Career Q&A: Setting realistic expectations about compensation

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I’m considering a career shift from my mid-level job in the federal government to working with a nonprofit or charity. I’ve done a lot of volunteering with community organizations, have loved the work and the people, and am ready to jump into it full-time. I know this might mean a drop from my current salary and I’m prepared for that but what should I realistically expect in terms of compensation when considering this jump?

This is an exciting career move and it sounds like you’re making the leap with your eyes wide open. Your volunteer experience both gives you first-hand insight into the reality of working with a smaller nonprofit community organization and will be valuable experience that potential employers will screen for.

It’s important that you are considering the financial implications of making this career shift at this stage. It is indeed quite likely that your salary with a nonprofit will be lower than what you’re currently earning. This does depend on a number of factors including:

  • The size of the organization: larger organizations – those with 25+ staff members – generally have a solid funding base, established salary scales and often higher overall salary levels.
  • It’s location: organizations in larger urban centres usually have higher salary levels but this is balanced by the higher cost of living.
  • It’s scope: organizations with national-level mandates or in health or education are often on the higher end of the salary scale compared to community-level charities (such as shelters, immigrant settlement organizations, food banks).

Your next question is likely around how you find out this kind of information. You could start by asking around to the staff in the organizations in which you volunteer. Asking general questions about salary ranges in a certain type or size of organization can help you get around the awkwardness of asking people how much they make.

As we noted in a previous article about addressing salary expectations in an application, you can check out registered charities’ T3010 returns for the salaries of the 10 highest compensated permanent full-time positions (go to, enter the “charity name”, click on T3010 Return, then look for compensation information). Be prepared that the highest paid positions in many small organizations may be less than what you’re currently making as a civil servant. And, of course, there’s always CharityVillage’s Salary Survey Report.

Also look at the staff to volunteer ratio in any organization whose door you’re considering knocking on. Volunteer-driven organizations may not need or want (many) paid staff and this may be core to their missions, but it may also indicate that there’s minimal resources available to pay people for the work they are doing. You should also be aware that full-time permanent positions may be hard to find. Short-term or contract-based positions may be a reality and this is usually a reflection of having cyclical or project-based funding.

Finally, compensation is more than a paycheque. As you’ve realized, the opportunity to devote your 9-5 time to a cause you believe in, to have your job not be work, and to spend your working hours with like-minded people who are similarly motivated is priceless. You might be trading some dollars on a paycheque for the intangible compensation of doing what you love and making a contribution to the greater good on a specific issue.

That being said, there are many tangible forms of compensation that nonprofits offer above and beyond a salary. These may be points where you have greater bargaining power when financial compensation is limited. These include:

  • Health and dental benefits for yourself, your partner and your dependants.
  • Vacation time – as with health and dental benefits, many nonprofits have generous vacation allowances, often more generous than in the private or public sector.
  • Contributions to an RRSP – many, if not most, smaller organizations do not have pension plans but may offer annual contributions to an RRSP based on a percentage of your salary.
  • Professional development opportunities such as mentoring, specialized training, or participation in conferences, webinars or workshops.
  • Flexible work time such as compressed work weeks, summer hours, ability to work from home on a regular basis.
  • Access to or provision of equipment such as a PDA, laptop, webcam and/or headset.
  • Job title promotions – if it’s important to you, you may be able to negotiate a high-level job title (e.g. Director vs Manager) even if a pay bump does not come with it.

As you’re preparing for this career shift, you may also find our article on does it matter if your experience is volunteer or paid useful. Good luck!

Nancy Ingram and Christa McMillin are co-founders and partners at Foot in the Door Consulting which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Together, they have over 30 years of experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector. They can be reached through

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