Setting Salaries to Grow Your Nonprofit

Nonprofit SalariesThe salaries of nonprofit employees – especially those of executives – tend to draw more scrutiny and controversy than those of the private sector.

As tax-exempt organizations, nonprofits should establish a series of best practices for selecting salaries. For nonprofit managers, this involves understanding regulatory restrictions, and creating a documented path to provide proper compensation for each member of the organization.

The guidelines below will aid you in defining value for your team members, while protecting your nonprofit from unfortunate IRS penalties.

Do Legwork, Not Guesswork

If you’re in a management position at your organization, we can be sure you’ve got a bright mind. Unfortunately, that’s not enough for you to define what qualifies as an appropriate salary level for every position.

The NonProfit Times crunched the numbers in 2014 to find average salaries for 236 positions within nonprofit organizations. Can you guess how much an average Chief Marketing Officer made in a year? What about a graphic artist? The answers were $110,000 for the former and $45,000 for the latter. If your guesses weren’t within $2,000 of the real answers, you may need some calibration to your salary clairvoyance.

Assuming, estimating, and even relying on your own past experience are all faulty methods for determining the appropriate salary for your employees. Spend time doing the work necessary to compare what other nonprofits offer for similar positions, and create a salary range flexible enough to adapt to variances in experience and market demand. You may want to purchase surveys that show average wages and benefits for nonprofits, especially those of the same size as yours. Survey information generally doesn’t cost much, and you can utilize these surveys to further analyze other positions within your nonprofit, and scour for wage gaps within your organization.

Plan Ahead for Raises

The legwork in the above point will help you determine initial salary levels — but as time goes on, you’ll also need to offer sufficient raises to hardworking employees. Create a consistent set of benchmarks that work for your nonprofit, and apply them to all positions across the board. You may not be able to reach industry standards in your first year or two, and not every employee will agree with the standards you have set, but having a documented and concerted plan will save you plenty of grief in the future.

Assess your current staff, and determine whether or not each person’s absence would greatly affect the team’s output or efficiency — especially knowing what you do about the market value for each job title. This exercise will help you identify exactly who should be given raises first (and soon), before they leave for better-paying positions at other organizations.

Explore More Benefits

Too many managers seem to forget the significance of benefits packages. There are a lot of ways to attract and retain employees beyond increasing salaries. Your staff may appreciate the flexibility of their schedules, or the amount of vacation/sick days they are granted each year. Some nonprofits truncate their schedules in the summertime, or make Fridays work-from-home days. Others provide occasional staff lunches or treats, as fun morale boosters. These benefits aren’t intended to replace a bump in salary (these perks shouldn’t be used in place of a raise), but they can be powerful complementary pieces to include in your compensation plan.

For executives, benefits may include a company-covered car, reserved parking, or travel expenses for a spouse or partner. Benefits can also help employees plan for the future, through supplemental insurance, retirement plans, or company-provided financial counseling. Explore all of the options available and consider which ones may offer the most value to your key employees.

Follow the Law to Avoid IRS Punishment

While you seek to employ the best in their field — and often that means offering competitive wages — your nonprofit’s salary packages must fall under IRS guidelines for reasonable compensation. That means you can’t get overly generous with your salary offerings to key executive employees. Punishments can include revocation of tax-exempt status, or (more likely) hefty intermediate sanctions.

Intermediate Sanctions

An intermediate sanction is an excise tax imposed upon a “disqualified person” who receives an unreasonably large salary and the person(s) who authorized that salary. A “disqualified person” must be in a “position to exercise substantial influence over […] the organization.” This includes executives, board members, other substantial contributors, and family members of the aforementioned list.

The specific excise tax imposed is 25% of the excess amount, with a further penalty of 200% if the first sanction is not paid on time. The managers responsible for permitting the unreasonable salary are punished with a 10% excise tax of the excess amount, up to $10,000 per transaction.

Demonstrating Reasonableness

The good news is the IRS presumes compensation is inherently reasonable unless proven otherwise, so long as the nonprofit abides by standard procedures — known as a “rebuttable presumption of reasonableness.” The spirit of reasonable compensation is that enterprises in the same position as yours would similarly value the role in question.

As long as a nonprofit provides documentation explaining its basis for the salary, uses “appropriate data” (see below) to select the salary, and approves the salary by an authorized body within the organization, the requirements for reasonable compensation have been met. The IRS shoulders the burden of demonstrating otherwise. Nonprofits would be wise to accrue the comparability data, authorization, and documentation in advance of the compensation approval, to further protect themselves from an IRS inquiry.

What’s Appropriate Data?

Using “appropriate data” refers to utilizing comparative studies (undertaken by the nonprofit itself or a third party) to determine benchmarks for salaries, corresponding to the value of the position. For organizations with $1 million or less in gross receipts, compensation for similar positions provided by three comparable organizations fulfills the definition of “appropriate data.”

Forms 990 and Part I of Schedules A (filed with the IRS and open to public acquisition) often provide the necessary figures to determine reasonable benchmarks for nonprofit salaries. Note that nonprofits may, at their discretion, use for-profit organizations to determine market rates — as long as the job title, organization size, and organizational mission are similar in nature.

Setting Accurate Salaries Draws Great Staff

Analyzing salaries is never the most pleasant of discussions, but if you don’t strategize for who you are paying and how much, you risk losing your best employees. Nonprofit workers naturally love the opportunity to fulfill a mission that provides for their community or society; but they can’t work underpaid for long. Establishing salary guidelines and precedents for raises not only bolsters feelings of goodwill within your nonprofit, but when done appropriately, maintains public trust and lessens risk for your organization.

Planning Your Nonprofit Organization: A Primer on Writing a Nonprofit Business Plan

Nonprofit Business Plan TemplateIn the corporate jungle, the nonprofit is a very different animal. From its purpose and goals to its bottom line, a nonprofit organization operates in a unique manner, one that is essential to understanding, for successful entry into that specific market niche. Much of the nonprofit business plan is focused on tax issues and compliance (rather than sales and profitability), with such nuances requiring thoughtful and careful planning.

If you are contemplating the formation of a nonprofit entity, research is your best friend, followed by the crafting of a careful business plan — one that clearly states organizational direction. Is forming a nonprofit in your future? Consider the following:


Various types of companies and businesses usually form nonprofits, from educational organizations to religious entities to charities.


Many potential Nonprofits apply for, and qualify for, 501(c)(3) status.


The primary benefits to nonprofit classification are, 1) limited liability for certain management team members, and 2) assorted tax breaks.

Additional Benefits

Qualifying 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporations can take advantage of various benefits afforded them. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Federal income tax exemption
  • Public and private grant eligibility
  • Tax-deductible donations
  • Reduced rate postage

Points to Consider

The most obvious difference in designing a nonprofit business plan over a traditional business plan is that the focus is not profit-centric. From Business 101 onward, every business plan was designed to elucidate the path to profitability as the beginning and ending goal. Not so with a nonprofit, which centers almost exclusively on organizational purpose.

A nonprofit’s business plan also has a significantly different target audience — the IRS — with equally different concerns and prerequisites. In order to satisfy the parameters for nonprofit incorporation, it is vital to work with a knowledgeable partner/team in creating a realistic business plan that will provide the best chance for nonprofit acceptance.

As forming a nonprofit is such a specialized undertaking, deferring to a seasoned guide on the developmental steps is imperative to one’s success. A wealth of topics on nonprofit activities, strategies, etc. can be found here:

In researching the nonprofit model, it is essential to design a concise business plan. The internet provides a wealth of valuable resources to offer a number of nonprofit business plan templates to use as reference points. Several good examples can be found here:


The fundamental differences in nonprofit business plans over traditional business plans are numerous, and require careful consideration and review. When dealing with the Federal Government, every “i” must be dotted and “t” must be crossed, then checked and rechecked for conformity to governmental guidelines. Though the prospect of forming a nonprofit may seem initially daunting, the process is not nearly as intimidating as it appears. Armed with the right information, operational strategy, and keen attention to administrative detail, you can establish a nonprofit with minimal problems.


Forget “Donor Management.” It’s Time to Talk About “Donor Partnership.”

Donor Management Tips“Donor management” is a common phrase used to describe the way fundraising staff interact with donors. You’ll often hear about “donor management software” and “donor moves management.” As the CEO of Oliver Scholars, a nonprofit organization with a 30-year track record of success, I believe it is a good idea for development professionals to think in terms of “donor partnership” than “donor management.” Donors are your key partners in the fundraising process. Donors want your organization to succeed and can be your most passionate champions. In fact, a good partnership can change the entire trajectory of an organization’s fundraising. Successful partnerships with donors can result in major gifts that make possible an expansion of staff, program, and results. On the flip side, organizations that fail to maintain strong partnerships with donors often see their funding decline. They may even have to close their doors, leaving the individuals and communities they serve without critical resources and services. While every partnership is different, we believe the following five guidelines can help ensure a vibrant organization-donor relationship:

Consider Everyone a Potential Donor

Every individual who interacts with the organization should be considered a potential donor, and ensure that every experience that individuals have with the organization offer them the opportunity to feel close and connected with the mission. Always offer individuals who interact the chance to learn more about the organization’s impact, who you serve, and feel the mission in a way that is personal for them.

Make it Easy. Being a donor is harder than you may think. Often it isn’t easy to find the information you are looking for an organization’s website. Other times it isn’t clear which staff member to call for assistance or even to make a gift. Fundraising professionals (and all staff members) need to think of themselves as “personal concierges” who strive to provide donors with exceptional service. Make sure you provide all the information they will need to attend an event (date, time, location, room, directions, etc.) Your donors are investing their money in your organization; they deserve white-glove service. You want to make it as easy as possible for someone to work with your organization so that they are eager to contribute.

Listen More Than You Talk. Very few people prefer to be talked at rather than listened to. Donors are no exception. They want to tell you about their lives, their interests, and their reasons for giving. The more you listen, the better you will understand a donor’s motivation. And the more you understand a donor’s motivation, the better your case for support to the donor can be. If a donor has no interest in 80% of what your organization does and loves 20%, that is important to know – no need to waste your time sharing details about topics that don’t interest the donor. For instance, at Oliver Scholars, we have some donors who care greatly about our preparation program for high school and others who care most about where our students ultimately go to college. We individualize communication based on our audience.

5 Tips Donor Management Ask for input. Partnerships involve give and take. Donors are investors who not only want to share their money but also their insight and advice. You don’t have to take all the advice you are given, but at least be open to hearing what your donors think. You already know that their values align with yours because they have chosen to invest in your mission. An outsider’s perspective can be invaluable. At Oliver Scholars, we regularly solicit feedback from our donors through email queries, one-on-one meetings, committee discussions, and board meetings.

Keep your donors informed. Donors want to know where there money is going. What are your organization’s recent achievements? Give your donors a chance to celebrate them with you by keeping them informed. Of course, quantitative results are always better than vague descriptions of success. Have there been setbacks? Donors appreciate honesty and transparency. No donor wants to be surprised by learning bad news from a third party. Meanwhile, don’t forget to invite donors to program related events! Give them a chance to meet staff, clients, and other partners.

Remember that donors don’t owe you anything. It’s easy to fall into the habit of expecting donors to give (and getting annoyed when they don’t). But donors don’t owe you anything. It’s their money. How would you like it if someone expected you to hand over your hard-earned cash? Every gift a donor makes is an act of generosity. That means there is nothing more important than saying “thank you!” Your “thank you” needs to be heartfelt, timely, and personalized. (A form letter will not do!)  Pick up the phone, send a card, at the very least, write a personal note on that tax acknowledgment letter. Without proper stewardship, even your most loyal donors may drift away.

Branding A “Cop College” in the Age of Social Unrest

Learn how to brand your nonprofitReflecting on various themes and insights to discuss in an article about branding, I kept coming back to the experience I had working with John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the dramatic impact this program has produced for the college. This ignited my decision to present this program as a framework for discussing all of the issues surrounding a comprehensive branding program, from its inception through its evolution and enrichment. One of the valuable by-products of discussing the John Jay brand is the role it, and its President, have played in addressing the inflammatory issues surrounding social and criminal justice these past five years.

The Challenge

The college has been around for 50 years, founded at a time not unlike the present day when there was deep concern about the role of police and urban American issues of race, conflict and violence. When a number of national commissions recommended that police officers get a college education to better prepare for their role, John Jay was formed to serve as the police academy of the New York City Police Department. It offered courses on Shakespeare, chemistry and social sciences, as well as criminal justice and law. Fast-forward to today, John Jay is now a college of 15,000 students offering a broad range of majors. Some students still go into law enforcement, but an increasing number are moving on to medical school, law school and a wide variety of professions.

As part of the City University of New York (CUNY), the largest public urban university in the world with over 500,000 students, the college provides access to students who come from immigrant and working-class backgrounds where higher education is not typically part of the family conversation. When Jeremy Travis was appointed President over a decade ago, the institution initiated a major transformation program. They became a full four-year liberal arts college, phased out the Associate’s Degree, and accepted baccalaureate, masters and doctoral students. This put pressure on the college to raise its profile in the world of philanthropy, corporate affairs and civic life.

Coping with this major transformation, in the words of President Travis, “brought to the surface some deep questions about our identity and our future and past and how we were going to reconcile where we wanted to be—our aspirations against our history. The notion of John Jay as a vocational school, trade school or a cop college was a drag on our identity. This limiting image got in the way of recruiting the best faculty and best students, raising money for research and new projects and positioning the college nationally and internationally.”

Purpose – The Prerequisite for a Distinctive Brand Identity

To lay the foundation for the brand platform, we emphasized that a brand identity is derived from a clearly defined purpose—your overriding reason for being, what problems you are trying to solve, and the driving force behind the college’s strategies, decisions and investments.  In other words, Your True North.  Given all the disruption and change at the college, defining a clear and upbeat purpose would provide coherence for the faculty, students, alumni, Board and donors. It could be their positioning or be the force behind a distinctive, memorable positioning.

When we work on a project of this scale, we structure our research into three areas. One, the dynamics of the market they are operating in. Two, the multiplicity of audiences that we want to engage with and support the college. And, what we believe to be the most critical consideration: Engaging all the stakeholder groups on the campus to define the culture, unique strengths and passions that provide the foundation for defining the college’s purpose, positioning and voice.

In looking into the competitive educational space they were operating in we found

a profusion of noise in the marketplace.  We looked for opportunities to differentiate the college. Who’s in the space? How are they positioning their programs? What do they stand for? How is John Jay perceived? What are the misconceptions about John Jay? Do we see any leverage points—how can we move the needle, differentiate the college and opportunities to own a new and exciting brand identity.

Know Your Audience (They Know the Answer)

We had to address a vast array of audiences who have influence in any educational institution. The Provost, Deans, and Faculty will play an active role in bringing support and credibility to any brand identity program. The students were a particularly challenging audience. The student body is incredibly diverse, politically correct, financially challenged and eager to translate their education into a job. An upbeat and informed alumni is be critical to making this transformation successful. Finally, the college has an accomplished Foundation Board that plays a vital role in raising financing for special programs, research and events.

Our process for drawing out the unique character, programs, and passions at the college was highly interactive and engaging for all stakeholder groups on the campus. We made presentations to the faculty senate. We held extensive focus group sessions with students and conducted individual interviews with all of the members of the Board. We went outside the college to talk with leaders in the educational market and media and reviewed all the literature produced by the marketing and public affairs departments. And we carefully studied every speech their exceptionally articulate president had ever given.

It’s What’s Insight that Counts

All this research brought to the surface deep insights about the college’s identity and how we might reconcile where the president and his leadership team wanted to be—their aspirations against their history, their future versus their past. We had to articulate any contradictions and tensions that needed to be resolved before we could move forward. The college had already completed a market research study, which provided invaluable information about where John Jay stood in the market, how they compared to competitors, and opportunities to differentiate the college from competitors. It indicated how the students felt about the college, what they were looking for in the future and what their parents were looking for. Some of the most interesting and salient insights came from in-depth interviews with guidance counselors in high schools.

Connecting the Dots to Create a Breakthrough Brand Identity Program

All the research findings confirmed that John Jay had been transformed into the preeminent national and international leader in educating for justice—a broadly envisioned educational experience embracing social, economic, political and criminal justice. A new and exciting vision for education in justice provided its students with the skills, insights and passion to become positive agents of change.

We found that John Jay students were defined by their resilience, their passion for justice and their aspiration to public service. The college’s focus according to President Travis “… is to subject this passion to the rigors of critical thinking and analysis and to test and support their aspirations by building bridges between the world of intellect and imagination and the world of practice.”

Courage, resilience, integrity, progress and impact—the attributes of the John Jay community—was captured in a inspiring and bold PURPOSE for the college:

Fierce Advocates for Justice

It is important to emphasize that this purpose statement is not an advertising slogan. It is a standard bearer of what the college stands for, a rallying cry and a lens for making strategic decisions. It dramatically sets the college apart from its competitors. This is enhanced by the fact that President Travis is an authentic and articulate spokesperson for this proactive new direction.

The purpose statement then provided the foundation for the college’s positioning statement:


We also wanted to reinforce that John Jay looked at JUSTICE through many different lenses by developing a graphic that imbedded the many faces of justice—from criminal to religious to political and, for the English faculty, poetic—into their traditional EDUCATING FOR JUSTICE tag line.

Another critical element in this program is the brand voice—the way we speak to all of the constituents with a distinctive, clear and authentic voice across all platforms.

We felt the college’s communications should be BOLD, HUMAN, DYNAMIC and CLEAR. As fierce advocates for justice and leaders of change, we want to inspire people to stand up and take notice.

“It has given us a language. The multiple definitions of justice allow us to talk about  expression and our value proposition in an effective way. It has helped us in talking to and recruiting new students, promoting scholarships and positioning the college for the future,” according to President Travis.

“Yes this Captures Us”

When this strategy work was presented to the president and his staff, the faculty, and the foundation board, it was approved with enthusiasm. They sensed that it captured who they were, their institutional values, educational philosophy, aspirations and distinctiveness. Unlike experiences I have had with a few other institutions, we were able to immediately move ahead to build out the program without getting distracted by layers of approvals from various committees that would disrupt and complicate things. In the words of the dean of the advertising business, David Ogilvy:

Search the parks in all your cities

You’ll find no statues of committees.

The final element we had to consider was the visual identity system. We conducted an audit of all the college’s communications. When we showed the displays of disparate and uncoordinated materials produced across the college, President Travis said, “Oh my Lord, what have we done?” 

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The focal point of the new visual identity is a big, bold, powerful expression for John Jay. The design system featured upbeat photography in the print materials, elegant videos and a refreshed website. The organization’s PURPOSE was stenciled in large type on walls along with the graphic depicting the expanded definition of justice. We maintained continuity across all the publications by using JUSTICE in the names—Justice Matters is the name of the semi-annual magazine sent to all students, faculty, alumni and thought leaders in the justice field.

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This was a “big, bold statement” that felt appropriate for a major New York City institution and a fierce advocate for justice.

Good Things Come in Threes

There are three programs that have been extremely effective for John Jay.

  • A fundraising campaign
  • The Justice Awards
  • An exciting advertising program launched earlier this year to build the college’s visibility and attract the best high school seniors in the region

Justice Should be Supported

To support its first significant fundraising campaign, the college prepared a handsome, fact-filled newsprint magazine, 10 Exciting Reasons To Support The Ongoing Transformation of John Jay. It contained a comprehensive explanation of the reimagined academic programs, the revitalized faculty—including background on Pulitzer and Presidential award winners, a presentation of the major research programs, the global reach of its programs, and a listing of John Jay graduates with leadership positions in the public and private sector.  The information in this publication provided invaluable source material for proposals, presentations and other communications.

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Justice Should be Rewarded

Every two years we provide Justice Awards to three people who are fierce advocates of justice. Elie Weisel is one of the recent awardees. Last year Gloria Steinem, Bryan Stevenson, and Anthony McGill were honored for their accomplishments in the face of injustice.

“All over the world, I hear children say two things: it’s not fair, and you’re not the boss of me!” – Gloria Steinem

“Most of us think, if theres places in our community where there is despair and neglect, stay as far away from those places as possible. I think justice means the opposite. I don’t think we can do justice until we get proximate to the places where injustice prevails.” – Bryan Stevenson, the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative

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Justice Can Be Your Vocation

Finally, the college introduced an extremely successful advertising campaign on the New York City subways. The first ad copy said, “Go To Any College To Learn To Write Code. Come Here If You Want To Learn How To Right Wrongs. There are seven ads in the campaign that were viewed by over 6 million subway riders, along with 2 million connections on a special digital version.

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Program Impact

This program has been a major force in the success John Jay has experienced in the past 4 to 5 years. Here are just a few highlights:

  • Annual fund raising increased 60% when the program was first introduced and has continued to grow at similar rates since. The number of alumni donors has jumped by 35%, and alumni have contributed over 50% more in recent years.
  • There has been at least a 34% increase in applications since the advertising campaign was mounted.
  • The foundation board has successfully recruited 12 new highly motivated and accomplished members including alumni, business leaders and not-for-profit executives.
  • The college ranked #3 in the Military Times “Best Programs for Vets.”

So let me tell you how this program fits so well with this institution and to me personally,” President Travis mentioned in his annual address. “When we welcome a new class we say—‘Welcome to a community of fierce advocates for justice.’ When we first opened our new building, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended.

When I introduced her I said: ‘Secretary Clinton, you occupy a position once held by our founding father John Jay. Welcome to John Jay. You too are a fierce advocate for justice.”

Fierce Advocates for Justice.  Those four words have given John Jay a powerful identity and a reenergized future.  Our work here is done.

Is Your Nonprofit’s Branding Strategy Fatally Flawed?

Nonprofit Branding Marketing Strategy You’ve got a great cause and the passion to pursue it – but how’s your marketing? Are you making a fatal mistake with your branding?

If marketing were easy, everyone would excel at it.

Thing is, it’s not. There’s a lot that goes into devising a successful marketing strategy. You need to know your target audience, for one – you need to know what they’re looking for, and what resonates with them. You need to understand what they care about, and what sort of language they best relate to.

But more importantly, you need to understand yourself, too. What’s your core message? What sort of personality do you want your brand to have? And sure, you want to make the world a better place – but how do you intend to do that, exactly?

And why do you want to?

These are all questions you need to ask yourself at the outset, before you even think of hosting any sort of charity event. Because if you don’t know the answer to them, you can’t rightly expect anyone else to, either. As a result, your messaging will end up blurry and confused – and it’ll inevitably wind up getting lost in the noise made by the thirty other nonprofits that are trying to attract your audience’s attention.

Of course, even if your branding is on-message, you also need to think about how your logo looks.

“The two big reasons nonprofits often deal with brand confusion is that their logos are matchy-matchy,” reads a post by branding agency Frog-Dog. “In innocent cases, it’s because a color or symbol signifies something related to the cause. So many cardiovascular and HIV/AIDS causes pick red, and cardiovascular causes play with heart icons while HIV/AIDS causes incorporate red ribbons. The problem is that it becomes difficult for the average person to distinguish between the brands.”

What can you do about that, though? A few things, actually:

  • Avoid using multiple logos for the same nonprofit. Just as your messaging needs to convey the same sort of language and personality on every platform, your branding needs to be unified and
  • Avoid aping what other nonprofits in your field have already done with their logos. While it’s alright to use similar colors or imagery, do something interesting with them. Be unique – don’t just settle on the imagery common to your cause.
  • If you see another organization infringing on your logo, do something about it. If you allow copycats to flourish, then even the most unique logo will end up looking boring and samey.
  • Design your brand logo with your audience in mind. Ask yourself what sort of imagery your target demographic would love to see in a logo, and see if you can make something from that.

If you’re running a nonprofit, it’s to make the world a better place – and that’s awesome. But good intentions aren’t all you need to be successful. Without an understanding of marketing and knowledge of branding, even the best intentions won’t bring people to your side.

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