The Art of Salary Negotiation : Successful Nonprofits

The Art of Salary Negotiation

by Ro

The Art of Salary Negotiation

by Ro

by Ro

Almost 25 years ago, I was the Development Associate at a relatively large, multi-million-dollar family service agency. 

Listen to the Bonus Break Here!

Most importantly, I found the work rewarding personally, professionally, and financially. Throughout my nearly 6 years at the agency, they had always been generous with promotions, giving me more responsibility and also offering substantial raises. 

But I felt ready to be a Development Director and the agency already had a phenomenal, long-term Development Director who wasn’t planning to leave anytime soon. So, I started to search for my first Development Director position and found a smaller homeless service organization that had just created a Development Director position. And their mission and progressive politics really spoke to me. This felt like kismet: I wanted to be a first-time development director, and the homeless service agency wanted their first development director!

When I first sent in my resume and cover letter, I anticipated that the pay might not be great. But I was shocked when they offered me the job and a salary that was $10,000 less than my current compensation! I negotiated with the Executive Director, who rose the offer by $4,000. 

After taking a hard look at my finances, I realized that I could “pay my core bills” on $6,000 less each year and accepted the position. Not only did I take a smaller salary, but I also lost a 401k retirement plan when I came to work for the homeless service agency, which means I lost the ability to contribute 5% of my income to the plan and have my employer match it (that match is FREE money).  And if that wasn’t enough, I had less vacation time at the new job!

That decision has followed me throughout my career, and my next job was – you guessed it – a $6,000 increase! And each job afterward was probably lower by that amount as well. I anticipate that this one decision has cost me about $150,000 over a nearly 25-year period. 

Flash forward nearly 25 years, and I’ve had a lot of experience negotiating pay and benefits with employers and clients. Additionally, I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve hired as an Executive Director and interim executive director. Many didn’t negotiate their salary well, but several were good negotiators and from them I’ve learned the negotiation tactics that work. I have used these techniques myself, coached others who’ve asked for advice negotiating their salaries, and now I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you: 

Compensation Comparison Worksheet

Unlock the power of our exclusive worksheet by joining our newsletter community today! When you sign up for our newsletter, you’ll gain access to insights, best practices, and even more exclusive resources! And if you’re already a member of our newsletter community, you can still share your email address to access this worksheet!

Know the Secrets Hiring Managers Won’t Tell You

1. Employers almost never offer you as much as they’re willing to pay 

The HR Manager or Executive Director usually instructs the hiring manager to offer less than the organization has budgeted for the position because they expect some candidates will negotiate. This gives the employer the flexibility to negotiate with strong candidates who make a counteroffer and saves them money when a candidate doesn’t negotiate their starting salary. For this reason, you should always ask for a higher starting salary than the initial offer.

2. If it’s not in writing, it’s not real

Far too often, a hiring manager will respond to a candidate’s counteroffer with the promise of a future salary increase. This comes in many forms, including:

          • “We anticipate a salary increase for all employees of 4% in July, which you’ll receive as well.”
          • “We can review your salary after six months, based on your performance and how we’ll we’re doing as an agency.”
          • “I see you’re in graduate school, and we could consider paying for part of your tuition.”

The sad truth is that you can only count on these assurances if the employer agrees to include them in your letter of hire. Unfortunately, most employers aren’t willing to guarantee a promise of additional compensation, so you should only plan on offers written in your letter of hire. 

Kindness Goes a Long Way in Negotiations

Many people view negotiation as a Win-Lose situation; In order for me to win, the other party has to lose. This perspective often results in a more aggressive negotiation, which is a mistake when negotiating the salary for your next job. After all, the hiring manager will likely be your boss and someone you have to get along with for years to come. Additionally, decision makers are far more likely to be flexible and accommodating to those who are friendly toward them. 

For this reason, be cooperative, collegial, and cordial in all your negotiation conversations with a prospective employer. And, in doing this, always emphasize that you’re looking for the win-win that works well for you and the employer. Some phrases that may be helpful include:

          • “I’m excited by the offer and want to be able to say, “yes.” I’m hoping we can discuss the salary (or benefits) that’s been offered.”
          • “The recruitment process has helped me understand why this position is such a good fit for me. The value I bring to the position and the skillsets that you’re seeking are a good match at a higher salary.” 

Sometimes, the employer just can’t go any higher than their offer, and you may decide to turn down the offer. When you do turn down an offer, always maintain the bridge to both the employer and the hiring manager. After all, you never know if the organization will have an open position in a few months that is a better fit and pays more than the one you’re offered. Also, it won’t be unusual for a hiring manager to change jobs as they move up the nonprofit corporate ladder, and you might be interviewing with them again one day.  

Techniques for Negotiating Your Salary

Start in the Interview Process

Some employers will post a position without a salary range, and then simply ask candidates for their salary requirements. This practice is banned in some states because it perpetuates inequality and systemic bias. But if you are being asked this question, it’s always fair to either (a) note that you’re still learning about the position and aren’t able to assess the value; or (b) simply ask for the range. 

If you already know the salary range, I always suggest sharing that “the top of the range would work for me.” Of course, be prepared to explain the value you bring that would justify the high end of the range in case they ask you. 

Take your time

The most power you will have in any relationship with an employer is that magical moment after they’ve offered you the job and before you’ve accepted it. Before the job offer – they hold all the cards. And after you’ve accepted the job, you work for them.  

Use this unique leverage to take the time to fully evaluate the offer. Specifically, ask about the starting salary, request the employee manual to calculate paid time off (vacation, sick, holidays, etc.), and a written summary of benefits offered (including what portion the employer pays for).  Additionally, ask for at least two days to consider the offer. End the conversation by scheduling a Zoom meeting to discuss the offer. 

Compare and Decide

During those two days,  you should complete our Compensation Comparison Worksheet to determine how the offer compares to your current job. This will also give you time and space to think about any other perks you might like to negotiate. Make a list, which might include:

          • Salary
          • Paid time off
          • Ability to work remotely a specific number of days per week or month
          • Moving expenses
          • Signing bonus


Now that you know what additional dollars or benefits you want to negotiate, you’re ready for that scheduled conversation. Bring your best, most cooperative personality with you to that meeting and seek the win-win. 

Get out of your own way

In my experience, the biggest hurdle to this negotiation process, is our own selves. For those who don’t regularly negotiate, the process can feel uncomfortable, awkward, and even embarrassing. Yet by not negotiating, we’re leaving hundreds-of-thousands of dollars over the lifetime of our careers.

Why I’m Writing About This

I made a costly mistake early in my career. I’m sharing it with you today in the hopes that you learn from my mistakes and unlock you own earning potential.
Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful:

Blog: $20+/hour Nonprofit Minimum Wage 

Blog: Negotiating Your Salary 

Podcast: The Makings of a Nonprofit CEO: Pursuing a Director-Level Job. A Conversation with Executive Search Consultant Kevin Chase 

Podcast: I’ve Seen Your Resume, Show Me YOU. Strategies to Get the Director-Level Job with Executive Search Consultant Kevin Chase

Did you know you can listen to these, along with all of our other amazing episodes, on our website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite streaming service?

Feel free to share your thoughts!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 1


Got an Idea for a Topic?

Recommend it to us!

    Please prove you are human by selecting the heart.

    How are we doing?

    Tell us your thoughts!

      Please prove you are human by selecting the star.