Thriving on Purpose: How Young Professionals Build Financial Stability in the Nonprofit World


It’s no secret that Gen Z and Millennials are frequently noted for their activism and engagement in social and civic culture.  A colleague, Sumaya Quillian, Associate Consultant, shared in her blog a few weeks ago that Gen Z and Millennials are changing the look and practice of activism and engagement, so it’s no surprise that young professionals are growingly interested in careers in nonprofits and mission-driven organizations.

In June 2023, I had the opportunity to present at AAUW’s National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL 2023) with my fellow board members from Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of DC (YNPNdc). The session, titled “Mission-Focused Generations: How Are They Changing the Nonprofit Landscape?” aimed to engage this group of up-and-coming professionals in exploring the possibilities of pursuing a career in the nonprofit space. While we were prepared to discuss many aspects of our job—from the inequities we face daily as young, diverse professionals, to commentary on DEI trends within the sector as a whole—I was struck by the most common question we received.

When this question came up, students sat up and leaned in. They wanted to know — how did we make it work on a nonprofit salary, and how could they make it work in their own lives?

What strategies are young nonprofit professionals employing to stay afloat? What factors are we considering when we decide to take a lesser salary. What really keeps us in the sector?

First and foremost, we acknowledge that this is the reality in which we live. When I first saw this question, a sense of unease rose in my stomach. On one hand, the nonprofit sector has been making incredible strides to close pay equity gaps and come closer to salaries offered by the for-profit sector. But at the end of the day, it’s still true – the same job at a nonprofit organization is, on average, going to make $4-$5 an hour less than a comparable role in the private sector[1].  The Chronicle of Philanthropy discusses this unfortunate trend and the pressures it puts on organizations and staff. And while there are efforts in place to shift the sector in a positive direction, the reality is that many of the students we were speaking with indicated that they had, or were preparing for, graduation.

One strategy many professionals pursue is taking on additional work within or outside of the sector. Madison Gharghoury, YNPNdc’s Director of Communications, recently embarked on a summer Fellowship to enrich her professional growth. While not the driving factor, compensation for her time was considered.

“Once I had established a strong foundation in my role and gained confidence in my daily responsibilities, I felt a deep desire to broaden my skill set and explore new horizons. To achieve this, I proactively pursued a part-time professional development opportunity alongside my full-time job. However, when considering such an endeavor, compensation became an essential factor for me. Devoting up to 16 hours per week to this pursuit, it was crucial for me to find a compensated opportunity. Fortunately, the non-profit sector has started to acknowledge the unreasonableness of unpaid work in any capacity.” -Madison

Another strategy is to be very intentional in the first few years after college with how you’re building your savings and paying off debt. Ashley Gordon, YNPNdc’s Director of People and Culture, completed 2 years of service with AmeriCorps, a program which offers a Segal Education Award that can be used for past or future education expenses. Ashley shared that the first few years out of school were very intentional for her financially. She saved money by living at home and sticking to a strict budget, but the role with AmeriCorps gave her a leg up on her colleagues, giving her the opportunity to pay back some student loans while also gaining invaluable experience in the sector and pushing her career ahead. These programs are helpful in persuading recent graduates to enter the social sector.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to move back in with my parents after graduating from college. I knew that I wanted to move out on my own, but did not want to worry about paying student loan debt on top of all of my own living expenses when I did. I worked some part time jobs in addition to my full time job and paid off all my debt in 2 years. Now, I’m able to live on my own and do not have to worry about paying back loans on top of my living expenses.” – Ashley

While these strategies are important ways that young professionals can take back the narrative on the financial paradigm of the nonprofit sector, Claire Pandaleon, YNPNdc’s Director of Membership also spoke about other factors that new employees should consider. From tangible benefits like health insurance coverage and generous paid time off policies to providing a culture that centers the wellbeing of employees and professional development opportunities for growth and career acceleration, young professionals are considering a wide variety of factors when deciding between the social and private sectors.

“When entering the workforce, I was solely focused on salary because that’s what was emphasized most as an undergraduate seeking employment, which is understandable. However, I quickly learned that a good benefits package from your employer as well as the ability to contribute to a retirement plan can have a very positive impact on personal finances. Additionally, ensuring that your employer prioritizes professional development, a healthy work-life balance, and/or a flexible work arrangement is also something to look out for. Not only are these perks great for your mental health and lifestyle, but they can free up time to pursue career growth opportunities and additional sources of income.” – Claire

While nonprofit salaries can’t compete dollar to dollar with the private sector, they can attract and retain employees by emphasizing their unique attributes, such as good benefits, generous PTO, learning opportunities, and the ability to advance your values at and through work, engaging employees in creative ways. Our strength as a sector is centering and valuing human experience. Many of us are drawn to this work because of the humanity in nonprofit work. And we need to lean into this element. It isn’t going to save us from financial disparities, but it is our differentiating strength, and something we should build on. Whether that’s providing opportunities for professional development and swift career growth or creating a workplace culture that centers employee satisfaction and wellbeing, these additional resources can make or break the opportunity for young professionals to not only join our organizations but stay in the nonprofit sector for years to come.


[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics:,is%20%244.67%20per%20hour%20less.


Comment section

4 thoughts on “Thriving on Purpose: How Young Professionals Build Financial Stability in the Nonprofit World

  1. some excellent points here — as a sector, nonprofit organizations can serve the young workers by providing good benefits and prioritizing professional development. That investment will immediately transfer to community services and buoy missions for a lifetime.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *