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Should You Pursue a Non-Profit Career?

This article was written by in Career and Work. 22 comments.

I was never destined for the life of a high-income individual. While I was in elementary school, I decided, like many young individuals inspired by good teachers, to become a teacher myself. As I developed an aptitude for mathematics, science, computer programming, languages, and music throughout my time in public school, I eventually leaned towards the arts. I studied music education as an undergraduate, with the intent to teach music in a high school.

Teachers can make a decent living depending on where they teach, and teachers who earn a graduate degree or decide to become administrators can enhance their income nicely. It’s a long path, though, unlike some engineers or technology-minded entrepreneurs who can generate a nice income after four years of college. I did, however, decide not to pursue public school teaching, and I found my way to the non-profit sector, earning less than I would have, had I continued the path of teaching in a high school.

My work for the non-profit, often working 80 to 120 hours a week during certain parts of the year, forgoing sleep and health in exchange for a salary that allowed me to pay for my commute and nothing else, was psychologically rewarding but emotionally and financially draining.

If you have a drive that matches the mission of a non-profit, this type of work might be right for you. If you have no need to be concerned about your financial situation — either you have a trust fund or a spouse willing to support you — you will have an easier time trading the chance to earn a solid income for the satisfaction of doing good in the world. If you are not financially endowed, but you still have the desire to work in a non-profit industry that does not pay well, accept the following ideas:

  • You may need to find alternate sources of income with the limited time you may have outside of your job.
  • The concept of a retirement involving a respite from working in exchange for income may not be in your future.
  • Your living situation might require compromises, like renting rather than buying a home or choosing a location you might not otherwise consider.

Not every non-profit organization requires a financial compromise. In a recent year, the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra earned a salary of over $400,000. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but consider the business equivalent of a concertmaster in one of the five best orchestras in the United States would be an executive level employee at one of the five biggest companies in the United States, a position that would demand a salary in the millions of dollars. That makes the $400,000 salaries in the non-profit arts industry far and few between. If you are one of the best in the world at what you do, you can earn a comfortable living, but most non-profit workers will not fit that description.

Would you pursue a career in non-profit without an alternative source of income?

Published or updated March 9, 2012.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 qixx

A few things i’d like to add. First i have a Bachelors in Non-Profit Business Administration with an emphasis in Youth Leadership Organizations. There are also a few Masters programs you can find as well. Learning through my program i was able to jump in and be successful right away. This lead to larger pay raises quickly. My first two years i went from $32K to $40K. While the pay was lower than i made previously as a computer programmer there was good movement. Some non-profits may not pay that well but some do have very good benefits. The best health plan and retirement plan i’ve ever had was working for a non-profit (disclaimer: i’ve also worked for a health care company).

One example you did not include in your not needing to work and a group of people that are well suited to work non-profit are those in or nearing retirement. Plenty of individuals in retirement have plenty to add and many don’t want to “sit around” all retirement. Also many in or nearing retirement have been volunteering with non-profits for many years. Moving from volunteer to paid employee in a non-profit is not usually that big of a jump.

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avatar 2 Luke Landes

That’s a great point. For someone close to or in retirement, working for a non-profit could be a good way to do meaningful work, keep the mind active, have personal satisfaction, and earn some extra income. It would have to be a good fit for the role, of course.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

I did when I was fresh out of college but I would never do it again, This resonated with me and supports the reasons why:

“My work for the non-profit, often working 80 to 120 hours a week during certain parts of the year, forgoing sleep and health in exchange for a salary that allowed me to pay for my commute and nothing else, was psychologically rewarding but emotionally and financially draining. ”

The working hours and salaries are enough to keep me away from ever doing it again. Society paints working for a nonprofit as some service to humanity but the reality is that I felt that I was doing a great disservice to myself. There was no way I would be able to pay for living on my own, paying down debt, save for an efund or retirement on that salary. I also wasn’t able to get a PT job due to the ongoing high demands of the job.

That said, I still support some nonprofits, but not enough to work FT for one, unless the salary was right and the underlying funding streams were solid and intact.

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avatar 4 Luke Landes

It almost seems to me that unless you’re independently wealthy or have no skills or desire to do anything but what you might do for the non-profit, talented people would be better off working in the private sector while volunteering for causes they care about. But that causes a dilemma for non-profits; they’re unable to attract the most talented people who would be in demand, receiving generous salary offers or business opportunities elsewhere.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

I agree. But it’s a choice many young people today have to make since they are graduating with college debt and need to figure out how to live as financially independent citizens. Fresh out of school, nonprofits don’t pay that much.

I think many of the nonprofits should be consolidated with resources pooled to recruit more talented people that deserve a higher salary.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

You are speaking along the same lines as Ayn Rand thought process about selfishness.

To add to Flexo’s comment I agree. I believe the correct thought process is get your life settled and enrich yourself first, then help others. It’s hard to help others when you are not self sufficient yet.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

Let me add to the way the article is framed. It presupposes that a for-profit business doesn’t help people or working for profit does not help others. It is possible to achieve your life mission and make a decent living at it also.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

I am perfectly OK with being selfish in this regard, in fact, I own it. It’s a life choice and having been there done that I wouldn’t revisit it unless forced to do so. I can achieve my life goal of working to aid a particular cause without putting myself into the poor house.

That said, many nonprofits, recruit young professionals for their talent and because they are cheap. How many retired professionals do you see working on the lower end of the totem pole nonprofits today? Not many, at least where I live. And we’re nonprofit central here in DC metro. The day to day operations are almost always ran by young professionals with older folks at the top printing money in the form of a higher salary.

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avatar 9 Ceecee

I worked for a nonprofit for five years. The pay was adequate, but I didn’t have that warm and fuzzy atmosphere you would imagine. My boss was a tyrant and it was like working in any other business office. It was all about the bottom line.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

That does sound like a tough trade off. Sure the work would be very emotionally rewarding, but the lack of monetary reward would be a challenge to accept. I don’t think I could do something like this as a career, but like the comment above, I could see myself doing something like that later in life. One of my old bosses recently made the switch from company ceo to being the head of a charitable organization. He had made a lot of money personally before making the jump.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

It all depends on the nonprofit. Other than one year, when I worked for the federal government, I’ve spent the past 12 years in nonprofits. I don’t necessarily feel that I work much longer hours (compared to some friends in the for-profit world, I work many fewer!), and the pay is decent. But I’ve also been lucky enough to work for large, national organizations with well over 100 employees. Maybe that makes a difference?

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avatar 12 Luke Landes

I think size of the non-profit makes a difference, or at least, size of the non-profit’s office. The place where I worked had 10 to 15 full time and part time employees, and more projects than we could handle. A lot of the success depended on volunteers. The area of non-profit makes a difference, as well. The performing arts area, for example, seems to struggle across the board, non-profit or not.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

I actually do work at a large national non-profit. I moved from doing project management at an asset management firm to doing similar work for the non-profit I’m at now. I took a $7k paycut but was actually given a raise to match my old salary within the first 3 months. Thankfully the agency I work for tries to be competitive in both salary and benefits to retain their talent, vs paying money thorugh HR to refill positions every year or so.

All that said, I do put much more into this job than I have any other job and the hours are pretty long. One thing I’ve seen is that when you have a whole team of people excited to be working on the same cause, people tend to give themselves more work by taking on more projects and are more attentive to the projects they have.

I am happy to be doing what I’m doing. As someone else mentioned, when I worked at an asset management firm (and commercial real estate before that), I did a tremendous amount of volunteer work and even bankrolled starting up my own small 501(c)3 on the side. I prefer being on the inside, though. Even the boring work has meaning because you know you’re helping an agency run efficiently.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

There are a number of non profit positions that pay very well, but there are very few of them. University administrators and presidents are paid very well, but it takes a lot to get there. I think it takes an unusual person to actually do well financially with non profits.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

Personally I wouldn’t, I would like to be financially secure first. But again everybody’s path is different. All glories to those who pursue a career in non-profit without an alternative source of income.


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avatar 16 wylerassociate

I wouldn’t pursue a nonprofit career despite the loving & caring portrayal that is presented. It’s very difficult to reach high paying positions that is worth the hours and work put in.

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avatar 17 Anonymous

Nowadays, I believe that there should be at least two sources of income for a family to live comfortably. If you decide to pursue a non-profit work, you should have another source of income, such as stocks trading or blogging, to sustain the rest of your needs and save for your future retirement.

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avatar 18 Cejay

My husband worked at a small nonproft Christian radio station and he LOVED it. Of course, he did have my salary to fall back on and we had to make some adjustments. He never worried while I was anxious all the time. Just the fact that the donations did not come in as promised and they had to have several emergency fund raisers was enough to keep me up at night. He was laid off a three years ago and since then there have been several more rounds of lay offs and the remaining staff has had their salaries cut. But he would go back in a minute if they offered him another job.

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avatar 19 Anonymous

I don’t think the majority of people should pursue a non-profit career. It may be a good way to give back just out of college, or even high school, since you have few responsibilities, but most people don’t have a significant amount to fall back on, or ways to make a lot of money in a short amount of time.

Then again, working long hours at something you love might not seem like working at all.

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avatar 20 Anonymous

I work a day job now that enables me to work as an actor for non-profits (theatres) in the evenings. I hope to eventually own and manage my own non-profit theatre in the future, but my day job keeps paying (what I think is) so much money, so I’m having a hard time taking a bigger plunge (although I could slowly transition myself, and I am doing that).

I agree with your basic conclusion that if the drive is there, and the person is willing to compromise on other money/life goals, working for a non-profit can be a profoundly enriching experience. It just becomes hard to pay the bills sometimes.

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avatar 21 Anonymous

Not all not-for-profit organizations have an underpaid and overworked staff. Many healthcare organizations have a not-for-profit status but pay their administrators very well.

All non-profit organizations have to publicly file form 990 with the IRS which, among other things, lists the highest compensated employees and the amount paid. Google “IRS form 990 search” and the first listing will allow you to search all 990’s.

For example, I put in John Hopkins Health System, and found on page 29 of the 2010 form that the highest paid employee was paid a base compensation of $1,023,809! Hardly underpaid, but when you consider there are no stock/stock options available in the non-profit world, top administrators are underpaid when compared to their for profit counterparts, relatively speaking.

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avatar 22 Luke Landes

Like in the private sector, the salaries of highly-paid executives of non-profits don’t really relate to most non-profit jobs. Form 990 lists highly-compensated executives, and as you point out, even these high salaries aren’t compared with comparable private-sector jobs. Form 990 doesn’t say much about rank-and-file non-profit workers who also, generally, earn less than their private sector counterparts. Those million dollar non-profit salaries are atypical… and someone in college contemplating pursuing a non-profit career, like the article supposes, won’t be making that kind of money in non-profit for quite a while, if ever.

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