March 20, 2003

Closing the Gap: Tips for Negotiating a Robust Starting Salary

By Heather Joslyn

Professionals for NonProfits, in New York, has learned during its seven years of operations why charities pay

female executives less than men: because they can.

"It's not that our clients necessarily want to pay more for men," says Virginia H. Strull, the company's vice president. "It's that men have absolutely no problem asking for what they want, and for some reason, their demands are listened to." However, she says, "if we have a female candidate for the job, the client invariably wants to negotiate. And women are open to negotiation. Women have to be more assertive about their worth in the workplace."

Too many employees -- especially women -- make the mistake of accepting a low starting salary with the intent of "fixing" it later with raises, says Ms. Strull, who served as a chief fund raiser for cultural institutions for 25 years before co-founding her recruiting company. But raises are usually incremental, and, as the economy remains sluggish, they're often scarce and small. Still, even in better economic times, say charity leaders and recruiters, the time to nail down a desirable salary is before accepting a job.

Aggressiveness pays off, says Ms. Strull. "I think women have been brainwashed into thinking they have to accept whatever is offered to them," she says. "What we've experienced is that if women are assertive and say, 'No, I need X amount,' they're much more likely to get it."

And yet, initial salary negotiations require delicacy as well as persistence, says Linda S. Davidson, associate vice president for development at the University of Tennessee. "If it's not done correctly," she says, "you can end up agitating the wrong people and not educating the right people."

Here are some tips from recruiters and charity managers about getting a healthy salary, along with a tempting job offer.

Research the job's market value. Job candidates need to find out what their experience and responsibilities are worth. Professional organizations and some management-consulting companies do national and regional surveys that break down data by position and organization size, and such studies should be consulted well before a job interview gets to the offer stage.

The Chronicle conducts an annual survey of executive-director pay, as well as articles about similar studies, including the most recent reports by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, and Guidestar. To find these data, scan our Job Market library. Last year, our Hotline advice column, also rounded up a few sites that offer salary data.

Talk about salaries. "We don't talk about money as openly as men," says Janet A. Miner, director of development at Boston Lyric Opera. "We think it's indelicate. We need to get over that hurdle and share more information with each other. And men need to share more information with us, too, about what's fair in the marketplace."

Informational interviews, says Ms. Strull, can be one source of information on salary ranges in a given region or field. When digging for dollar figures, she says, ask other professionals whether they would reveal their compensation range within $10,000, rather than a specific number. "People are usually willing to help if you pose it in the right way -- if you say, 'I'm looking for a job, I'm unfamiliar with what people are making,'" she says. "Asking for a range is less personal -- it's different from saying, 'What exactly do you make?'"

Stall. Never, Ms. Strull says, bring up salary during the first interview for a job, and never put a salary demand in a cover letter. She suggests that job candidates put off discussion of pay until they've learned as much as possible about the job, and to defer salary inquiries with questions about the position itself. "Be really smart about committing yourself to a number until you have a sense of the position," she says.

Ask prospective employers how they view salary. It's appropriate to ask what philosophy a future boss holds about compensating workers, says Ms. Davidson. For example, "one question that would tell you a lot about somebody is if that individual has ever hired someone to work for them and paid them more than they were making," she says. "I've done that, and I'd do it tomorrow, to get the right person, because it makes the organization better."

Finesse questions about salary history. Ms. Strull advises not revealing salary history unless an employer explicitly requests it -- and not revealing salary requirements until late in the interview process, preferably after an offer has been made.

If salary history is requested, take two words of advice from Ms. Strull: Don't lie. Recruiters and employers check candidates' salaries with their previous bosses, she says, and being caught in a fib can lose a candidate a job. It can be tempting to inflate a previous salary, because a low one can doom an applicant to a low-ball offer from a prospective employer. But honesty, she says, is best.

Nonprofit employers, she notes, realize that the size and budget of organizations, and even their geographic location, have a tremendous effect on salaries, and employers may be willing to give candidates a boost as they climb to a bigger job or charity. "We've seen huge jumps -- people who have practically doubled their salaries -- because they've been in an organization that wasn't paying them accordingly," Ms. Strull says. And it's acceptable to offer an explanation for a low previous salary, says Colette Murray, chairwoman of the board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and a recruiter for nonprofit clients.

Don't self-sabotage. Some candidates undermine themselves in salary negotiations by revealing their willingness to fold, says Kristine Laping, senior vice president for development at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. She recalls that female job candidates she's interviewed have suggested a salary figure when asked, but immediately followed it up with, 'But if you can't do that much, that's OK.'" Ms. Laping notes, "I've never had a man say that."

Never accept an offer immediately. "I don't care if it's your dream job," says Ms. Murray. "Tell them you need 24 hours to step back and look at it and think. And always, don't hesitate to counteroffer with a little higher salary." And, she says, don't forget to suggest compensation beyond base salary, such as incentive pay. If other perks -- such as additional days off, professional-association membership dues, or an upgraded title -- are important to you, bring those up, too.

Don't be afraid to walk. Push the limit. "I don't know any case where somebody has countered back with asking for a little bit more, and the employer has said, 'We don't want to work with you now,'" says Ms. Murray. "The worst they can do is say no." But if the employer pushes back, keep a figure in mind that represents the least salary you'll accept, she says: "If you feel like you can't go below what you're asking for, then you have to walk away from it. But don't accept it and then go feel sorry for yourself because you didn't get what you wanted, or go there and think you can negotiate once you're on the scene. That isn't smart."

Have you experienced pay inequity or the glass ceiling during your nonprofit career? Share your experience -- and offer your ideas for solving these problems -- in our Job Market online forum.