The Psychology of Salaries in a Non-Profit Organization

How much are you worth?

How much are you worth?


I like money, by which I mean I would rather have it than not have it.  Most people are like me.  We’re not looking to get rich, just make an honest living.  Not that I would turn down being rich.  When negotiating a salary for a job, I try to stay within the realm of reason.  In the organizational twilight zone that is the universe of the community based organization (CBO), I’ve come to the shocking realization that salary figures, demands, and expectations have an only tangential relationship to reality.  Basically, what people get paid, what people demand, and what people expect is, to put in bluntly, bizarre.

Most people assume that if you work for a non-profit agency such as a community based organization, you are committed to a particular cause, and in service of that cause maybe you settle for monetary compensation that is slightly less than you would make working as a profit-oriented corporate lackey.  I mean, Phillip-Morris could use a few social psychologists, but I chose not to work for “the man”.  Presumably by opting to work in the non-profit world you are earning your crown in heaven, but getting paid a reduced rate here on earth.

In Puerto Rico, this kind of honorable sacrifice actually does seem to occur.  Executive Directors at many island agencies are volunteers, and those that do receive compensation, often willingly part with half of their official salaries to cover salaries of particularly talented staff who can contribute to the growth of the organization. Puerto Rico may truly be unique in the western hemisphere.  Now I certainly have many rants waiting in the wings regarding other aspects of Puerto Rico (I will be there for work in October, so stay tuned), but their commitment to their respective causes, overwhelming dedication and hard work with few resources is admirable.

If you asked an ostensibly “committed” manager in a New York CBO to work for free they’d have one thing to say to you.  “Fuggadaboutit”.  The average starting CBO Executive Director salary for New York City is between $79,000-85,000, admittedly low for life in Manhattan and given the amount of work that an efficient and effective director would do.  However, there are those Executive Directors that make upwards of $150,000 to $200,000. Remember that the President of the United States, until recently, made $200,000. If you were so inclined, you could confirm my estimations by looking up the public record salaries for executive directors online through easily accessible Form 990’s, but I’m not actually here to discuss executive compensation in the CBO world – I mean, I’m in psychology, not finance.  One of the metrics people use for self-worth is salary. As a matter of fact, oneof the items that people lie the most about on self-report surveys is their salary.   I want to talk about perception of self-worth and actual workplace value, which I find to be increasingly out of balance.

First let me contextualize a little. When I was at Berkeley one of my undergraduate students firmly, and delusionally, believed that upon graduating from college with a bachelors in psychology that she was virtually guaranteed a $40-50K starting salary.  No experience.  No skills beyond what she learned in school.    I bit my tongue before I could accuse her of being stoned.

After several years of workplace experience in the federal government, I completed my PhD and took a postdoc position that paid $35,000. I thought that was cruel and represented further academic hazing, but I sucked it up and did it as that is pretty standard post-doc pay in the social sciences.  Imagine my surprise when people in a CBO believe that just because they are cute, have a BA (or even an MA) with no real experience, or are especially enthusiastic, they deserve a $60k job.  I support ambition, not lunacy. What’s even worse is that sometimes these individuals, through force of will or pact with the devil manage to get those salaries.  This creates an illogical salary structure in an organization, where two people who do essentially the same thing can have widely disparate salaries.. Two directors, one that manages say 5 people (and has a MA) and a huge budget, can at times make ten thousand less than a person that manages no one and gets to sleep well at night.

Similarly, and sometimes more annoyingly, you have recent PhDs that dare to work in a CBO, believing they should be earning $80k to start-off with. Really? As a post doc I made 35,000, and I did research in a hospital. Once, one of these newbie PhDs tried to argue with me that they could get an anthropology postdoc elsewhere that paid $60k. That was laughable and I chuckled for a good week.  Hello, even professors at some universities that have been teaching for 15 years don’t make $55K.  What I have found is the newer generations of employees  in the workplace today, often defined by their tendencies to cry at a drop of a hat, feel entitled to such high salaries because their egos are hyper-inflated.  Consequently, they think a ludicrous string of zeros should follow that inflated sense of their self-worth.  Salary compensation no longer really follows that oft-cited last line in job advertisement “salary commensurate with experience”.   Modern job advertisements should be adjusted to reflect reality and say “commensurate with both your  ability to sell yourself, regardless of actual work skills, and the idiot doing the hiring’s ability to discern true talent from immediate rapport.”

The erratic salary negotiations and subsequent discrepancies in compensation for similar jobs within organizations is slightly more noticeable in the CBO world.  When staff find out – which they always do – it leads to a deep sense of depersonalization, often the tipping point to full-on job burnout.  Working in a CBO is difficult and emotionally draining, but in theory part of the reward is doing good works for humanity.  But sometimes that’s just not enough.  One has to be able to believe that there is rationality and justice in the work environment itself to be able put on their superman cape everyday despite all obstacles, and continue to fight the good fight.

4 replies »

  1. I’ve worked as an unpaid volunteer for non-profits that have hired professional paid executives and it only works if the executives experience what the volunteers go through. Sometimes they don’t.


I welcome your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s