A case for competitive salaries in Nonprofits

The Value of Nonprofit Leaders and Their Salaries

In the modern world, nonprofits play an indispensable role in addressing pressing societal issues, ranging from poverty alleviation to environmental protection. Yet as much as we “appreciate” these organizations, we don’t really like to pay the employees. As a nonprofit leader, I’ve seen a lot of pushback on pay and that doesn’t make sense! At the helm of these organizations are dedicated nonprofit leaders who work relentlessly to drive impact. However, one topic that often garners debate is the salary of these leaders. If we want to pull in the best leaders we should pay them what they are worth. Should they be compensated at rates comparable to their for-profit counterparts, or should they accept lower remunerations due to the philanthropic nature of their work?

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Understanding the Role of Nonprofit Leaders

To appreciate the value of nonprofit leaders, one must first understand the magnitude and complexity of their responsibilities. Leading a nonprofit organization is not merely about overseeing donations or executing community programs. It involves strategic planning, team management, resource allocation, and stakeholder engagement, often in environments where resources are limited, and the demand is overwhelming. The challenges faced by nonprofit leaders can be as multifaceted and demanding as those encountered by CEOs in the corporate sector.

The Case for Competitive Salaries

  1. Talent Attraction and Retention: To ensure that nonprofits are run effectively, it is imperative to attract and retain top talent. Offering competitive salaries is a key lever to pull in order to achieve this. When nonprofits cannot provide competitive compensation, they risk losing proficient leaders to the corporate sector or to other organizations that can offer better packages.
  2. Complexity of the Role: As previously mentioned, the role of a nonprofit leader is multifaceted. They often juggle multiple tasks, from fundraising and donor relations to program execution and impact measurement. To expect someone to manage such complexities without adequate compensation is unrealistic and unfair.
  3. Value Alignment: Contrary to the belief that high salaries might deter from a nonprofit’s mission, offering competitive pay can reflect an organization’s value in its leadership and its commitment to excellence. When leaders are well-compensated, they are more motivated and equipped to drive the organization’s mission forward.

Addressing the Criticisms

Critics argue that high salaries for nonprofit leaders might divert funds from the very causes these organizations intend to support. While fiscal responsibility is paramount, it’s essential to view leadership compensation not as an expense, but as an investment. An effective leader can amplify an organization’s impact manifold, ensuring that every dollar spent creates even more value for the community they serve.

Another criticism lies in the belief that those in the nonprofit sector should work primarily out of altruism and not seek financial gain. While the spirit of service is commendable, it is unfair and unrealistic to expect individuals, no matter how dedicated, to forgo fair compensation, especially when considering the expertise and commitment they bring to their roles.


In sum, the value of nonprofit leaders cannot be understated. They are the linchpin holding together diverse teams, limited resources, and vast missions, striving to create positive change in the world. Their salaries should not be a matter of contention but a reflection of the value they bring to society. Offering competitive salaries ensures that the nonprofit sector remains vibrant, effective, and capable of attracting the best minds and hearts to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Paul Bergman runs a business strategy and cybersecurity consulting company in San Diego. He writes on cybersecurity and board management for both corporate and nonprofit boards.

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