ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Friday, February 25, 2011 - 2:10pm
Stephanie La Loggia, M.A.

Manager of Knowledge Resources
ASU Lodestar Center

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert from our academic faculty to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.

Oh, the high-wire balancing act of nonprofit CEO compensation. Pay your CEO too little, and you won’t attract a skilled leader. Pay too much, and you’ll raise the eyebrows (or ire) of donors, clients, volunteers, and anyone else who looks up your 990 in one keystroke. And should a nonprofit really go over the top with CEO pay, the IRS will come knocking at the door.

What’s an impact-driven nonprofit organization to do? Two things come to mind. First, consult the research and data available on nonprofit CEO compensation. Comparable compensation data helps recruitment and hiring, and protects against excessive compensation claims. For nonprofits in Maricopa and Pima counties, the latest issue of Nonprofit Research Abridged details CEO compensation across budget size and type.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, join in on the conversation about CEO compensation. What are your thoughts on this issue? What has your organization experienced? Did a raise or a bonus help retain an effective CEO? Did you lose a successful CEO to another organization, or another sector, because of compensation? What benefits and perks are important to recruiting and retaining an effective CEO?

These are important questions. We are, after all, asking our nonprofit CEOs to take on enormous tasks: things like, "can you and your organization feed the hungry?—oh and while you're at it, can you please end all hunger everywhere?" Or, "Please give this family a place to stay for the night; and why don't you see if you can eliminate homelessness in the meantime?" Or, how about this one: "Make sure these kids stay busy and have fun; but what we really need is for them to be successful in school, contribute at home, and work effectively with people from different cultures towards a better world."

As I'm sure you know, I am not exaggerating by much! With goals like this, the leader at the helm is incredibly important, and his or her job satisfaction—including her or his feelings about compensation—is crucial.

One of my favorite research reports is Daring to Lead, published by CompassPoint and the Meyer Foundation. The report details the challenges and perspectives of nonprofit CEOs in an elegant blend of statistical findings and personal voices. Everyone that works with a nonprofit CEO should read this report. And those of you who are nonprofit CEOs are sure to find some kindred voices there!

When it comes to compensation, most CEOs feel they are making significant financial sacrifices to lead their nonprofit. However, only 26% of them have ever negotiated a raise—mostly due to their acute awareness of the organization’s financial constraints. And yet, approximately nine percent of nonprofit CEOs leave their organizations each year—many of them for better paying jobs, often in philanthropy or consulting.

I was pleased to learn that Daring to Lead will be published again this year, drawing on data that was collected from thousands of nonprofit CEOs across the country in the fall of 2010. We will alert you when this study is available.


Paying the CEO's and staff of a nonprofit is a delicate issue to balance. I know from my own personal experience as a nonprofit student, I really had to educate myself in order to change my perspective about fair compensation. Its easy to get carried away with our emotions when it comes to the work that nonprofits do in the social sector, but I have realized that they are still businesses, and every business needs income to be successful.
I recently looked at the 990 of an organization I have been involved with, and was shocked at how much its costs an organization to pay staff. At first when I looked at the total amount of money that was spent on salaries I thought, "oh my gosh that's way too much!" However, when I divided the total amount by how many staff there were, I realized that the amount spent was actually very reasonable per person. Paying staff adds up!

I agree and can easily understand how difficult it can be for pleasing both the CEO and the people looking into the organization especially after the discussion we had in class. I think that link that you provided gave some good insight into how to decide what is most appropriate with the national averages and the budget size of the organization. I think it will always be somewhat difficult for outsiders looking at how much the CEO makes in any organization because they don't quite understand how complex the job is and how many people are affected by what they do every year. The CEO has the enormous task of taking what the organization has and deciding what is the most effective way to use the money every year. The higher up in budget size, the more intricate the task is to effectively carry out the mission of the organization because more people can be reached as well as greater usage of the money that will further the cause. The example of the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation makes approximately $990,000 every year yet in light of the multi-billion dollar budget of the organization, it seems worthy to pay your top person a decent amount for handling such an enormous mount of money effectively. So I think anywhere that is comparable to the average salaries of CEO's with the budget size from the link is a good measure to what is most appropriate.

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