Is Working for a Nonprofit Right for You?

by Melanie Lockert on June 25, 2014


When you tell people you work for a nonprofit, you can almost see it in their eyes. The sympathetic gaze of understanding which acknowledges your low-income status. As someone who has worked in the nonprofit sector for the entirety of my career, I can tell you that it’s possible to get by — and thrive — on a nonprofit salary. If you choose management positions, or pursue being an Executive Director, your chances of having a higher income is stronger.

Working at a nonprofit isn’t for everyone. Working at a nonprofit is synonymous with working long hours, with low pay, high turnover, and some serious burn out. However, most people drawn to nonprofit work are intensely mission driven people. If they could see themselves doing anything else and getting paid more doing so, they’d probably do it!

What is a Non profit organization?

Given the name, I’m sure you can guess, that a nonprofit organization is not making any profits. In contrast to a business, a nonprofit is a model that serves a specific mission and its surplus revenues, usually in the form of grants and donations, help sustain the operation.

Nonprofits serve a mission; the mission is the core statement for which all the work is based around. Perhaps the mission is to increase arts and academic access to underserved youth. Maybe the mission is to prevent trash and decay at the local beaches. Nonprofits are cause-based organizations and generally serve populations around that cause.

As the model is not-for-profit, organizations have a tax exempt status, which keeps operating costs low. In addition, funders who donate money and/or goods or services get a tax write off when giving to a nonprofit. Depending on the nonprofit, there may be a skeleton staff of volunteers and one Executive Director, or a full cast of 40 employees keeping the ship sailing. Because nonprofits are largely grant funded, application based, and not guaranteed funds, nonprofit employees deal with variable work stability and low income. But there are advantages to working in a nonprofit and ways to thrive.

Enjoy the Perks

Some people think it would be impossible to live on a nonprofit salary. But you know what? People are doing it every day! What nonprofits lack in monetary compensation, they often make up in other places. For example, the nonprofit work culture is fairly casual. In general, I wear jeans and flats to work every day and only dress up if I have an important meeting. I enjoy this as I am more comfortable with casual attire and I don’t have to spend extra money on a wardrobe just for work.

In addition, most nonprofits fully fund your health insurance. In all of my nonprofit jobs, I’ve never had to pay for my health insurance. My current health insurance is great, too! I am eligible for $25 massages, chiropractic work, and acupuncture.

Aside from the dress code, and health insurance, nonprofits typically have access to cool events, fun fundraisers, and passionate people who love what they do. Your networking possibilities are virtually endless!

Best Nonprofits to Work For

Currently, there are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States. Depending on your field of interest and your location, you have the chance to work with some heavy-hitting organizations that are making a real, tangible difference in the world. Knowing your interests, focus, and passions are important when deciding which nonprofit to work for. Generally speaking, cultural fit is a concept that people live by in the nonprofit world.

So, what are some of the best nonprofits to work for? The Nonprofit Times created a list that looks at salary, incentives, communication, engagement, and growth opportunity. Some organizations I love on the list are the Human Rights Campaign and In my opinion, both organizations are making the world a better place.

Is Working for a Nonprofit Right for You?

As I mentioned, working in the nonprofit sector isn’t for everyone. It’s practically required that you have a budget to make this salary work! If you are not 100% invested in the mission, you will start to resent the long hours and low pay. In addition, some nonprofits deal with underserved populations that need a lot of help. It is easy to get burnt out and throw all your energy into helping people. It can be draining and it’s easy to take the work home with you. Because you are building relationships with people, it’s not as easy just to say you are done with your job at 5 p.m.

To determine if working at a nonprofit is right for you, I suggest volunteering first. This will help you gauge your interest and see if the organization is a good fit. Be clear on salary expectations and forget any notions of superman syndrome…you will not be saving the world overnight, but with one little step at a time.

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Melanie Lockert

Melanie Lockert blogs about breaking up with debt at and invites others to write breakup letters to their debt as well. She’s accumulated a total of $81k in student loan debt between two degrees. Currently she puts more than 50% of her income towards debt, while living a frugal, fun life. Melanie enjoys travel, art, music, adventure, and of course, personal finance.

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  • It seems to me that the satisfaction one derives from working at a non-profit is different than working for the for-profit sector. Non-profit work is generally geared toward some positive purpose, something to help people. That can ultimately be much more valuable than the big number paychecks.

  • I worked at a non-profit organization before, with a very low salary, but I enjoyed working there. I just stopped working since I got married and gave birth to my baby.

  • Pingback: The Myth of Being Caught Up | DEAR DEBT()

  • Great article Melanie!
    I think after a couple more years of stashing away some cash from a corporate job this is definitely something I will consider. Is there much scope for doing part time work or would that mainly fall under the volunteer bracket?

    • There are definitely part-time opportunities — you would not get any benefits, but in some cases it might be better to be part-time.

  • Ha! I am all to familiar with this life. Ia m now at a non-profit that functions like a for profit company in the salary but functions like a non-profit on the benefits and corporate culture scale. The only thing that could be better is doing my site full-time. NP jobs aren’t the most lucrative, but you know you are leaving a legacy behind that will most likely outlive you. While that feeling doesn’t pay the bills it’s amazing to experience.

    • Nice! You have the best of both worlds. For profit salary and nonprofit functions?! It does feel good to work for a mission and make a difference in people’s lives.

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