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.