Doing it for the Love of It! Who Needs a Paycheck?

June 30, 2011; Source: Lincoln News Messenger | Times remain tough for the sector. State and local governments continue to trim budgets, cutting services delivered in tandem with nonprofits. Private giving is slowly recovering but GivingUSA notes that donations to human service organizations saw a slight decline in 2010.

Nonprofits have had to improvise to weather the financial crisis. Some are keeping afloat by forgoing salaries to their executives or by compensating their managers at the barest minimum.

The Friends of the Lincoln Library and the Lincoln Area Archives Museum in California for instance were purposely set-up to be all-volunteer operations. And the Police Activities League (PAL) pays its sole employee only a little over twice the minimum wage to run its youth center for a mere 12 hours per week.

Despite the modest compensation the center director gets, Steve Krueger, PAL’s executive director still feels the need to justify what they were paying the center director, arguing that “given the large amount of responsibility, importance and influence on our youth the director has, the money is clearly well-spent.”

If the director’s position is so pivotal, why pay him only so much and have him work part-time? Krueger’s apologetics inadvertently perpetuates the belief that nonprofit workers are in it not for the money but for the profound satisfaction they get from working in nonprofits. And that they are passionate about the cause and committed to the job, regardless of remuneration.

In part as a result of this thinking, managers in the sector earn 18 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Keeping costs down is to be expected and commended during these lean times. But is under compensating nonprofit workers the right way to go? Are they worth less than private sector workers? And should nonprofit leaders be the ones perpetuating this unhelpful meme?—Erwin de Leon

  • Sara D L

    I just left a nonprofit that had severely low payscales. Many (2/3s)of the people working there (300+) qualified for the very benefits that we were helping people gain access to–even though most of those worked full time. These workers not only experience the stress of poverty first-hand, but they also must contend with the vicarious trauma of serving a never-ending tide of people who also have very restricted income levels–with not enough resources to do so. Forcing pay at this level does not serve anything or anyone except to perpetuate economic injustice in this country.

  • Tara Steinmetz

    As I pursue my Master of Public Policy (taking out requisite loans), I’m torn between the public sector and nonprofit management – my dream job – and the private sector. I decided to pursue a postgraduate degree and a certificate in nonprofit management because I wanted to excel, and because I wanted to bring all the skills I could to my work in nonprofit management. However, that very pursuit of excellence may force me into the private sector to pay off my loans.

    If nonprofits demand the same quality and excellence of the private sector, as I believe they do, then they must be able to sustain those qualified, excellent candidates they seek to attract with adequate salary.

  • Betty Duben

    There is a perpetuating cycle in the nonprofit world that stems from not paying employees adequately -and that is, the more educated and skilful a person is, the less likely they are to settle for a meagre wage. This leaves the uneducated and unskilled employees in the nonprofit sector. This undesirable industry is run by people who simply have a passion for what they’re doing.

    Managers, very frequently do not have training and leaders only know their mission statement. Necessary and potentially successful organizations end up spinning their wheels, beating dead horses, and badly taking advantage of the lowly, entry-level employees.

    I’m not sure why a “decent wage” is considered a swear word, but there seems to be no awareness for the connection between a happy employee and a successful organization. Stewarding an employee is so much more fiscally responsible than stewarding a donor. And yet, is rarely done.

  • Phil Greene

    As an AmeriCorps member who is finishing up his two year commitment, I can identify closely with this article. To those of us who chose AmeriCorps and other National Service routes, service and doing good is paramount in our thoughts. They stipend we get for our service would make more ED salaries look like something Bill Gates would make.

    I do what I do because putting my skills and experience to work trying to make a better world means more to me that a paycheck. I cannot imagine going back to the back to the life I led years ago when I worked in Corporate America and was interested only in salary, benefits and retirement plans. The satisfaction I get on a daily basis knowing that what I do is of greater worth than any price tag, and that it means more than money to those I serve, is priceless to me, literally.

    With that said, we live in a Capitalistic nation and a currency-based society. That means we must make money to survive in order to do the good we try to do. The (sad) fact that we cannot merely dedicate our lives to creating a better world not only inhibits that creation, but also gives many of us an internal struggle in justifying the apparent contradiction between asking volunteers to donate their time to make things better while we hold our hands out for a paycheck each pay period.

    We’re not going to change the society in which we live, so it’s time we change the way we look at what we do and whether we get paid for it. As my boss said, we in NPO administration don’t directly serve our constituents. We make it possible for others to do so.

    The days of the do-gooders gathering together in each others living rooms and sorting out clothes for the poor or food for the hungry are over. It takes a structure to see that those clothes and that food get to the people who need it. I know of no NPO ED or CFO who doesn’t put in far more than a standard 40 hour week to see that that structure is there day after day. And doing it for 20% less than our corporate counterparts, to boot.

    Maybe it’s the corporate sector that can learn more from us than we can from them.

  • Geri Stengel


  • Dave Estrada

    I’ve run a non-profit for the past six years and get paid a part time salary for full time work. I’ve been fortunate in my life that my parents instilled financial responsibility which enabled me to manage money. This has allowed me to be successful with my personal finances as well as operating expenses for the non-profit. Each individual has their own personal financial situation which leads them down a certain career path. I do believe that there are more people out there with financial burdens that don’t allow them to fulfill their dream of working for a non-profit, however, there are people like myself out there who are qualified, ready & willing to accept low pay for the high satisfaction/rewards of working for a non-profit. Our capitalistic society has cast the wrong meaning onto not-for-profit entities. Besides personal satisfaction, no one should get rich off a non-profit. That’s not the original intent of a 501(c)(3).