deferred compensation)
2020 $23,699,306 (-884,509) $569,038 ($750,875, including $161,581 deferred compensation)
2019 $36,791,742 (1,208,358) $563,453 ($745,724, including $161,581 deferred compensation)
2018 $35,109,719 (-4,494,956) $553,620 ($734,547, including $161,581 deferred compensation)
2017 $34,452,997 (-2,256,662) $537,091 ($719,646, including $161,581 deferred compensation)
2016 $40,030,814 (4,413,143) $536,806 ($718,347, including $161,581 deferred compensation)
2015 $30,887,681 (-383,052) $539,930 ($720,334, including $161,582 deferred compensation)
2014 $29,283,488 (-1,083,320) $528,226 ($708,582, including $161,581 deferred compensation)
2013 $30,405,440 (-419,373) $522,181 ($704,891, including $161,581 deferred compensation)
2012 $33,259,354 (4,923,521) $513,899 ($693,065, including $161,581 deferred compensation)
2011 $28,068,740 (1,201,383) $513,579 ($758,692, including $228,910 deferred compensation)
2010 $25,743,479 (-1,870,002) $511,361 ($689,989, including $161,583 deferred compensation)
2009 $25,326,607 (-989,317) $495,056 ($831,356, including $324,042 deferred compensation)
2008 $28,000,718 (-1,431,716) $512,221 ($552,694, including $30,822 deferred compensation)
2007 $24,364,181 (1,499,565)   $496,064 ($799,398, including $294,934 deferred compensation)
2006 $18,591,693 (1,031,768)   $443,513 ($626,592, including $176,779 deferred compensation)
2005 $23,290,347 (212,563)   $467,807 ($491,682, including $15,475 deferred compensation)
2004 $25,081,233 (2,017,150)   $473,316 ($497,169, including $15,453 deferred compensation)
2003 $23,135,812 (6,477,746)   $473,316 ($497,169, including $15,453 deferred compensation)
2002 $22,388,987 (-1,529,311) $440,448 ($462,549, including $13,701 deferred compensation)
2001 $22,906,698 (2,164,223) $400,611 ($427,567, including $18,555 deferred compensation)
2000 $21,078,203 (1,254,596) $672,157 ($690,973, including $10,916 deferred compensation)
1999 $21,962,160 (994,555) $360,962 ($378,555, including $10,393 deferred compensation)
1998 $3,658,485 (-1,242,908) $359,859 ($377,250, including $10,151 deferred compensation)
1997 $6,129,267 (-3,101,696) $311,357 ($328,276, including $9,719 deferred compensation)

The ANI website notes that its Board’s “Compensation Committee” meets every two to three years, and reviews various sources of information, including comparing compensation plans of other zoos and aquariums, of organizations that have a “significant impact on their city’s culture and economy,” and of organizations with similar revenues, budgets, number of employees, and assets. (See audubonnatureinstitute.org/ron-forman/executive-compensation-packages)

In addition, the ANI includes a sample list of other “comparable” organizations whose compensation packages they reviewed, presumably based on the ANI’s stated criteria of zoos, aquariums, and cultural institutions with similar revenues, budgets, and assets. The list on the ANI website as of Jan 2022 includes: Shedd Aquarium; Bronx Zoo (Wildlife Conservation Society); Saint Louis Zoo Association; Chicago Zoological Society; Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo; Zoo Atlanta; and Georgia Aquarium. The list also includes random non-Zoo organizations such as: Isadore Newman School; New Orleans Country Club; WWII Museum; Sugar Bowl; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum of Contemporary Arts, Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Indianapolis Children’s Museum.

So we decided to update our “CEO Compensation compared to Total Revenue” chart, first created in 2002 and last updated in 2011, and include the organizations the ANI Board determined were comparable to the ANI, as justification for Ron Forman’s substantial compensation package. ANI comparable choices are noted with an asterisk, and everyone can judge for themselves if these choices appear to be similar in revenue and CEO pay to Ron Forman’s ANI.

CEO Compensation compared to Total Revenue (from GuideStar, FY/E 2019)

Facility Total Revenue CEO Pay (Total Compensation)
Audubon Nature Institute $36,791,742 $563,453 ($745,724)
Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo $72,462,794 $412,807 ($694,498)
Columbus Zoo & Aquarium $84,038,749 $269,023 ($488,486)
Philadelphia Zoo $40,201,321 $392,809 ($586,387)
*Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo $42,262,357 $465,760 ($565,649)
San Diego Zoo $422,092,199 $601,781 ($1,356,168)
*Bronx Zoo $263,863,758 $653,592 ($1,305,650)
*Georgia Aquarium $102,513,148 $323,311 ($524,329)
*Zoo Atlanta $30,140,543 $348,912 ($615,433)
*Shedd Aquarium $73,772,254 $436,180 ($626,952)
*Chicago Zoological Society $70,997,747 $479,146 ($612,469)
*Saint Louis Zoo Association (2018) $28,719,360 $554,740 ($943,210)
*Isadore Newman School $31,477,628 $349,310 ($469,313)
*New Orleans Country Club $10,858,334 $360,000 ($484,993)
*WWII Museum $104,629,812 $390,431 ($524,188)
*Sugar Bowl $18,671,678 $625,000 ($892,989)
*Museum of Fine Arts, Houston $191,930,276 $589,274 ($1,174,206)
*Museum of Contemporary Arts, Chicago $22,355,820 $625,908 ($690,376)
*Museum of Fine Arts, Boston $177,299,579 $710,056 ($886,776)
*Indianapolis Children’s Museum $37,288,677 $796,256 ($1,032,087)

The following chart from 2011 is an updated version of one we did in 2002, and compares the annual revenues and CEO compensation of the Audubon Nature Institute with five zoos that are consistently rated among the top zoos in the United States and the world.

CEO Compensation compared to Total Revenue (from GuideStar, FY/E 2011)

Facility Total Revenue   CEO Pay (Total Compensation)
Audubon Nature Institute $28,068,740   $513,579 ($758,692)
Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo $31,947,123   $147,366 ($169,268)
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium $55,059,900   $241,202 ($326,412)
Philadelphia Zoo $47,299,068   $312,184 ($342,760)
Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo $25,255,656   $400,000 ($443,311)
San Diego Zoo $228,160,868   $271,157 ($542,940)

[Original article from 2002 follows...]

As CEO of the ANI, Ron Forman continues to be paid far more than his colleagues.

Even a cursory glance at the figures in the following chart reveals that the Audubon Nature Institute operates a fairly medium-sized facility compared to other organizations in the country that also consider themselves to be in the animal conservation field, and that ANI CEO Ron Forman pulls down a rather supersized salary package. Even excluding heavy-hitters such as the Bronx Zoo, World Wildlife Fund and National Wildlife Federation, the ANI facilities are not remarkable in terms of their total revenue, but their CEO is far and away the best paid of the lot. Only the CEO of the Bronx Zoo makes more, and that by only a few points on revenue that is approximately 7 times greater.

The following chart compares the annual revenues and CEO compensation of various zoos, nature and animal conservation organizations from around the country, whose annual revenues either roughly equal or exceed those of the ANI.

From Charity Navigator, FY/E 2002

Facility Total Revenue   CEO Pay
Audubon Nature Institute 22,388,987   448,848
Zoo Atlanta 18,156,877   175,000
Denver Zoo 20,491,906   151,908
Toledo Zoo 21,691,369   161,397
Woodland Park Zoo 22,111,475   114,483
Fort Worth Zoo 25,199,577   150,392
Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo 25,548,903   180,641
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium 31,747,228   178,391
Philadelphia Zoo 35,734,943   272,385
Lincoln Park Zoo 38,694,537   265,981
Brookfield Zoo 47,754,588   304,023
National Wildlife Federation 102,301,495   271,428
World Wildlife Fund 105,928,516   250,000
San Diego Zoo 133,313,374   256,448
Bronx Zoo 148,647,630   527,247

Yes, we've marveled at the ANI's executive compensation before...
From an August 2002 article:

Those who considered LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert's 72% salary increase "eye-popping" (T-P, 8/26/02, p. A-1) should probably stop reading immediately for fear of even greater physical effect, because it pales in comparison to the 86% increase given Audubon Nature Institute CEO Ron Forman in 2000. Unbeknownst to most residents of our cash-starved metropolis (except perhaps the ANI and AC insiders who presumably approved it) Ron Forman's salary increased from $360,962 in 1999 to a staggering $672,157 in 2000. Institute VP Dale Stastny also received a 73% salary increase, from $214,877 in 1999 to $371,083 in 2000.

"But Forman said his 2000 figure is misleading because the total included a large one-time payment [of $292,000] to cover 30 years of accumulated annual leave and sick leave he was entitled to but had not used." [T-P, 9-2-02]

Hmmm. Even accepting for the moment that Ron Forman didn't take vacations and sick days in 30 years, some of us can still manage simple math, so certain elements of Ron Forman's salary equation still left us confused and sceptical...

On October 10, 1995, Stewart Yerton wrote an article on Ron Forman and the Audubon Institute for the Times-Picayune entitled "Force of Nature". It was an excellent article. It also included the following paragraph regarding Ron Forman's salary: "And he [Ron Forman] earns a handsome living. In 1993, according to Audubon's tax return, Forman received a package worth $252,000. Audubon spokesman Steve Schulkens said this included a $160,000 salary and $90,000 for Forman's auto allowance, gasoline, insurance, an annuity and compensation for vacation time not taken. That doesn't count an extra $11,000 he received in contributions to an employee benefit plan and a $4,400 expense account [presumably in addition to car expenses], the tax return said." So in 1993, his $90,000 in "benefits" INCLUDED unused vacation.

Fast forward seven years to the year 2000, in which Ron Forman claims that his base salary was $260,000, plus $120,000 in benefits such as "retirement and life insurance plans" [total $380,000]. He also received $10,916 in contributions to an employee benefit plan and a $7,900 expense account. And, we've now been told, was paid $292,000 for 30 years of unused vacation time, which we're supposed to assume does NOT include the money he was already paid for that item in 1993? We're supposed to accept that the steady increases in compensation each year that got Ron Forman's "salary" from $252,000 in 1993 (that included compensation for vacation time not taken) to $311,357 in 1997, $359,899 in 1998, $361,000 in 1999, and supposedly $380,000 in 2000-- did NOT include further compensation for vacation time not taken?

Are you confused yet?

It's possible that 1993 was the only year out of the past 30 that Ron Forman received money for unused vacation time as part of his compensation of $250,000 that was reported to the IRS. But based on the figures reported in subsequent years by the Audubon Institute, he continued to receive even more substantial payments for ambiguous "benefits" as part of his regular compensation. Short of full disclosure on the part of the Audubon Institute, we have no way of determining what these payments were actually for, and whether some of it continued to be compensation for unused leave in any of these years. Common sense dictates, however, that if "payment for unused leave" becomes a regular part of someone's yearly compensation, then whatever anyone chooses to call it, and no matter how high or low the figure, you might as well just call it a salary increase.

And it doesn't take an investigative journalist to figure this out.

$672,157 makes Ron Forman one of the highest paid non-profit CEO's in the country, running an institution whose income is around $21 million. While we are fully aware that there are many people in our community who consider Ron Forman worth every penny that he is being paid, we thought a comparison of executive salaries in the non-profit sector was in order. ..

Out of the "Top 20 Compensation Packages" for non-profit CEO's cited on the American Institute of Philanthropy website (http://www.charitywatch.org), fifteen out of the twenty CEO's made under $650,000 in salary, benefits and expense accounts COMBINED.

The median salary of a male CEO of a non-profit institution with a budget between $10 million and $25 million was $135,937. The median salary for a male CEO of a non-profit institution with a budget over $50 million was still only $271,032.

Locally, for example, Tulane University President Scott Cowen is paid $373,587 to run one of the largest institutions in the region.

The salary of the CEO of the San Diego Zoo, with income of $133.5 million, was $231,633.

The salary of the CEO of the Philadelphia Zoo, with income of almost $29 million, was $199,867.

For the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, which runs not only the Bronx Zoo, but also three other zoos and an aquarium, and has income in the $125 million range, 1998 is the only year we have a comparable figure. The CEO salary was $270,400 that year, compared to Ron Forman's 1998 salary of $359,899. The following year, CEO salaries became rather a controversial issue for the WCS, which ultimately paid $1,265,497 to a succession of three CEO's in one year! Ooops.

Largely due to the Forman and Stastny pay raises alone, the "Compensation of Officers" category on the ANI's IRS Form 990 went up 34% in 2000. Conversely, the category within which most Institute employees are found, "Other salaries and wages", saw a decline of 3.5%, proving that the ANI, like its contemporary counterparts in the for-profit corporate world, know precisely where best to apply their belt-tightening sacrifices.

But then, we already knew that, from a memo dated 3/16/2001, from Dale Stastny to Ron Forman, Re New Audubon Golf Club Operations, which explained:

"Its [new golf course] operational expenses will be approximately $1m, leaving net cash flow of $350,000. Therefore expenses need to be very closely controlled since this is not a large operation.... Of particular concern in developing an operational structure is minimizing the number of highly paid employees."
It then went on to list the golf course employees being fired, including a grounds supervisor with 20.6 years of service, whose "rate of pay was $8.25/hour, yearly salary $17,160. Recommendation: 30 days notice plus 8 weeks pay." All others being terminated were given 30 days notice plus 4 weeks pay.

During the boycott of the Zoo-To-Do a few months ago by restauranteurs protesting the ANI policy of forbidding outside caterers, spokesperson Sarah Burnette defended the ANI with the inimitable "As a non-profit, it's important for us to generate a lot of revenue." Well, we already knew "how", now we know "why".

ANI's IRS Form 990's are available at http://www.guidestar.org

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