How to crush your financial goals on a not-for-profit salary


So I have this weird thing where I seem to not pick very lucrative career paths. I am a former teacher. I currently work in the not-for-profit sector. Both of these fields can be enormously rewarding and interesting, and I have loved both of these career trajectories for so many reasons:

  • They are different every day (this is really important for my restless brain syndrome).
  • They are creative.
  • You work with other people, and you sometimes even get to help them (to this day, teaching kids and teenagers is one of the things that has made me feel most accomplished).
  • There is always room for growth and professional development.

Not-for-profit work can be many things. As the name suggests, however, it is not known for being super profitable.

And I am totally okay with that. I have come to realize that money is not a huge motivator for me. I need some of it, I want a little more of it…but then I’m pretty much good. Rolling into six-figure territory was never a huge priority for me when I was building my life and making career decisions. Although that mindset is slowly shifting (cause let’s be honest, I would not complain about making more money), I am very happy working in the non-profit world.

Since entering the personal finance realm, however, I have been faced with a lot of stark realizations about my finances. Many of these revolve around my income bracket.

And I have been faced with the inevitable question:

Can I make my financial goals happen on my modest income?

Answer: duh, obviously.

Having a not-for-profit salary is no excuse for not killing it in your financial life. But there are a few things that may help you along the way to manage both your expectations and your more limited means:


Reap the rewards of those sweet, sweet benefits.

Salary may be a limiting factor for a lot of not-for-profits, but you know what often isn’t? The benefits package. One of my employers more than doubled my pension contributions. Amazing.

I have also negotiated for my benefits to start right away, and not after the typical three-month probation period. This added thousands of additional dollars to my pension, and provided me with much-needed health insurance during those three months.

Added bonus: NGOs seem to rock vacation time, flexible work arrangements, and a host of other things that will make your work life way more awesome.

Be realistic about potential for salary growth and plan accordingly

You can make a good living in the not-for-profit sector. Many NGOs do offer salaries that are competitive – they just may not be able to scale in the way that you see in other (read: corporate) industries. Can you eventually earn a six-figure salary working at an NGO? For sure. But the not-for-profit world is generally going to compensate a similar skill set at a much lower rate than the corporate world. Check out this tidbit from Canadian Charity Law when it comes to paying CEOs:

“Even so, charities tend to pay less than private sector firms for similar competencies. For example, the charities in our study pay a median total compensation of roughly $150,000, compared to median salaries at S&P 500 companies of $1 million, excluding bonus packages and stock options that drive the median compensation up to $6.6 million.”

Overall, my advice is to be realistic about salary potential. Think carefully about your current role and your future career trajectory in the not-for-profit arena. Can you move up, and when and how would you be able to do that? Where will your salary max out? Some jobs are just never going to pay more than 50K a year. Are you okay with that? If you are, awesome! But if you’re not, you need to map your career accordingly.

Build the appropriate skill sets that make you competitive for moving up and working as a senior program officer or in an upper-management position at a larger NGO. Consider what areas of the non-profit world (e.g. fundraising) may be more profitable if this is something that is important to you.

You should still negotiate your salary.

It is already difficult to ask for more money when negotiating in a corporate environment. But I felt superrrr awkward asking for more money from an NGO. At the end of the day, though, you are providing a valuable skill set that deserves to be compensated fairly. I had to remind myself this about forty thousand times when I made a counter offer.

But it worked for me, and it can work for you too.


Be ready to side hustle.

But you already knew this was coming! Yes, yes you did. But the thing is, I didn’t. Until pretty recently, I really thought my 9-to-5 was the end of the road. I was too exhausted at the end of a workday, and I “deserved” to be able to relax (i.e. lounge around watching Netflix) every night.

In fact, working outside of work could be the very thing that separates me from just getting by every month and actually achieving financial wellness.  

I do make a good living at my current job. But supplementing it with an extra $5-10,000 a year?

That bump is what I need to make my financial goals happen, unless I want to be ridiculously frugal (which, I just can’t).

The great news is that education and not-for-profit work already set you up for some potentially lucrative (and enjoyable!) side hustles. You already have valuable and in-demand skills – if you decide you want to make extra money with it, there is no reason you can’t.

Here are some awesome things in both fields you can do to add some extra to your bottom line every month:

  • Coaching
  • Tutoring
  • Facilitating PD workshops/online courses for other educators
  • Proctoring/invigilating exams
  • Grading exams/assessments
  • Passage/item writing
  • Consulting
  • Researching
  • Freelance writing

And finally, the single best thing you can do if you want to make it on a not-for-profit salary:

Track your spending and live within your means.

Most people are terrible at doing this, regardless of their income bracket.


So beat out the rest by making an annual budget, using Mint, having a spending journal, ditching your credit cards (or all of the above!) – whatever it is you need to spend less than you earn.

Not-for-profit work can be beyond amazing, and there is no reason that you cannot destroy all your financial goals on a not-for-profit salary.

Is anyone else working in the non-profit sector (or another “traditionally underpaid” career)? What have you done to chart a successful career path?

5 thoughts on “How to crush your financial goals on a not-for-profit salary

  1. Consulting is a very lucrative field if you have the time to get into it. I recently was asked by an old co-worker to help for a few hours a week with his consulting work. In addition, the rates you can charge are a lot more than what you can get at a day job!!

    Thanks for the post, looking forward to reading more of your content 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you enjoyed it! My consulting experience is pretty limited, but I am really looking to scale it up – both for earning potential and the flexibility it affords! Would love to hear more if you are able to get some consulting work going on the side 🙂


  2. I make way more in the public sector than I ever did as a journalist! Which baffles my best friend who thinks public always < less than private (and doesn't get that publishing is essentially non profit and actually loss making in many cases). Great tips here 👊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your perspective. It is funny, isn’t it, some people seem to think working in the public sector is automatically signing up for living below the poverty line when you can actually make a good living at it!

      I was definitely trying to strike that balance in this post – that not-for-profit and public sector work can be well-compensated, but that there are nonetheless realities about earning potential that may need to be considered. Such an interesting point about publishing/journalism as well, I never thought of it that way before but that’s so true!


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