Last week I wrote a post discussing how non-profit employees should approach their salaries and financial well being.  Ben Sheldon left a fantastic comment about some of the problems he saw in non-profit salaries—mainly that they were difficult to discern.  So I asked Ben to follow up on his comment by offering some tips on understanding and negotiating your non-profit salary.

There’s nothing shocking in saying that if you pursue a nonprofit career, you won’t be rich. In my research, you’re bound (on average) to make about 25-30% less in the nonprofit sector than an equivalent job in for-profits. Which is pretty tragic since a nonprofit is just another corporation with a funny tax loophole. While a nonprofit job isn’t the only way to do good, choosing to work in a non-profit unfortunately means taking lower pay.

With that said, working in a nonprofit can be a labor of love, convenience, necessity, common sense, or any combination. However, to ignore the issue of compensation is unproductive as we all want to take care of ourselves and know we are being treated fairly. So I’ll concentrate on some common sense tips for helping yourself figure out if your nonprofit salary is up to snuff.

If you already have a nonprofit job and think you should be earning more money, the first place to look is at your organizational budget or—if you can’t get your hands on that—the taxes. Compared to private companies, nonprofits must disclose incredible amounts of information about themselves in public documents. Both Foundation Center and Guidestar offer free Form 990 lookup services (though Guidestar requires you to register). There’s a lot to learn from it: you can dive right in, or here’s a longish guide.

You first want to know if it’s even realistic to ask for more money. From the 990 (Part V-5) you’ll learn who is making more than $50,000 a year, or, just as likely, that no one is. This will give you a good idea of the salary ceiling—nothing is more embarrassing than asking for more money than the Executive Director makes. Not paying you more isn’t selfish contempt or disdain (most of the time). Many nonprofit executives are themselves mortified, horrified and ashamed that their staff are so poorly compensated—there may be just no other options.

If you think you can make a case for a raise, you need to sell yourself as a revenue center within the organization. How do you create cash, in-kinds or efficiencies for the organization? The singular motto of the nonprofit is “We’re all in this together”, so you need to show where you stand in “together”. In larger organizations this can be more difficult—responsibilities are more insular and silted—but that’s still the approach you need to take.

  • Know the mission. My boss tells the story once of laying down a $20 bill at a staff meeting and drawing names out of a hat; the first person to correctly recite their organization’s mission got the $20. It took her 3 staff meetings to pay out.
  • Demonstrate strategic action. How have you actively advanced a part of the Strategic Plan of the organization? (And thus made the Executive Director look better.)
  • Don’t forget benefits. Your take-home pay isn’t always the whole picture—there is substantial value (and diversity) in health insurance and retirement benefits. Do they provide lower co-pays or (hallelujah!) matching 401(k)s? You don’t realize the value until you need it. Maybe they could even contribute money towards personal development.
  • Stay mobile. Worse comes to worst, the best time to look for a job is when you already have one. Sometimes the surest dose of reality is learning that you actually have it pretty good—and if you don’t that should be an even more concrete kick in the pants to find something new.

Ben Sheldon is Assistant Director of the CTC VISTA Project, a national organization that strengthens our public media infrastructure by building the leadership, resources, outreach and services of nonprofit organizations and associations.  He manages their AmeriCorps*VISTA program which recruits, places and supports VISTA members serving with media organizations.  Ben is a millenial and blogs on nonprofits, communications, and anything else that crosses his mind at