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“I Didn’t Go into This to Get Rich, but I Do Need to Pay the Bills” | Managing Your Money in the Nonprofit Sector

A person stacking a tower of coins.

“I don’t get paid enough.”

“I didn’t go into this to get rich, but I do need to pay the bills.”

Often it’s during the in-between times: Over the lunch table. At 9pm when two colleagues are still at their desks. Letting off steam to a friend. Yes, even at the proverbial water cooler (if the budget for it didn’t get cut). That’s when you hear us complaining, ahmmm..sharing about how we just don’t make enough.

Not enough to stay out of debt. Not enough to send our kids to college. Not enough to own a home.

It’s like the dirty underwear in the nonprofit closet – many of us don’t even get paid enough to keep out of the same programs they are running/designing/fundraising for/doing every darn thing that needs to be done for. Even for those that are better off, salaries often pale in comparison with for-profit counterparts.

The situation is largely structural. Dependent on donations and judged by their overhead numbers, nonprofits squeeze salaries. Frustration builds up and it can feel like there is nothing to be done.

I’ve found that one of the most empowering approaches is realizing that there are options available to you without giving up a mission-based career. Some require a significant effort. Some are simple. They are all within your grasp.

Here are six top actions to take if you are not getting paid enough:

Consider asking for a raise

If you think your current place of employment might be able to offer more money (and you never know unless you ask) here are some ways to position yourself for a raise:

  • Bring in the dough. It helps if you can show directly how your role is supporting the financial sustainability of the organization. While this is obvious for people working in development, most organizations actively encourage program staff involvement in fundraising and grant writing too. No matter your role, you are in a much stronger position to negotiate on salary if you’ve helped bring in the money to pay it.
  • Show your value. It’s not always easy to demonstrate how your work supports the financial well being of the organization, but you can show your value. Do incredible work and don’t be afraid to talk about it. In fact, look for opportunities to appropriately share the value you’ve added, and not just once you receive your review and want to negotiate a raise. Have a win with a client? Get an article published? Send an e-mail your boss sharing your excitement. Give your all. 

Think outside of your job

While our jobs are often our primary source of income, more and more people are thinking outside the 9-5.

  • Freelance. WHAT??? Who has time to do that? Well, lots of people. It may not be easy, but it is an option. As the new economy grows you may find surprisingly simple and aligned opportunities to earn. Whether your role has to do with fundraising or social media or finance, chances are there are others who could use a small slice of your time and expertise. Of course, make sure to clear any side projects with work whenever necessary to be sure there are no conflicts of interest and look for opportunities that are aligned with the career you are building.
  • Consult. If you already have a few organizations that often ask you for your services, don’t be afraid to talk to them about a potentially on-going relationship. See how one woman did it.

Move on

Sometimes the best way to get a salary bump is to move on.

  • Don’t limit yourself to nonprofits. There’s a whole new world of ways to make an impact and earn a living. Look at impact investing, foundation, and social enterprise career tracks. Explore how your skills could equally be applied in these new arenas while keeping your mission based approach. Widening your options will make it easier to find the perfect fit, give you more possibilities for career growth and in some cases, higher salary potential. One easy way to start is to search idealist for listings with related keywords. Find out what the growth of impact investing means for your career. While the organizations may be structured differently, they are working on many of the same issues as non-profits. Pair that with closer to market rate salaries and many similar skill set needs and you may have yourself a new career direction!


Maybe the problem isn’t your salary, but your spending!

  • Do an honest check-in with your finances. Do you have a budget? Basic savings cushion? The truth is that it’s easy to overlook financial choices that can save you thousands in the near and long term if you’re just not paying attention. If you love your job and your salary is close to where you’d like to see it, sometimes the quickest way to feel better about your financial picture is to start focusing on it. Work through the WellMoney Step 1 Financial Checklist to think through some of these basics.

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About the Author | Cynthia Jaggi is an entrepreneur and leadership expert for people who are looking to create massive impact. Through her writing and courses, she's here to shake up your approach to creating your most meaningful life and work - while making it all feel like fun. She was named a lean-startup ambassador for her work bringing a lean approach to social impact and her insights have been featured on Business Insider, Women 2.0 and Idealist Careers. Her passion is to shift the economy to a regenerative model that puts people and the planet in the center. To achieve this goal she works to build + grow social impact businesses and to empower professionals to create their most meaningful life and work. She is the Founder of GatherWell, the Think + Do tank for Practical Idealists and a Partner at Living Economy Advisors, increasing the flow of capital to the living economy. A bit of her fun? dancing, gardening and the occasional dip under a desert waterfall. Meet Cynthia and get ready to create a more meaningful career & life at

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