I was talking to a friend and mentioned that nonprofit executive directors routinely make six figures—and sometimes well into the six figures. My friend was outraged: Aren’t the executive directors working for charitable organizations? Shouldn’t they make less money?
Maybe he’s right in some virtue-filled alternative universe, but, in the real world, nonprofit executive directors have lots of responsibilities and need diverse skill sets. When you say “nonprofit” to most civilians, they imagine a relatively small organization like the local Boys and Girls Club or afternoon program for at-risk youth, usually run by a true believer executive director who only needs local knowledge and maybe some common sense (whatever that is). In reality, many nonprofits are large, with hundreds of highly trained and specialized staff delivering complex services. For example, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) might easily have an annual operating budget north of $50M, with tens of thousands of patients and hundreds of employees. In effect, larger FQHCs resemble small HMOs and provide about the same services, except for inpatient care. Large substance use disorder (SUD) treatment providers can be similarly large and complex. In both cases, the lives of the patients/clients literally depend on the quality of the services provided. So, executive director salaries mirror those of CEOs of for-profit health care providers and can easily be over $300K—which they should be, given the advanced degrees, years of experience, technical skills needed, along with the heavy responsibilities.
Many civilians also don’t understand how even simple human services are delivered: through good organizational skills and hard work. Some of the skills nonprofit executive directors increasingly need are not easily mastered:
- Sufficient technological expertise to supervise IT staff, vendors, etc. Just about every enterprise today is also a tech business, whether we want it to be or not. At S + A, tech-related stuff probably accounts for about 25% of management time.
- Managerial expertise (good management looks invisible when it’s done well and is all too visible when it’s done poorly) in both supervising the management team and line staff, as well as wrangling the Board of Directors. In a nonprofit, there are no “shareholders” and the Board sets policy, including hiring and firing the executive director. Over the years, we’ve discovered variations on the following nonprofit “coup” all too often: True believer sets up a new nonprofit and hand-picks the board; as grants and donations grow to support ever-expanding operations, the board begins to morph from true believers to professionals without a direct connect to the executive director (you can call them “competent experts” or “mercenaries” depending on how you want to shade the situation). Tensions mount, and the executive director is booted out of their own nonprofit, sometimes in a public and professionally humiliating way.
- Ability to connect with diverse stakeholders. Many nonprofits mostly serve the poorest and most marginalized persons in our society, and ideally all staff in a given organization will be able to connect with and understand such persons. But executive directors must also frequently connect with and understand white-collar donors, funders, board members, etc.
- Ability to get things done. We have all worked with people who are better at meetings than execution, or who seem not to really do much of anything, and that can’t be true of effective executive directors.
- Ability to cultivate donor relationships.
- Grant management expertise, including tracking funds, submitting timely and complete reports, and keeping the funder Program Officers happy.
- Accounting expertise.
There are probably other skills, beyond these, which are just from me thinking about the problem domain at the moment—I’m not trying to be comprehensive here, but the point is that modern nonprofit executive directors need a wide range of skills and abilities that only rarely exist in a single individual. When a set of skills is rare, the market rate for it rises. Most nonprofits, with the exception of nonprofit hospital chains, aren’t as large as even mid-size corporations, but they have become large and complex enough that the solo charismatics of an untrained and inexperienced person usually aren’t sufficient to manage a staff of dozens or hundreds of people and to maintain complex service delivery systems.
Today, small sole-proprietor shops are much less common than small or large chain stores, and something similar and analogous is happening to nonprofits. You may not like that it’s happening, but it’s happening for many reasons. Similar things are happening in business as a whole, as Tyler Cowen describes in Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero—a book that nonprofit leaders should be reading, even if they’re not engaged in profit-taking and -distributing enterprises. Nonprofits are more like businesses than is commonly realized, although I’m sure most regular GWC readers get this.
Many people will take some pay cut to work in and around nonprofits, but few people will take a 50% pay cut, relative to the salaries in their industry. Somewhere between 5% and 50%, the ability to acquire and retain functional people drops off. Nonprofits are competing against other kinds of organizations for qualified people.
This is a bit like people who bemoan the lack of computer science and other qualified teachers: in most districts, teachers in high-demand subjects like computer science can’t be paid any more than teachers in lower-demand subjects, like art or PE. As a result, there are major shortages of computer science teachers, and, arguably, surpluses of teachers in areas like art. Unless computer science teachers can be paid something that approaches their market values, most qualified computer science teachers will go work for software companies instead of school districts. (Incidentally, I’ve thought about teaching high school at various points, but I haven’t, in part due to the income ceiling.)
Some callers have also argued that Seliger + Associates charges too much, and, while this is a fine view, when prospective clients tell us this we always respond the same way: they can hire us; they can hire someone else; they can write it themselves; or they can not submit the proposal. Each of these outcomes has costs and benefits, and any given organization should choose the best outcome for them. But when there hundreds of thousands or millions of grant dollars are on the line, as is frequently the case for proposals we write, we begin to look like a bargain by comparison, since our fees range between $5,000 and $15,000 for typical proposals, regardless of the grant amount being sought. Paying $8,000 to us to write a million-dollar grant is a very good cost versus potential benefit analysis. And, if we’re hired, the executive director frees up time that can be deployed to other tasks.
In terms of executive director salaries, it’s important to remember that a bunch of stakeholders must be satisfied, including Boards of Directors, donors, grant-making entities, and others. If donors become overly obsessed with how much an executive director (or other senior managers) makes, they may wind up with organizations that are less effective than donors who are less obsessed with that exact issue. Many grant-making entities want functional organizations above all else, and are more likely to make grants to organizations with better executive directors. In the real world, better usually included higher paid.
Right now, many high-quality nonprofit management professionals also face the same toxic mix of rising costs we all do—healthcare, college education (their own student loans and the likely future student loans of their kids), and housing. The latter is really important for nonprofits in places like NYC, NY, SF, and Seattle, where the cost of even a modest housing unit can easily exceed $1M. One way to help moderate salaries in the nonprofit and public agency world is to support comprehensive zoning reform that will lower the cost of housing by increasing supply. This has (finally) become a national political issue, because costs are so outrageous that make stakeholders and voters are finally realizing that something must be done. As housing costs rise, so does pressure on every part of the US economy. Consider the crazy numbers from “Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation,” by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti:
In particular, we calculate that increasing housing supply in New York, San Jose, and San Francisco by relaxing land use restrictions to the level of the median US city would increase the growth rate of aggregate output by 36.3 percent. In this scenario, US GDP in 2009 would be 3.7 percent higher, which translates into an additional $3,685 in average annual earnings.
If just the Bay Area and NYC removed many arbitrary building restrictions, we’d all be making the equivalent of $3,600 more per year. If all cities relaxed arbitrary zoning, “US GDP in 2009 would be 8.9 percent higher under this counterfactual, which translates into an additional $8,775 in average wages for all workers.” Imagine how labor markets, including ones for nonprofit workers like teachers and executive directors, would change with almost $9,000 in implied boosted salaries! We can do this, but we’ve chosen not to as a society.
An executive director in a given market must often choose between being able to pay the high rent/purchase price or being able to stay in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits that want to stay alive must pay those rates. You may disagree with the “have to” in the title of this post. If you think you can run a nonprofit and pay below-market rates, go ahead and do it.