Are Non Profits Dying Because They Don’t Pay Well?


My friend Wayne Elsey is an extraordinary guy. He has built one of the most successful non profit organization in the world. During the last 5 years, Soles 4 Souls has gone from 0 to over a 70-million dollar annual budget organization. I’m thankful to have been a partner from early on. My company, The A Group, has developed and their online fund-raising site. Wayne has written a book I believe every leader should read, “Almost Isn’t Good Enough.” This is not only his story of starting and growing S4S, but a very practical tool for business and ministry leaders everywhere. Chapter 2 has stuck with me, and I can’t get it out of my mind: Build the Community You Want, Not the One You Can Afford.

According to Elsey, finding the best people for the job and hiring them at competitive wages (competitive with the market place and not other non-profits) is key in building a high performance organization. If you want to make an impact, find the best and pay them well.

That hasn’t been the norm. Usually we find good people and offer them a lot less to work for “a job that matters.” So their choice is either to work for good money at the market place or work for peanuts in ministry or for a not-for-profit. Most heads of ministry justify their low wages on the basis of donor expectations, citing that their donors would be upset if they paid competitive wages. That’s not how Wayne sees it:

I’m growing weary of the long-winded, ill-informed conversations about what donors care about and what they don’t. Donors are not upset and outraged by how much people are paid. Donors want impact, results, and the opportunity to make a larger footprint through your cause or organization. What donors react to negatively is when the lines of expense and impact have been crossed and the net result is more expense than impact.

I think he’s spot on. I tell my clients often that something is only expensive if it doesn’t work. I don’t care how much it costs. A low-wage, low-performance employee is not a cost savings. He’s a liability. I don’t think S4S would be giving out a pair of shoes every 7 seconds if Wayne had surrounded himself with well-meaning and yet low-capacity employees.

How do you feel about ministry or not-for-profit paying competitive wages to their employees?

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  • Dang! That's some good stuff here. Love it and a great reminder.

  • Spot on post. A great leader is worth his/her pay. The flip is also true, though. On the mission field (where folks were supported by the generosity of others), we experienced people who took that for granted and basically had a paid-for extended vacation. If salaries are good and competitive, there must be checks and balances in place to assure donors their money is going toward actual, productive work.

    • I have always had a problem with low performance no matter where, but specially in ministry.

  • This is such a good insight. As a wife for a dynamic leader in ministry for the past 11 years, I've seen him struggle with that question– work for a competitive wage and provide for my family OR do a job he loves and that "matters" {not at all, that secular jobs don't matter, but just saying that for the sake of argument}. And it is a constant struggle in his career and one that he often re-visits.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking insight.

  • JBussell

    Great post and I love this philosophy. I have had several conversations recently about what certain positions in ministry and non-profits should or shouldn't make. I essentially said the same thing as you, "If you want someone that's good at what they do, you have to pay the accordingly." It doesn't matter if it's a business or a ministry, you get what you pay for. On the other hand, I also believe you have to perform up to what is expected and/or paid for as well.

    • Absolutely. Performance is not optional, it's a must no matter what you're being paid.

  • vikkihuisman

    Thanks for posting this. As a person who works in ministry, along with my spouse, we're asking ourselves that question right now.

  • …adam

    This was a very interesting read. I work for a established non-profit and had my year review recently. Turning in my portfolio of work, I also showed the salary ranges for someone doing my exact job (with less experience) and the amount those jobs (non-profit and for-profit) pay, which was considerably more.

    All talk of a raise or salary increase at all was quickly squelched, and while I believe strongly in this non profit and what we set out to do, it is a fine line to walk of how should we be compensated vs what we are willing to sacrifice for the the mission of our org.

    All that to say, any more insight into this would be greatly helpful. And I look forward to reading the book, seems like there is a lot of great insight and tangible help.

  • I totally agree. After running a private school for 13 years, I never once woke up and stopped asking "Why do we have to accept mediocrity and excuses for our salaried teachers?" It just forced me to think different about how to run a non profit like a for profit business, not just a good cause.

  • I actually feel bad for my friends who work in ministry or non-profit and don't make competitive wages. If anything they should be paid MORE than market value.

    Competitive wages help attract and retain top talent. Let the artists starve. Pastors and social workers shouldn't have too.

  • Amy

    As someone who has had to stay out of the non-profit market because I need to pay rent and buy food, I would love if this would catch on. And as someone who hopes to open her own non-profit in the near future, it's good information to store away in the brain bank. Thanks!

  • Tim

    I've worked for one major non-profit for 26 years now (17 yrs internationally, 9 state side)
    It hasn't always been easy financially. I've challenged leadership to select qualified employees, suggesting they pay them more than me because they are more qualified and can leverage the investment in them. I know from experience that their value will make the ministry what it needs to be for God's glory. To this point leadership struggle with a variable pay scale but I see progress.

  • Mike

    What I struggle with is that in both profit and non-profit we are expected to hire the best on the planet, yet the expectation is to pay them comparable salaries to the industry. This does not line up logically.

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