Can Someone Make a Living at a Nonprofit Organization?

by Sam Ashe-Edmunds

Despite the fact that nonprofits aren’t supposed to make individuals associated with them wealthy, employees of these organizations can make attractive salaries. In some instances, the job specialization required for some positions makes nonprofit professionals highly sought-after and well compensated. Understanding the different job opportunities available at nonprofits will help you decide if working for one is the right career choice for you.

General Nonprofit Jobs

Nonprofits operate in much the same way as for-profit businesses when it comes to daily operations. They need accountants, receptionists, marketing staff, information technology experts, human resources professionals and salespeople. To attract the best workers, nonprofits must often compete head-to-head with for-profits and offer competitive salaries and benefits.

Specialized Nonprofit Jobs

The nonprofit sector has a variety of specialists who can command six-figure salaries because of the value they bring to an organization and the smaller number of specialists available with these special skills. Executive directors of foundations and charities not only need business management skills, but also strategic planning and fundraising skills. Executive directors of trade associations often need significant industry experience and expertise and the ability to represent an industry or profession in public. Development directors specialize in raising revenues for nonprofits using specific best practices such as direct mail solicitations, telethons, banquets, auctions, corporate partnerships, grant solicitations and donor management. Event planners can also find work in the nonprofit sector because of the need for fundraising events. Some specialists start their own consulting firms and work as contractors for multiple nonprofits.

Limitations on Compensation

The Internal Revenue Service does not set limitations on nonprofit employee pay, but does review the finances of these organizations to determine if they are spending sufficient portions of their revenues on their stated mission. An executive director who earns a $300,000 salary won’t raise eyebrows if she runs a nonprofit with $10 million in revenue. If she earns that salary while operating a foundation with $400,000 in annual revenues, that would raise a red flag. Nonprofit employees often make slightly less than their counterparts in the corporate world and receive fewer perks, especially at smaller nonprofits. For example, nonprofit employees are less likely to fly first class, stay in five-star hotels and get country club memberships.

Pursuing a Career in Nonprofits

If you’re interested in working in the nonprofit sector, start by visiting the websites of organizations you’d like to work for. Review their staff pages and look at the generalist and specialist positions they offer, looking for patterns. Charities will have more fundraisers, development directors and event planners than trade associations will. Download the annual tax forms of nonprofits at the websites of The Foundation Center or Guidestar to see the salaries of key employees. To get nonprofit experience, volunteer to serve on the board of directors of a local nonprofit or serve on a committee of your industry’s professional association. Meet with nonprofit employees for informational interviews to learn what they do and how they prepared for their positions.

About the Author

Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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