I’m getting some great questions about job hunting from the class of 2013! Over the next few weeks, I’ll update and repost some of my best advice from earlier articles. This post originally appeared April 12th, 2012 and is part of a series on the basics of a nonprofit career.

money savings non profit

This by far the most common question I get about working in the non profit sector and understandably so: according to Bureau of Labor Statistics National Compensation Survey, non profit managers and administrative staff make less than their peers in the government and for-profit sectors, leading many to wonder if taking a non profit job means taking a vow of poverty.

At the same time, I think the narrative around salaries ignores the complexity of compensation. We should certainly strive for better salaries for non profit employees, yet we should also be mindful of the limitations of comparisons when it comes to our financial well being.

To that end, when searching for a non profit job, here are some tips to keep in mind when thinking about your salary.

1. It is ok to not take a job if it does not pay you enough to take care of yourself. This should be obvious, but it needs to be said: if you find yourself struggling to provide basic necessities for yourself, you will resent your job. Keep searching or rethink how you can become involved in the non profit sector—volunteering, part time, fellowships, internships—until you find an opportunity that provides the salary you need.

2. Define what you mean by “live.” My first salaried non profit job paid $36,000 a year, with a take home pay of about $2,200 a month. I was able to live comfortably on this salary in NYC and wrote about my expenses and lifestyle. The key for me was figuring out what I needed and what I valued.

What matters most to you? What are your non-negotiables? I love going to professional development and networking events and find that many of those are free or low cost so it didn’t break the bank for me to grow my network and learn about the sector. It was helpful for me to figure out what I really wanted to do, what I needed to do, and how I would allocate my funds to support those activities. Jenny Blake over at Life After College has put together a fantastic budget spreadsheet to help you get started.

3. Go beyond salary. While salary is certainly important, other forms of compensation (i.e. benefits) can make a lower salary worthwhile. Flexible hours? Tuition assistance or loan repayment opportunities? Mentoring and support for professional development? Take a look at some common non profit job benefits and see what resonates with you.

4. Do your research. As I said before, compensation is complex; therefore it is helpful to do some digging. There are some fields that pay better than others (health/medical vs. environment) and some professions that have higher earning potential than others (technology vs. outreach). A variety of other factors affect salary including the size and location of the organization and in some cases salary can be comparable to what is found in the for-profit and government sectors.  Common Good Careers offers some great tips on researching non profit salaries.

Want to learn more about non profit salaries?

Bridgestar has a straightforward Q&A discussing common questions about salary/compensation that non profit job seekers have.

Idealist.org (where I work) has an extensive list of salary surveys and articles about non profit compensation. 

What questions do you have about non profit salaries?

This is the first post in a series I am having where I address common questions about careers in the nonprofit sector. Read the introduction here. And be sure to subscribe to my blog so you never miss a post!

Is it possible to live on a non profit salary?