All right, we need to talk about nonprofit salaries


money-163502_640pdLast month, one of my friends told me she was making 70K as a waitress at a fancy restaurant. She quit because she didn’t find it satisfying, and took a pay cut to work as a community organizer. I wept softly into my soy hot chocolate. 70K was way more than I was making as an ED with rapidly greying hair and daily night terrors.

Most of us who entered the nonprofit field didn’t do so because of the Benjamins. We knew, when we decided to dedicate our lives to making the world better, that we would not likely be able to afford a huge house with a pool. Or trips abroad every year. Or private school for our kids. Or maybe healthcare. Or organic blueberries at $6 per pint. Gawd, that’s like fifty cents a berry! Seriously, are organic blueberries watered with unicorn tears?!

Sorry, where was I? Yes, we knew what we were getting into. There are tons of reasons why nonprofit work is so awesome (See “10 reasons nonprofit work is so awesome”), and not one of those is a huge pay. Unless you include unlimited hummus at meetings as part of wages.

However, it’s gotten ridiculous, and too many nonprofits just suck at determining salaries and paying their staff fairly. We’ve developed some no good, very bad habits. A friend told me, for example, that she had asked for a raise at her org, where she was well respected and kicking serious ass at her work. She was denied. This and other reasons led her to resign. They begged her, unsuccessfully, to stay. The organization then released a job posting and set the pay rate to be higher than what she had asked for, rationalizing that few good candidates would apply for the job at the current salary level. WTF.

Of course, sucking at paying decent wages is not entirely our fault. We are dealing with historical and societal norms and restrictions. First, we have a funding structure where we are forced to Frankenstein different sources of revenues together and bind it all with prayer. And secondly, society has the wacky and damaging notion that nonprofit staff should martyr ourselves. It’s perfectly OK for celebrities, athletes, and CEOs of companies producing soft drinks or gory video games or yoga pants to be paid millions, but God forbid anyone pay a nonprofit professional 100K to help end homelessness or cancer or whatever.

Our sector is sustained by idealists who chose to do this work, who will work for much lower salaries than they could get elsewhere. Young people, especially, who for a while can exist with a small salary, subsisting on ramen and leftover water crackers from community events. I was there. It was kind of romantic, like being a starving artist or a small business owner who makes organic artisanal pickles. But then we do-gooders get older and start thinking about having a family. We start pining for things like a decent used car with brakes and mufflers that actually work.  

Our field loses too many talented staff because we are mired in this mentality of scrappiness (See “Nonprofits: We need to break out of the scrappiness cycle.”) It has led us to sit on crappy chairs that we find on Craigslist. Worse, it’s led us to undervalue and underinvest in the most critical factor in our quest for equity and social justice: The people who do this work each day.

Look, we’re not going to be able to compete with the corporate or government sector in terms of pay any time soon. But still, we need to break some horrible habits when it comes to paying the professionals in our field. Here are some things we need to do:

  • Stop relying on intuition to set salary levels: “Hm, let’s see, we may get this one grant, and it looks like Jupiter will be in Pisces soon. So let’s say, uh, $32,000 starting salary for this case manager.” Buy the wage and benefits survey for your area and look up the positions and the average salaries for an organization similar in size to yours. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, the United Way of King County and Archbright have a pretty comprehensive survey, and it’s totally worth the $100 or so. 
  • Create a uniform set of rules for how your organization determines salaries and raises. You may need to consult with an expert in this area, but too many of us nonprofits have no rhyme or reason for how people get paid at entry or when and why they get raises. Whatever rules your org uses, apply them consistently.
  • Analyze your wage gaps for current positions. Once you have the survey, go through each position you have at your org, and use the averages from the wages and benefits survey to determine how underpaid each position is. Although many of us are underpaid, it is unfair when one person is way more underpaid than another person.
  • Develop and prioritize a plan to bring salaries up to industry averages. It may take a while, maybe several years, before our organizations, especially the small ones, achieve pay parity with the field, but we’ll never get there if there’s no plan. Set a target like “We will reach 25th percentile industry pay averages for all staff in three years and 50th percentile by five years.” Or whatever. Have a goal. Put it into your strategic plan.
  • Do the Staff Awesomeness and Pay (SAP) test: EDs and other high-level directors, ask yourself these questions about each of your staff: Is [John] pretty awesome at his job? If so, if he quits right now, could we get someone equally as awesome as John for what he’s currently getting paid? If yes, great; go have a beer. If the answer is no, figure out a plan to raise John’s salary! It’s annoying and insulting when an amazing staff leaves and you bring in a newbie who starts at a higher salary even though it’ll take a lot of time to train this staff to be at the same level of effectiveness as the one who just left. (If John is NOT awesome, you need to have a serious talk with him). 
  • Boards, assess the ED’s salary annually. Many EDs don’t like to bring up our own salaries for a couple of reasons. First, we know our staff are underpaid, so it seems self-serving to ask for a raise. Second, there’s the ED’s Pay Dilemma: EDs are in charge of fundraising, so any pay increase in our salaries means we have to work harder to raise those funds, as well as funds to also get our staff’s salaries up, since we feel bad about getting a raise if our team don’t. We are already working a lot, so many of us would just rather keep our current salary and not have to work even more. As the board, it’s your responsibility to make sure the ED is fairly compensated. Review the ED’s performance each year, and do the SAP test above for your ED.
  • Beef up the benefits: We might not get paid a lot relatively, but many of us love the work because of stuff like flexible work hours, additional vacation time, etc. One org I know closes the office early each Friday during the summer so staff could spend time with their family. That’s pretty cool.

Dedicated, passionate staff are the most important element of our work. Whereas professionals from many other jobs could be replaced by robots in the future, nonprofit staff, due to the nature of our work, will never be. So let’s suck less at paying them more. 

Now, who wants to buy some organic artisanal pickles I just made? I need to get a new used car.  

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44 thoughts on “All right, we need to talk about nonprofit salaries

  1. Ryan Ripperton

    Another great post. Good for you for talking openly about a topic that most are afraid to discuss. Paying a salary that is at (or ABOVE, shocking!) the average for the industry is the best way to attract and retain game-changing talent. Benefits, hugs, and jars of unicorn tears only go so far.

  2. Michael Brand

    I would love to see more nonprofits use performance incentives. No, we don’t do it for the money, however actual pay-for-performance is one way to acknowledge outstanding work. Of course the challenge is to design performance indicators that are realistic and can’t be gamed.

    1. Aaron

      Michael: Pay-for-performance incentives encourage short-term thinking about relationship-building, in a way that’s limited to how to get cash in the door in the next several months, or a year at most. It disincentives long-term relationship-building.

      1. Vu Le

        Thanks, Michael and Aaron, for shedding light on this issue. I actually don’t know much about this topic. I’ll do some more research.

      2. Vincent Vizachero

        This is true ONLY IF the incentives are poorly defined.

        Performance incentives can work wonders, but I will concede that you actually need to incentivize the behaviors that are actually valuable to your organization.

        Incentivize a giving manager on the number of paperclips he reuses? Pretty stupid.

        Incentivize a giving manager on shortening the time between an online donation and the followup call thanking the donor? That could be gold.

  3. Fish Newman

    You need to generate cash (and not project-only cash, core cash) in order to pay people more. Full stop. There’s no skipping this part. This is the same truth in the private sector – most entrepreneurs, freelancers, and immigrants don’t have the luxury of even having a “salary” – but, rather, they take home whatever’s left after expenses.

    Yes, like in every sector, there are talented people doing things and not getting paid the average or above to do it. The difference is, in the private sector, everyone’s trained to think about doing things that generate revenue. In a small company, there’s almost no overhead – everyone sells.

    In the NFP sector, the overhead is higher – more staff are assigned to non-revenue tasks, which in turn put more pressure on the fundraisers to keep the heat and lights on.

    Rather than focus on how NFPs are shooting themselves in the foot, address the revenue question. I can identify nearly $30k in deficits within my organization regarding pay, but I still have the same budget for the year. I could do away with computers, or lights, or not market any of our programs, but that would erode my capacity to raise this money next year.

    Your next article should really be on getting blood from a stone – because over and over, I see these articles talking about how we should be spending, and very few on innovative ideas on how we can raise the money to pay people better. “Develop a plan” is no help when that plan is “raise the money” with no idea on how to actually do that.

    1. Jason

      I think that’s a flawed argument though, and I think it may overlook the broader problem. Yes, you’re absolutely correct, it’s key to have the money to pay people. However, the problem too many nonprofits seem to have is they refuse to look at the cost of not paying their employees a decent wage.

      Think about fundraising; major gifts come from well-developed relationships. If fundraisers are underpaid they’ll go somewhere else and the situation stays the same. On the flip side, if an organization pays the fundraising staff well, they are more likely to stay and will be able to secure additional funding through relationships developed over time.

      The same is true for direct services, where so much of the work is built on trust. If staff remain underpaid the burnout rate will only get higher (especially as the economy recovers), and the services themselves will suffer. Conversely, If organizations invested in the people doing that work they would likely find their clients would reap larger benefits (plus there wouldn’t be downtime while new staff was recruited, trained, etc.)

      One of the biggest problem facing nonprofits, it seems to me, is how can we credibly say our goal is to help people who are less fortunate when we refuse to take a stand for the people in our sector. If we keep postponing our efforts to address this problem I wouldn’t be surprised to see a growing level of turnover and turmoil, and ultimately a weakening of the work we all want to do.

      1. Karen Moore

        If you don’t pay nor respect.the people bringing in the money, your non profit, will suffer less non profit!

  4. Julia C. Campbell

    Fantastic article with a lot of food for thought. This is one of the biggest reasons that I left full time work in the sector a few years ago to go into consulting. Being consistently undervalued and for seemingly arbitrary reasons really sucks. Thanks for the honest, thought-provoking post!

  5. Lisa Haderlein

    So, you are telling me it’s time I accept the raise that the board gave me this year?

    Your post makes me wonder if I love nonprofit work so much because I’ve always rooted for the underdog? Being in this field, I get to play the leading role of Underdog every day: underpaid, understaffed, second-hand everything, scrappy and proud of it. I like the feeling of being part of an organization that accomplishes great things with the cards stacked against us.

    Geesh. That doesn’t sound very healthy!

    1. Vu Le

      Lisa, yes, take that raise! EDs’ salaries affect other staff’s salaries. If yours is low, it makes staff feel that theirs should also be low. We underdogs are not really asking for that much: just decent pay for our hard work and a decent car, etc. Take that raise!

      1. Charles Tenant

        Yes, please take the raise. Non-Profit professionals run to the 990 form of an organization to see how much the exec makes before applying for a job. I consulted for a non-profit Board several years ago who had an exec that 1) never requested a raise from the board and; 2) turned down raises. She was wealthy through her spouse and didn’t need the money, and had to clue as to how she was impacting every single staff person under her. She wasn’t mindful and could never understand why people left and complained about the salaries.

        My report back to the board was a real eye opener. You don’t have to break the bank or get blood from a stone, but, paying everyone (including temps) a living wage is part of being a boss.

  6. nj140

    What’s missing from this is that donors need to stop accepting such low budget line items for staff. Donors need to think about what they are paid or what they pay the professionals in their for-profit businesses and start figuring out how to bring their beneficiary organizations somewhere near parity.

  7. Nancy

    “Worse, it’s led us to undervalue and underinvest in the most critical factor in our quest for equity and social justice: The people who do this work each day.” You’ve hit that nail right on it’s head. And how’s about those nonprofits that drift away from their commitment to equity and social justice and instead (due to the pressures out there in the funding environment) focus that which is most profitable. Wait, nonprofits aren’t supposed to do that, are they? But, they have to, don’t they? What a dilemma.

  8. Peter Campbell

    This is a topic I rant about a bit, so I really want to respond to Fish, who has clearly identified the kind of thinking that EDs use to justify paying people 25-50% less of market for nonprofit positions. I get, of course, that NPO’s are always burdened with the need to minimize overhead. I once asked the head of individual giving at a nonprofit I worked for what it would cost us if we lost one point on our Charity Navigator rating, and his answer came out to 10% of our budget. Can you imagine how devastating that would be to your org? But this is not as simplistic an equation as Fish implies.

    What is the cost of underpaying staff? What does it mean if you have a higher rate of turnover, longer unfilled positions, constant retraining? What does it mean if the people who work for you consider their jobs to be a charitable effort on their part, and therefore lack the type of commitment to organizational goals and needs that a fairly-paid employee might? It means that what you aren’t paying in adequate compensation you are losing in productivity, professionalism, and organizational stability. I have successfully hired brilliant people away from nonprofits because I could give them equally challenging and meaningful work at $20k more a year (and still pay on the low end of market, not the high end). Do you have a star employee that I can raid with the promise of fair pay? Because I’m hiring right now.

    For me, mission does equal compensation. But only to a point. If the pay is too low — I say more than 10% below market — then you are not only drastically underpaying and undervaluing your staff, but you are shooting yourself in the foot, because, if they’re good, they’re going to go elsewhere. If they’re bad at their job, they might stay. If they’re good, but feel entitled because of the disrespectful salary, you won’t get 100%.

    There’s an old saying “you have to spend money to make money”. It’s true, and our sector isn’t immune to that truth.

    1. Vu Le

      Thanks so much for some great points, Peter. To Fish, I would say the first step to getting blood out of a stone is to have a plan 🙂 We need to change society’s entire mindset about nonprofit work.

  9. oaklander

    This is so refreshing to read. I wish I had found your blog a year or so ago. Going in my favorites for those times of the day I really need some laughter therapy 🙂

  10. Isaac Schild

    There is also new job board for the nonprofit sector that
    has a forum just for foundation staff/executives to post questions to that is
    free to use where this could be discussed further. It is called Foundation
    List, and is focused on foundation job seeking which is awesome! Please see

    The link to the Foundation Forum is

    Foundation List is a job board specifically designed for
    foundation jobs within the nonprofit sector. Find work, post jobs, read news,
    network, and connect.​​

  11. Amy Gollins

    This SAP test that is mentioned seems to be one of the most effective and beneficial tools to compare salary with benefit to the organization. Although it seems like a no-brainer, it is clearly overlooked a lot particularly in this field. If someone is extremely beneficial and great at their job, of course pay them more! As mentioned in another blog here, “Are you or your non-profit or foundation being an ask-hole?” many non-profits have gatherings where ideas are thrown around, but there is no follow through. This is where non-profits could really benefit from taking action! If having those types of meetings are only collecting dust and lowering morale, then that should be one of the top priorities to turn things around within an organization. Though, on the other hand that might make everyone essential for their jobs and everyone will be looking for a raise in salary…but if everyone’s out there and motivated, perhaps there will be a greater pool of money for the organization to make this possible! If an organization is able to remain relevant, and frequently asses their mission and goals, to be sure they are still meeting the needs of the demand, then perhaps could help any negative
    mindsets about non-profits that exist.

  12. Freedomfreak1

    My fathers ex wife worked as a fundraiser for the United Way and was paid $192k per year plus benefits. That’s more than a US Senator. She left her position to be a full time fundraiser for Drake University for around the same. The idea there is no money to be made in non-profits is FALSE. My neighbor started a “reptile sanctuary” so she could stay home and not work a real job.She pays herself handsomely and thanks to all the free $$ coming in, I doubt she’ll ever work a job again.

    1. Samantha Neil

      Working for the United Way or a university as a fundraiser is vastly different than working at a small not for profit….like a women’s shelter, or working with people with disabilities, or case managing recovering addicts. I’m a mid-level fundraiser and I can promise I don’t make even 25% of the salaries you mentioned. Those are not comparable to most non-profits.

      1. Julie Stockton Mallard

        Unless you work for a small United Way. I’m the ED — and only staff — of my United Way that serves one county in a rural area. My salary is less than $40k.

  13. Patrick Taylor

    I went from a nonprofit that paid poverty wages to a nonprofit that paid decent salaries.The difference between paying someone $36k a year vs. $50 is huge, especially a high-rent area. I know management gurus say that pay isn’t a motivator, but when you barely make enough to pay rent, it is seriously demoralizing. Plus, the amount of turnover is much, much lower, which makes a huge difference.

    1. Barbara Saunders

      Since I entered the workforce almost thirty years ago, I’ve heard nonprofit leaders lament not being able to attract employees “from the communities we serve.” Yet these same groups pay salaries that one can’t live on without a rich spouse or parental subsidy. That program graduate who went to college on loans and has to help out the parents in retirement? Absolutely cannot work there. It seems so obvious!

  14. Abraham Farag

    Great article & thinking points. I have hired people into roles are For-Profit companies & into Non-Profit companies. The general expectation is that Non-Profit roles provide more job satisfaction & thus people will do a great job for a lower pay. But perhaps the compensation delta between jobs at For-Profit and Non-profit companies has become larger than the market will bear. I hope that the Non-Profit’s that I volunteer at can get to a stable enough financial situation to be able to pay comparable rates as for-Profit companies for the same roles. Thanks for the article.
    -Abraham Farag

  15. Karen Moore

    Thank you for making me smile! I enjoyed reading your column very much. I work for a non profit and just curious about the entire legitimacy. I’m not in a good situation and don’t know what or how to handle it. I am knowledgeable to the business aspect, thank you.

  16. Rosa Rivera

    Thanks for this great post – it validates my thoughts and experiences with most nonprofits thus far. Leadership tends to forget the value of the people they are underpaying, as if staff is under indentured servitude or working off of their mere gratitude to have a job. At my current organization, a smaller nonprofit with 70 employees, our leadership team earns 6 figures each. The catch? Our development director does not. In fact, she alone of the leadership team has been passed over for a raise for 5 years now, a fact which is not lost on her and is the reason we will soon lose her. Her plight is matched by that of the staff, who did not receive a cost of living increase for 4 years and who rarely get raises approved. It’s a small, passionate team who are good at what they do but live under the burden of the knowledge that they are highly under-appreciated and possibly scorned by their supervisors. It’s not a healthy system.

  17. Anony Mouse

    Yeah ok. I know some non-profits that don’t even pay a salary, but expect their staff to “raise” their own pay, i.e. beg their families and friends for money. That’s deplorable. But the other side of this story is the fantastically enormous salaries paid to non-profit ceos. I no longer contribute a dime to any non-profit paying its ceo more than an average salary, under 100k. It’s ridiculous. They solicit money from me, who earns a lower middle class income, and then pay somebody a half-million, three-quarters of a million or more salary? I don’t think so. Nope. The whole non-profit business is screwed up.

  18. Trish McNabb

    Realistically we should be providing living wages and benefits (creativity can attract and help retain talent). I believe the article you Vu wrote on educating funders to refrain from providing funds only for useless swag type items helps more. Funders limitations on administrative costs is rather naive compared to the ROI or caseload savings produced in the community when our agencies are in fact able to focus on the work.

    We shouldn’t have to balance paying the electric or insurance bill vs. an employee who is critical to the work. I would also like to hear how others are creative with retirement plans rather than healthcare (Yes we are that small) to help fill a gap our workforce has. I can’t afford to not consider paying for supports that keep staff sane, healthy and able to come back to do the hard work. I refuse to compromise our clients health by not taking care of our own. This stand may have me at your local freeway exits with big signs saying, “will work for hummus or chips” but doggone it my peeps need to eat!

    Thanks for the venue and the conversations!

  19. Justin

    Plenty of for-profit businesses undertake charitable endeavours, and given their ability to generate profit for themselves (without having to beg for donations), most of them end up far more successful than the endeavours of a non-profit.

    Non-profits are an absolute blight on society and do very little, in the greater scheme, to actually combat the issues they claim to combat.

    You know who’s helping end cancer? Incredibly highly paid medical scientists working with money given to them by the private sector. You know who’s helping end homelessness? Cash-encumbered development projects using private sector money.

    If you want a higher salary, go and find meaningful work in the private sector, because if you are so absolutely naive to think that non-profits are the only place you’ll be in a position to work towards helping society you truely are lost.

    Of course, if you would rather continue judging the overall benefits of your job to society by (taking an example from your “10 reasons nonprofit work is totally awesome” article) whether everyday is casual or not, by all means, continue working in the mosquito of industries.

  20. Guyfranke !!

    What prevents NPOs from disbursing all revenues to administration and labor and declaring zero profits for the tax-exempt status they must maintain? I guess my question here is are NPOs really the bleeding heart organizations most people think they are. Just follow the federal and state guidelines, no real ‘private or shareholder ownership’ allowed, don’t pay federal taxes, don’t demonstrate too much expansion (real estate and capital acquisition) tendencies, etc. and then GO at making 6 figure action like the rest of us?

  21. chris doeller

    From my research too many non-profits look like white collar jobs programs, primarily benefiting the employees, and too little actual work being done. I pay a special benefits district tax, (Baltimore MD) where I live which is suppose to provide extra street cleaning and security guards. (My street is a commercial street), Also they are to provide business enticing events to bring new business ventures to my street. Since the 2008 recession the street cleaning and security staff have been cut back to the bone, but there are 41 office staff employees who arrange parties for downtown locations, bringing no new business to my street. Think tanks and other non profits all too often fall into this self serving model. Their mission statement sounds fine, but their execution and business model is more about them than carrying out their stated goals.

  22. Alicia Meulensteen

    One of the most common donor complaints is CEO pay, almost as a knee-jerk reaction to any number higher than their own salary, with little or no context to the size of the organization, the complexity of the work, or the impact. There is a definite societal expectation that nonprofit = low wages or it doesn’t work. And let’s not even start on the additional impact of the sector being run by women, which compounds the low wage assumption/acceptance even more.

    I would also push back on that ED who assumed a 10% loss with a lower charity watchdog rating. That’s something that has to be tested. More and more organizations are choosing to ignore those rankings or speak directly to the “lower” rating with more transparency to donors. In one recent study, 85% of donors who viewed a ranking online before they donated gave anyway, regardless of what the ranking site actually said.

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