Nonprofit Salaries And The Leadership Gap


By Ashley Sharp, executive director at Dwell with Dignity.

Recently, I was having a friendly conversation with someone at a professional event when he asked me what I did for a living. When I told him I was the executive director of a nonprofit organization, his demeanor changed.

“I hate the word nonprofit,” he said. “I always get anxious when I hear it because I know someone’s making a profit.” Although he was quite a nice guy, his manner was a little defensive.

As I decided how to respond to this strange reaction, many thoughts raced through my head. Number one, what’s wrong with nonprofit employees making decent, competitive wages? Just because we believe in what we do, we should do it for little to no money?

I shrugged it off and carried on with my night, but the interaction got me thinking about the relationship between nonprofits, salaries and leadership/talent retention. This issue goes even deeper than the principle of compensating people fairly; it’s also about the people you alienate when you don’t pay your employees a reasonable salary.

Paying substandard wages or relying on no-salary positions essentially creates a class barrier within your organization. In other words, if you don’t pay a nonprofit CEO anything, it means that only someone with other access to capital will be able to take that job. Unpaid leadership positions then become heavily populated by people with generational wealth or second careers.

What I often see as a result is a disconnect between leadership and mission. You risk missing out on the empathy, understanding and life experience needed to run a nonprofit effectively. Anyone who’s ever worked at a nonprofit organization will tell you that leadership is crucial to the success of your mission — and if you want your nonprofit to have the best leadership possible, then you have to provide competitive compensation.

My background has played a huge part in my ability to lead my organization, Dwell with Dignity. As a result of diverse life experiences, I’m able to connect with our families on a whole different level because I’ve been in their shoes before. Yet, I never would have been able to take this position if it didn’t pay a salary.

Keeping nonprofit salaries low or nonexistent holds back entire communities, too. It keeps us from building a new generation of diverse philanthropists from all walks of life, and it limits our talent pool to a very small group of people. If we want to attract the best and brightest to nonprofit work, we need to expand the talent pool by offering better compensation and benefits — removing the class barrier that places mission-based work out of reach for many people.

In my role as executive director at Dwell with Dignity, I take a salary, and I’m not ashamed to tell people that. It enables me to do work that’s deeply important to me while supporting myself and my family. Even more important, taking a salary means that I’m connected to our mission: I’m on the ground, doing the work and making a living. I don’t have any other jobs or family money to fall back on, so my fate is intertwined with that of our organization. This fosters stronger relationships and deeper understanding between me, my team, our volunteers and the families we serve — and it’s certainly a driving force behind my success as a nonprofit leader.

So, how can other nonprofits take steps to be able to provide all of their staff not just living wages, but competitive wages? It starts by doing a top-down organizational review. First, do you have the right people doing the right jobs? Do you have any overlap or redundancy? You can’t figure out how to allocate salaries if you haven’t figured out what jobs you actually need to be done. I also suggest looking at how you can outsource some of your work to third-party vendors. Currently, we utilize an accounting firm, a public relations firm and a communications firm, all of which provide deep expertise for a fraction of the cost of having a full-time employee fulfill those requirements. Not every job that needs to be done needs to be completed by a full-time employee!

Being strategic about what kind of skills and talents you need to operate your organization daily can allow you to be mindful about how your valuable funds are spent and can ensure that you have ample resources to provide competitive wages to the employees you couldn’t make it without.

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