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When to Ask for a Raise, and When You Shouldn't

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

A Black woman sits at a desk in her living room crunching numbers as she considers when to ask for a raise. She is wearing an orange shirt, and there is a light pink couch with yellow pillows in the background.

“Don’t rock the boat.” We’ve all heard the warning, whether it’s in school, in the workplace, or in personal relationships. It’s not bad advice if you’re out on the open ocean, but in most other situations, it may keep us from asking important questions out of fear that we’ll mess up a good thing.

When it comes to salary, it can be extra difficult to raise those important questions and ask for what we’re worth. But negotiating a higher starting salary or a raise isn’t rocking the boat; it’s advocating for yourself by making sure you’re being compensated for the unique skills and experience that you bring to your organization.

Still, timing matters. While accepting a new job offer is a window of opportunity for negotiating salary and benefits, it can be a lot more confusing and intimidating to determine the right time to ask for a raise.

When should you ask for a raise and when should you think twice about it? We spoke to two negotiation experts to get the scoop.

At the time of this interview, Jesse Rauch was Senior Program Manager of AAUW Start Smart and AAUW Work Smart. Through these two programs, the American Association of University Women has trained thousands of women on the ins and outs of salary negotiation.

Tanya Tarr is a leadership coach and Forbes contributor who specializes in negotiation tactics. Among her many accomplishments in the career space, Tarr has developed negotiation resources for nonprofit professionals and job seekers who identify as introverts.

Ask when you’ve earned it

One of the first things Rauch tells me is, “Raises are earned.”

So what does it mean to earn a raise in a social-impact profession where our accomplishments aren’t always defined by conversions or company profits? Completing a big project or taking on new responsibility “might be reasons to go to your boss and start a conversation about your career trajectory where you might ask about that raise or promotion,” Rauch says.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what kind of accomplishment justifies starting the raise conversation, Tarr recommends reframing the question as, “What problem did I solve?”

“If you can tell your supervisor what problem you solved, that is a direct articulation of your value,” Tarr says. Depending on your job, the solution might be developing a new system for case management, revamping your organization’s end-of-year fundraising campaign, or securing additional funding for your program in the state budget.

Another way to tell if an accomplishment rises to the level of asking for a raise is if you received recognition for it from other colleagues and higher-ups, Tarr says. Whenever this happens, add it to your “greatest hits” portfolio, she adds. This portfolio includes outputs and outcomes that you contributed to, such as a direct mail piece, outreach program, new training manual, or a testimonial from a coworker about your contribution to a project. Having a greatest hits portfolio can help you make the case for your raise and increase your confidence heading into the conversation.

Pro Tip: Keeping track of your accomplishments will help you in other scenarios, too, such as updating your resume and answering interview questions.

Take the fiscal year into account

Tarr suggests confirming when your organization’s fiscal year starts—it may not be the same as the calendar year—and making your ask a few months prior to the new fiscal year. This way, your boss has more space to consider and grant your request because the coming year’s budget has not yet been set.

This timing also helps if you’re asking for more professional development opportunities because your organization may have unspent funds in that budget line as the fiscal year draws to a close. Tarr says you’ll be more successful at getting a “yes” to the professional development ask if you’ve done your homework and identified the training or conference you want to attend.

Be wary of asking during a budget crisis

Asking for a raise during a budget crisis can be thorny since the cost of your raise is more than just the salary increase; your employer will also have to pay more in payroll taxes, Tarr points out.

Still, that doesn’t mean you should never ask for a raise when your organization’s budget is tight. For example, AAUW’s Rauch says that if you’ve taken on additional responsibility due to layoffs, you may have a case to ask for a raise. And if your organization’s finances truly don’t allow for a raise at that time, he suggests asking for other perks such as a more flexible work schedule, remote-work options, additional paid-vacation time, or more professional development.

Bottom line: If you’ve earned it, ask for it

All of us, no matter what field or profession we work in, should strive to be paid what we feel we’re worth, Rauch says. So if something has changed in the value you bring to your organization, it’s time to build your case and ask for more.

Pro tip: Use Idealist's Nonprofit Salary Explorer to get a better sense of what your work is worth and what others in the sector are earning. This comparative research can be a powerful tool when you're ready to ask for that raise.

And do it confidently: If you have a credible case, “do not apologize or back pedal on your requests,” Tarr says.

That doesn’t mean your salary negotiation is a confrontation; both Rauch and Tarr want you to view asking for a raise as a collaborative process, a conversation with your boss about your value. With confidence and preparation, you can make this conversation a win-win for everyone involved.

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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