Can’t Afford Staff Raises? What’s a Board To Do?

staff raises

One of my readers writes “I haven’t had a raise in over 2 years even though I have surpassed my fundraising target by over 30% each year.” My friend and executive director Kathy turned down a raise extended to her by her board during her annual review process. Why? Maybe the answer is obvious but here it is. The onus is on her to raise the additional money for her own raise. And then there is the other issue. What message does it send if she accepts a raise when her senior staff’s salaries continue to be frozen?

It’s a ‘catch-22’ a “rock and a hard place” and (please insert hackneyed phrase here). And by the way, it’s not just about money. It’s about staff morale.

I have an idea.


Perhaps you feel that staff is fairly compensated. And yes, I do know boards that feel like overhead needs to stay low so that the clients can be served, so that the advocacy work can get top priority. I’ve been a board member and an executive director so I have been on both sides of this discussion. Can I encourage you to look at the question differently? What might you as a board members do that might improve morale and retention? And yes, it will involve money.

Where would the money come from? Please don’t shrug your shoulders and stop reading. Give me me a hearing. Only a few hundred words left.


Make a list that includes your executive director and her/his direct reports. In most orgs, it’s an executive director and maybe 5-6 senior directors. So let’s say 7 people.

Head into an executive session without your ED and have a conversation with the board. Engage the Development chair(s) to ignite the board to do a short, 30 day fundraising campaign to raise $7,000 (give or get). The sole purpose of this fund in this case would be make a restricted gift to your organization for the sole purpose of awarding a spot bonus of $1,000 to each of the members of the senior team as a way of saying thanks to each of them for all they have done. These aren’t staff raises per se, but still important. The other option is, once you have reached the goal, take a portion of an executive committee with your executive director and figure out together how best to allocate the funds.

Do remember that it is the spirit of this that matters. Even $500 sends a strong message of appreciation and acknowledgement.

I’ll go one step further. If you have a very small organization and a very small board and this idea seems downright impossible, how about sending an especially nice bouquet of flowers with a lovely note of appreciation from the Board to all your staff at the end of the fiscal year. In case you are wondering, this doesn’t happen very often. Please add a comment below if you have every heard of ANYONE doing this.


Let me count the ways. Here are four.

  1. Nonprofit staffers work hard and with passion. In these last several years, budget cuts, layoffs and salary freezes are commonplace. So commonplace that boards can forget that “Salary” is not just a budget line item. Staff is an organization’s most valuable asset.
  2. Burnout is a huge issue in the nonprofit sector. The single biggest antidote is appreciation.
  3. The distance between board and staff can often seem like a chasm. A personal touch in which the board goes above and beyond to surprise the staff with a special fundraising effort for them? What a wonderful opportunity to illustrate a partnership.
  4. This might just be a terrific way to show your board how to work together towards a fundraising goal and to have them experience the real satisfaction that comes with meeting it. Could come in mighty handy.

No pithy end to this blog post. I’m just hoping that a board out there gives this a try and lets me know how it goes.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Keith Butler

    I worked for a nonprofit dance presenter that did not have the capital to provide year-end bonuses. However, each year, one particular board member gave every staff member a $10 Starbucks gift card as a token of appreciation. Without fail, it galvanized the staff to do their job better, and increased appreciation in the organization’s mission & culture. The dollar value was unimportant – what stood out was was the recognition that a LEADER of the organization valued each employee.

    • Hey Keith.
      No it doesn’t have to be a big gift. It just has to be thoughtful. It has to send a lovely message of appreciation. That is LEADERSHIP.

  • I am the senior pastor of a small church in Wilton Manors, FL. Wanting to give me a raise but unable, our church leadership did a give or get to give me an end of year gift to show their appreciation for me. What a nice surprise!! I am blessed with a great board of directors and leaders here. They ROCK!!

    • Leslie.
      I know Wilton Manors well. A very generous community and so it makes all the sense in the world that your leadership figured a way to show their appreciation for all you do for them and for the community.

  • Jessica

    My board, under the leadership of the b. president, collects personal donations each year to give staff a year-end bonus (staff of 2). Also, one of my most active board members, who regularly comes into the office to see how she can help, will sometimes surprise us with a small gift, or a ticket to something she’s involved with outside of the organization. Her level of interest and participation in office-happenings makes my job better.

    • How fantastic is that! I bet many readers are wondering how they can poach your board president 🙂 THAT is leadership

    • To TheDistrict. Congratulations for your successful efforts to advocate for your staff. Smart for all the reasons you outlined. It takes real leadership to make the kind of decision made here. Hope all my readers take note.

      • TheDistrict

        I was just sent back to the article by a friend. Thanks. Coming from you, that means a lot.

        • Hey. It’s the truth. I call em as I see em!

  • TheDistrict

    I once worked at a very large non-profit. When our income took a dip we knew we would need to tell the staff of 30 that we would not be able to give a raise that year. This was going on at the same time that a department coordinator was underperforming and had been on probation.

    I made the difficult recommendation that instead of forgoing raises for 30 people who work hard and do well, the organization should let the one department coordinator go and use the savings to give a raise to the rest of the staff.

    As hard as it was, my recommendation was ultimately adopted. Instead of spending 80k (salary+benefits for the underperforming position) we allocated that toward staff raises. Instead of using this as an opportunity to increase salaries by a percentage, we gave an across the board increase of $2,500 to each staff member.

    Three results:
    1. A more motivated department staff. The staff working under the coordinator who was let go worked harder and pulled together to get the work done.
    2. A more motivated agency staff. The staff across the agency were relieved to see the troubled staffer leave and they felt more respected all around with the raise.
    3. The staffer who was let go? He found a job within a month (had 4 week’s severance) and has been in that organization for years; they are a perfect match.

    A very wise businessman once told me…. If you are thinking about letting someone go, as hard as it is, do it. Sure, he explained, keeping them on may save 10% of them, but it’s what the other 90% do to the organization’s morale that simply don’t make it worthwhile…. He’s is right. We’re agencies, not job placement agencies.

    Yes, it seems rough, but sometimes the best roads are.

  • Laura

    I worked for a non-profit which I loved, but where I was under-compensated for years. However, each year during the winter holidays a Board member hired a massage therapist to come in and provide 20 minute massages for all staff members over a week or so. It was such a lovely treat. We also had annual staff retreats (one working, and one fun), and lots of other small ways that staff and volunteers were appreciated. Those gestures went a long way in keeping my commitment to the organization alive and healthy!

  • Alplily

    There are some great ideas here, but taking good care of staff needs to be part of the culture. And if it is not, someone in a leadership role needs to make it so. But it can be an uphill battle. I work for an organization where I am sorely underpaid despite having had two record breaking fundraising years in a row. The organization “does not believe in bonuses for nonprofit staff”. They regard fair pay and bonuses as “feathering our own nests at the expense of the mission. YET, the executive director received an end of year bonus that could have given every single senior staff member at least a $2,000 bonus. How do you think morale is?

  • Amy Trotter

    We have decided that in lieu of annual staff raises, we have instituted Fridays off for July and August to reward staff for the incredible hours they put in over the rest if the year.

    • Amy. great idea. Two pieces of advice. Make sure the ED takes the day off. I mean REALLY. NO EMAILS. That’s the only way the staff will really take the day for themselves.