Compensating for Chaos

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in July of 2009.

In 2000, after spending 15 years at corporate law firms, I made a personal choice to start working for organizations that promote social good by reducing poverty and protecting our planet. I understood that this career move would put some serious brakes on what was a fairly spiraling rise in compensation – my salary tripled from 1993 to 2000. And that was fine, because, as I see it, the privilege of being compensated for doing meaningful work is compensation in it’s own right.

We all know that we make less in this industry than we might in the commercial world, and we’re all pretty okay with that.  But how much, or how little, the discrepancy between “real world” and nonprofit salaries should be is a metric with little established thought behind it.  We don’t base our pay scales on any rationale other than what we determine others are paying and what we can afford. My concern is that, by not taking a strategic, reasoned approach to compensation, nonprofits are incurring far more unnecessary expense than they might, particularly when it comes to technology support, although these thoughts apply across the org chart.

The problem is that, when it comes to determining the market value of a nonprofit employee, we often go to nonprofit salary surveys. But job seekers don’t read those surveys.  In San Francisco or New York, a good System Administrator can make $70-80k a year at a for-profit.  Even if they come in to your org understanding that they aren’t going to be offered the market pay ($75k), they have an expectation that they’ll either be on the low end of it ($70k), or within 10% of it ($67.5k).  The recent NTEN Staffing Survey puts the average nonprofit Sysadmin salary at $52k, which is about 75% of that market. So, given this scenario, here are my questions:


  • How many excellent candidates are eliminated from consideration because they can’t afford to take a 25% pay cut?
  • Of the ones who can afford that pay, how many can afford it because they aren’t qualified for the work required?
  • How many can afford it because they have other primary income sources, and therefore can take a low paying job and not feel very committed to it?
  • If a good Sysadmin takes a job at that rate, how long will it be before they decide that they need more money and leave?
  • What is the impact of having a heavy rotation among the staff that maintain and upgrade your technology?
  • What is the impact of having of having often empty critical IT positions?

But, let’s get really into this. Unless the IT people that are hired at the 75% rate are extremely mature, then they might have some of the common failings of immature Sysadmins:

  • Many are often controlling and secretive. I’ve been in multiple situations where I’ve come into an organization and learned that the prior IT staff left with the key system passwords.  I’ve also seen numerous situations where the IT staff left en masse.
  • Most Sysadmins are lousy about writing things down.  What is the ramp-up time for your new staff when they have to research and guess how everything works on arrival?


The general instinct of a new IT person is to rip everything out and install their favorite things. Got Windows? They like Linux.  Got Word? They like Google Docs.  They don’t necessarily understand that one platform is much like another, but imposing massive change on an organization can be dangerously disruptive.

Technology candidates need to be assessed not only for their technical skills, but also for their attitude and maturity.  A very sharp tech, who can answer all of your Outlook questions, might have little patience for documenting his or her work or sharing knowledge with other technical staff. And those skills are the ones that will allow you to transition more smoothly when the tech leaves.

Mission is a motivator, and it has value that can be factored in to overall compensation, but not to the point where it’s so unattractive that it knocks the pool of candidates down to a pool of uncommitted or desperate ones.  The impact of paying poorly isn’t isolated to the salary bucket on the balance sheet.  In many cases, particularly with technology, it’s tied directly to the ability to operate.