You want to save the world? You still better care about your salary!

mm Russ Finkelstein

As a career coach, I have sessions with people who are in a variety of fields. But there’s something specific that happens at least once a week with people who work for non-profit organizations  like non-governmental organizations (NGOs): they tell me they don’t care about the salary. That puts me in the awkward position of getting angry with them before we have fully gotten to know one another. In the hopes of reducing my blood pressure, here’s why doing good and getting paid fairly for it matter.

First, the sense that talking about money is a little dirty, that it somehow sullies your pure intentions, is a red herring. Allowing money to be a factor in your happiness is actually very important if you do mission-driven work, because it means you’re saying that you want your career to be sustainable over the longer term. If you don’t care about the money it means you haven’t really thought about whether you can afford to be doing the work in a year’s time. And some might say that means you probably don’t care about the cause as much as you say you do. Because changing the world is a marathon, not a sprint. Having the stamina to continue fighting for your cause comes from strong management, working decent hours, and not having the stress of how you’ll pay your bills in the future.

There’s an important equity and inclusion aspect to all this. NGOs are rife with unpaid internships that only college students without other financial burdens can take on, and that fosters the kind of privilege many NGOs are supposedly intent on fighting. But it’s a much broader issue than just that. Furthermore, the more all people care about a decent wage for this work the more likely that expectations change and organizations and funders will need to react to that. Your indifference has a bit of that butterfly effect.

Part of this is also about your owning the responsibility that is basic financial planning and budgeting. You need a ‘monthly nut’ each month to pay for total predictable expenses such as rent, food, transportation, debt payments, entertainment, and insurance. It’s the dollar amount you need to earn, at minimum, after taxes, to ensure the continuation of your lifestyle. So it’s worth doing the math. Actually, if you don’t do that math you may be in for a long-term surprise known as credit card debt.

It’s also about maturity, and recognizing that you have obligations, and that you’re supposed to be thinking long-term. When people get mortgages or, perhaps, have to care for children, they tend to stop feeling guilty about those responsibilities that are beyond themselves and their cause. But I think it’s important to be able to take care of yourself no-matter the age, and to feel like you can do the things you want to do.

My first job paid $17,000. On payday, I’d go to Union Station in Washington, D.C., and treat myself to a Cinnabon and a large Mountain Dew. It was quite the sugar rush. That was a lifestyle I was happy with at the time, and I genuinely cared about the work that I was doing, so the job worked for me. I didn’t have expensive tastes back then. Whether you want to buy a Cinnabon each month or maybe take a trip abroad once a year, what sort of lifestyle do you want? What are you giving up when you say you don’t care about money? Concerts? Restaurants? Road trips?

There are occasions when a position might be so prestigious that you decide to take a financial hit for a short period. You think the experience could be a valuable springboard for other things. My advice is to make sure it is indeed that valuable. Talk to someone about what doing this will enable. Make sure at least one person you speak to is not from the organization offering the position. You might choose to work for the best organization in a given field, for example. But if the experience is so valuable, then it’s worth having a conversation about why it isn’t better reimbursed. NGOs tend to use the line, often, that if you really care about something, you have to sacrifice. It’s worth turning that on its head, though, and saying: “If you really think I’m worth hiring for this prestigious position, then you have to sacrifice, too.”

I can’t understate the importance of doing research around salaries. There are salary survey websites, for example, that list average salaries for organizations of various size and budgets in a given area, by position. So a starting point in any salary conversation should include your stating how much comparable jobs in the area, in your field, might pay. If your prospective employer is looking to pay considerably less than that number, then they probably aren’t very serious about retaining you over the medium to long term, and I bet they have a problem with losing good people to other organizations that pay better. Do you really want to work somewhere like that? Your answer can be yes, but understand what you are saying yes to.

When it comes to negotiation, this isn’t the place for me to break down all the best tips to negotiate for the best salary possible, but I do want to emphasize that it’s your responsibility to advocate for yourself in that context. I know of plenty of hiring managers who tend to pay someone whatever they ask for, within a certain range, and so there really is no harm at all in asking for a higher number than you expect to ultimately receive, if only to be knocked down a little. It’s worth taking your time too, because negotiating over salary is an on-going conversation that only concludes when you reach agreement. It’s not like one of those situations where you’re standing on a car lot and the salesperson is telling you the deal will only be good for today. A bit of swagger or just informed self-worth in a salary negotiation, even if it’s manufactured or doesn’t comes naturally to you, goes further than it perhaps should. Please practice beforehand. The way to feel less awkward is to try doing so in less risky situations. Likewise, if you can’t work for the salary being offered, is there anything else in terms of title, benefits, or reduced hours, for example, that you could ask for that might make up for the reduced salary?

This stuff is important.

Your salary is also the starting point in a job, and, as with real estate, you tend to “make money on the way in, not on the way out”. So, for example, if your employer has a 5% increase standard on a yearly basis, a starting salary of $30,000 gets you to $31,5000 after year one, and to $33,075 at year two. If you pushed for $33,000 in the first year, you’d be at $36,382.50 by the end of year two. And that’s an awful lot of extra trips to Cinnabon.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >