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How to Negotiate a Higher Nonprofit Salary

Written by: Eden Stiffman
Published on: Feb 5, 2020

At many organizations, performance reviews coincide with the end of the year. As the final quarter approaches, you may be preparing to ask your manager for a raise. Or maybe you’re looking for a new job and want to make sure you are finally paid what you believe you’re worth.

Fundraisers know this as well as anyone: In order to get more money, you have to ask.

“Just like you wouldn’t go to an interview without your resume, don’t accept a job without negotiating,” says Katie Donovan, a consultant who offers advice to women seeking higher salaries and writes the blog Equal Pay Negotiations. Even if an offer is triple what you’d hoped for, it’s still the first offer, she says. “You have to negotiate, or you’re not getting paid the appropriate amount for the job.”

In many ways, negotiating at a nonprofit is not so different from doing so in the corporate sphere. But the mission-driven mentality that attracts so many to the sector also inhibits some from earning what they should.

“There’s a sense of being in a cause together that creates a deeper sense of commitment,” says Chandra Alexandre, vice president of development at the Global Fund for Women. “When it comes to negotiation, people being offered a nonprofit job often think they don’t have as much room,” she says. “Actually, they generally have a lot more latitude than they think.”

Hiring managers, consultants, and nonprofit staffers share the following advice about successfully navigating a different kind of ask.

Know the market rate or value for your job. All salary negotiations should begin with research. Tools like Guidestar, AFP’s compensation survey, and state- and city-level compensation studies are good sources of data to help you benchmark in your city or region. Sites such as Indeed, Glassdoor, PayScale, and even headhunters who work in the nonprofit sector may also be helpful.

Delton McGuire at Cherokee Home for Children experienced this firsthand. He had served as director of development for seven years when the charity’s leader passed away. He took the helm as executive director, earning a salary about 10 percent below his predecessor’s but 30 percent above his fundraiser salary.

After four years, he used data from Guidestar to identify the salaries and benefits of sister organizations (other children’s homes affiliated with the Church of Christ) that were similar in mission and governance.

 “I proved that our agency was fifth in size out of the 13 agencies, but I was 10th in compensation,” he says. Average compensation was 16 percent higher than what he was bringing home. He asked for this amount, showed the evidence, and got the 16-percent raise.

Michael Montgomery, a nonprofit management consultant in Michigan, has assisted some clients with compensation discussions. “I have always been more favorably inclined toward people who did their research and came to the table prepared to make their salary case with meaningful data, not just anecdotes, about typical pay for genuinely comparable positions,” he says.

Understand the charity’s financials — and philosophy. The IRS Form 990 is your friend. If you’re applying for an executive-level position, you should be able to see what those “key employees” have earned. (Learn how to find the compensation for the highest-paid executives on the 990.)

And even for positions further down the food chain, where compensation isn’t listed on the tax form, having a strong sense of the organization’s budget can help you build your case. If a hiring manager says the charity can’t afford to pay market value, Ms. Donovan suggests pointing to recent financial information, such as an increase in revenue that would enable it to pay a higher rate.

But in the end, “no matter how good a negotiator you are, you can’t control a company’s philosophy,” says Ms. Donovan. An organization’s ability to pay market rate and its philosophy may not always align.

At one end of the spectrum, there are “golden handcuff” organizations that pay top dollar to get the best and the brightest, she says, and “anywhere [else] you go will pay you less.” And on the other end are organizations that take inexperienced or less-qualified people and underpay them. In those situations, the employee usually has to leave the organization to get market rate. The vast majority of employers sit somewhere in the middle, but knowing those things can be very helpful, Ms. Donovan says.

Break the taboo: Ask people what they earn. Salary surveys and tax forms are one thing, but personal information can also be helpful. Start a conversation with a peer employee or someone else working in your role in another organization, says Ms. Donovan. Don’t get too personal and ask what number is on the person’s paycheck. She suggests starting the conversation by saying something like, “I’m thinking of going after a promotion. What do marketing executives in your area make?” It’s up to him or her whether to tell you personal information or to keep the discussion more general.

Even in a workforce that slants heavily female, issues of pay equity remain in organizations small and large. According to the 2016 GuideStar Nonprofit Compensation Report, median compensation of female nonprofit employees continued to lag behind that of males in comparable positions at similar organizations.

So women should be talking to men about this, too.“You want to make what the other men are making, not just what the other women are making,” says Ms. Donovan.

Don’t let salary history hold you back. You’re not obligated to answer any interview questions. Ms. Donovan was involved in drafting a Massachusetts bill — now state law — that made it illegal for employers to ask for a job applicant’s salary history in an interview.

While asking that question is still commonplace among recruiters and human resources officers, the practice is “biased beyond biased,” she says, and often discriminates against women and people of color.

“If you suffer a pay gap once, you are never able to get out of it, as future employers continue to ask about your previous pay and then base your future pay on that amount.”

Nonprofits hurt themselves as well as job candidates by using that information in any part of the hiring process, Vu Le argued recently on his blog Nonprofit With Balls. A charity may overlook great candidates coming from companies that paid high salaries because it doesn’t think it can match them. Or, it may lowball applicants based on their history when the role they’re applying for has completely different responsibilities that should be valued at a different level.

If you are asked for your salary history in an interview, don’t be afraid to switch the topic and ask what the charity has budgeted for the job and how it arrived at that figure or range.

A job opening is not a real job opening until it has been budgeted and approved, Ms. Donovan says. Long before an organization interviews anyone, managers know what the organization plans to pay the new hire, even if it’s a range.

Negotiate for other benefits too. Kate Pickle, deputy director at Science Club for Girls, recommends job candidates think beyond salary. “Often [pay] can be the most difficult point to negotiate, especially with a smaller organization,” she says. Consider asking for other things, like additional vacation time or adjusted work hours. If you’re getting benefits through a spouse or not needing them for another reason, put that on the table and ask for a higher salary.

Negotiate for something that helps you do your job better, like more resources in your department or tuition for courses, conferences, or training programs.

Ms. Donovan suggests preparing a list of three to five items in the offer that need to improve, with one of them being something you’re willing to give up, she says. “You need something to give the employer a win too.”

Women and minorities, especially, should stand their ground. “Too many female fundraisers accept less than they should,” says fundraising consultant Gail Perry. “They could use empowerment training, I think. Nonprofit organizations will take them for all they are worth and not pay them appropriately.”

While you may feel disrespected by an initial offer, that mentality doesn’t do anyone any favors, says Ms. Donovan. “We women tend to think that the job of the hirer is to embrace us from day one. They may be amazing managers to you once you’re employed, but their job is to get the best talent at the lowest pay. It’s not personal; they’re doing it to everyone. We women somehow missed that meeting.”

“It’s taken a really long time for me to get to a place where I’m willing to play hardball,” says Ms. Alexandre of the Global Fund for Women. “So many people — particularly women and people of color — feel like our first priority is to have a job. They don’t even know that they can negotiate.” (Read more advice for bridging the gender pay gap.)

Make the case by showing your own impact. Ms. Alexandre has successfully negotiated a series of salary increases in past jobs using performance-based measures. For example, if she’s able to grow revenue by a certain percentage, or is able to achieve other measurable goals, she will request a clause be added to her contract ensuring additional compensation within a range approved by the board of directors.

When she was negotiating for one job, the starting salary was too low, so she requested a plan be developed to increase her salary based on performance. Although she ultimately did not take the job, the organization came back to her with a higher base salary.

“I let them know that I was willing to be flexible while at the same time I was pushing for what I needed,” she said. “Particularly in leadership positions, you might have to talk to an organization about what you would do for them and what they can do for you in the future.”

Remember you have the final decision. Unlike what you may have seen in movies, a negotiation typically doesn’t involve writing a number on a piece of paper and sliding it toward the hiring manager. “That’s absolutely the wrong way to go about it,” Ms. Donovan says. And it has nothing to do with how many rounds of back-and-forth you have.

In preparing for these important conversations, try to anticipate all the reasons a company might tell you “no.” Eliminate all the reasons until you have a very strong argument. When you run out of responses to the push-back or the other way around, the negotiation is over. Either the organization will meet your demands or it won’t.

And just because you’re offered a position doesn’t mean you have to accept it. “I highly recommend that people start saying ‘no’ to jobs that underpay them,” says Ms. Donovan.