Can I afford to work in the nonprofit sector?

We’ve recently shared financial tips for nonprofit professionals and given advice about how to live on a small paycheck, however it’s always helpful to hear how people in different stages of their careers manage their money. Over on The Billfold, Liz Niemer, who will be starting AmeriCorps in the fall, walks us through her thought process and budgeting plans leading up to starting the low-paying position, including a chart with her expenses.

So: The numbers say AmeriCorps is going to work for me, but they might not have if it weren’t for the cheap rent I’m sharing with my boyfriend or the generosity of my parents. My parents have helped me graduate debt-free and are letting me stay on their phone plan—and thanks to Obama, also their health insurance plan. There’s no way I could afford to do this without the privileges I’ve had and continue to receive.

Even knowing I’ll have enough money to survive, I do wonder how good I’ll be at “surviving.” I’ve never had to live by a strict budget. Will counting up my daily spending be a reminder that helps me stay organized or a chore that makes me resent my job? I’ve never really used credit cards before—will my limited income make credit more appealing? I’m also worried about stalling my eventual career—will a year of AmeriCorps service make it look as though I didn’t have the motivation or skills to pursue “real” employment? I guess I’ll figure it out, and I’m excited to take this risk.

See Liz’s budget and read the rest here.

We know about the career benefits of AmeriCorps and similar public service programs, but for many people the low pay raises various challenges, including how people can manage individually and how low pay might keep people out of the sector in general.

What do you think? What advice would you give Liz and others who are wrestling with this?

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  1. As a retired schoolteacher, I thought I would be the perfect employee for a nonprofit. I didn’t need a living wage as I had a pension that would help supplement any wage a nonprofit would be paying. I also had my own health insurance. WRONG. None of the nonprofits to whom I applied seemed interested in my marketing, education, and communication experience but rather were more interested in hiring recent college graduates with little or no experience. It really made no sense to me.

  2. As someone who once was in Americorps and now an employed social worker, I find the pay at non-profits utterly disturbing. Unfortunately, it is getting worse for people interested in pursuing a social service career. I would recommend anyone looking into this field do their research and realize you will only make enough to “survive”. There is a sacrifice we must all be aware of…

    • Erin
    • June 18, 2013

    One of the reasons reasons Americorps stipends are so limited (other, than, perhaps the relative cheap-ness of the federal government) is to encourage Corps members to live in solidarity, at least temporarily, with the communities in which they’re working. I qualified for food stamps during my two Americorps terms, which gave me a newfound level of appreciation for social safety net programs.

    “I’m also worried about stalling my eventual career—will a year of AmeriCorps service make it look as though I didn’t have the motivation or skills to pursue ‘real’ employment?”

    …or will it make you look like you’re committed to your community and motivated by factors other than salary?

    • HP
    • June 19, 2013

    I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA and Peace Corps volunteer. I also have volunteered for more than ten years with several nonprofit organizations in my community. I don’t think nonprofits appreciate the level of commitment and sacrifice that voluntary service entails especially when poverty has been more than an academic concept you learn about in college but have never experienced. They still prefer to hire individuals that graduate from elite schools or that completed internships with well-known organizations that are composed of the middle class.

    The idea of turning down a job because of pay is a luxury that those who have struggled to overcome poverty and did not grow up middle class cannot afford. I have no expectation of getting rich. I just want to help others and earn enough to pay rent and my student loans.
    I would work for a lot less than most because what some consider a “low salary” would be like winning the lottery to me. Research indicates that people from impoverished communities require less of a financial incentive to work with or in such communities but this fact is lost on hiring managers.

    I can’t comprehend why nonprofits that purportedly value diversity are not more socioeconomically and culturally diverse. I am just as committed as anyone else that these organizations typically hire, if not more so, since I have been less privileged. There are plenty of us who are willing to work in the nonprofit sector but are overlooked by organizations that have a narrow definition of qualified.

      • Brenna Kaminski
      • June 25, 2013

      I sadly had to leave the Public Allies program due to the cost of living in Miami, FL and the cost of getting to my placement site. While the Public Allies program was located in down town Miami and I lived 20 minutes north (if I took toll roads) they placed me in Homestead Florida which was another 45 minutes in 0 traffic south of the main building 45 minutes was if I took all toll roads, you have to take at least 3 to get to the placement site (a personal cost of 5 dollars each way.) This combined with my budget limiting my ability to move closer to my placement site if I did not want to live in a seriously dangerous area were all factors in my decision to leave the program.

      Just yesterday as I was looking for jobs and I saw listings boasting “Competitive Salaries for full time positions in LA, D.C., Chicago and Boston. Salaries ranged from 20k to 27k depending on experience” I would like to know what person can afford to live in any of those areas on that salary with out relying on their own savings or family money, or perhaps a partner or husband who makes much much more than the employee. That is shockingly low. If you want experience, talent, and a low turn over you have to INVEST in your employees.

      1. I hear you, Brenna. With the rising food, gas, housing prices (including supervision fees, continuing ed, NASW membership, etc.), I am coming to a crossroad in my life. Is all of this worth it? I don’t know anymore.

  3. Pingback: Living on a nonprofit salary, the overhead myth, and Pride month: What happened this week? | Idealist Careers

    • Liliana
    • January 6, 2014

    I have worked in the nonprofit sector for about 10 years. At the beginning I enjoyed having a job and getting a paycheck that helped me with my expenses, now that I finished my university studies, and I am getting older I regret getting a non-profit sector paycheck… why? because the check is very small, the opportunities to increase the salary are almost non existent, the path for promotion is really limited and I have additional expenses: student loan and retirement (thanks God I don’t have a kid!). It is difficult to find a job somewhere else because all my career has been in the non-profit sector. Working in the non-profit sector suits better retirees, recent graduates, and the VERY idealistic people.

    • ryan jackson
    • September 29, 2014

    ive worked in the non profit sector as a dayhab room manager for adults with developmental disabilities. The main issue i’ve found with the pay here, is not just that it is so low, it is that it seems to only depreciate the value considering the job doesnt appropriately reflect the daily and longterm challenges we face. We get bit, slapped, punched, kicked, spit on, clean drool, full toilet changes, not to mention a 2:10 employee client ratio, we have to engage them, according to state mandate, every 15 minutes, while doing 4 individualized goals per person, plus lunch, leisure activities, run groups, plan groups and work undersupported, underappreciated and getting paid at best $12 an hour. They opt to hire relief staff as permanent staff to avoid paying benefits, so you end up with people unequipped to handle the job which increase the workload all aroud. Meanwhile i watch my clients go on vacations left and right and get things in this life i will never be able to afford because of it. i dont think they deserve less, they deserve the best. but the best staff cost money. how can i be expected to stay here forever when the cost of living heavily outweighs my income. my job puts me in debt on a weekly basis. and why doesnt management get exponentially more pay than those on the front lines doing the real work. paper work pales in comparison to the daily trials and tribulations of the average, lowly worker of theses fields. i love my guys, theyre my gets $80,000+ a year and they cant even interact on an appropriate level with the population they claim to fight for..they all run em like impersonal corporations and the systematic failure we live is testament to the misappropriated spending of government and a lack of oversight to where this money is actually going

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