13 Reasons Why Non-Profit CEOs Make So Much

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CEOs of large non-profits can get paid what seems like a lot of money! Especially as they manage organisations designed to use their funds for social good. Many people feel that charity CEOs are overpaid, but actually there are good reasons why non-profit CEOs make so much.

Non-profit CEOs get paid high salaries for several reasons. These include the fact they often oversee multi-million-dollar organisations employing thousands of staff. Charity CEOs must also ensure the effective management, development and funding of their non-profit, whilst making crucial decisions about its strategic direction.

However, the role of CEO in a non-profit is highly complex and there are many more good reasons why charity CEOs are paid so highly.

They are Responsible for the Overall Performance of the Charity

Non-profit CEO’s have two main areas of performance they must maintain and grow. The first is the financial performance of the charity. The CEO of a non-profit is ultimately responsible for ensuring the financial viability of the charity.

Having to ensure the charity can bring in donations, secure funding and manage its finances correctly is one of the big reasons non-profit CEOs make so much money. The CEO of a non-profit is also finally responsible for ensuring all financial regulations are followed, another reason for their high salaries.

”Nevertheless, we’re asking more from our big brand charities—and their leaders—than at any other time. These are huge, complex organisations that are part of the fabric of our society. We depend on them to deliver the best possible service to their beneficiaries in straitened times and to do it for less. They’re also under constant scrutiny by politicians, the public—and, of course, the press.”


The second area non-profit CEOs are responsible for ensuring overall performance is in the charitable reach of the organisation. As the head of the charity, the CEO has ultimate responsibility for making sure the organisation is doing good, reaching the people it aims to help and expanding to explore new possibilities in its chosen cause.

The CEO of a non-profit has overall responsibility for ensuring this and it is one the reasons why charity CEOs can make so much.

They are Often CEOs of Huge Organisations

One of the main reasons non-profit CEOs make so much is that they often oversee large organisations with huge numbers of staff.

The level of responsibility that comes with being the CEO of a large non-profit organisation means a high salary is needed to bring in skilled and experienced CEOs.

Many charities are as large as big companies and so the CEO of some non-profits can command large salaries. Being responsible for a large organisation is one of the reasons non-profit CEOs make so much.

Many large charities have hundreds or thousands of staff, often spread across offices all over the world. This means non-profit CEOs need to have a wide range of knowledge of different offices, departments, teams and people. This level of work, and the skills needed to be successful, can mean the CEO of some charities can make a lot money.

The level of responsibility involved in having oversight of hundreds or thousands of staff across the world can be why non-profit CEOs collect high salaries.

Below is a breakdown of UK non-profits CEO salaries against organisation staff size. As you can see, charities with over 1000 staff pay their CEO high salaries.

Non-ProfitCEO Salary (GBP)Number of Staff
Wellcome Trust£445,2202,057
Cancer Research UK£240,0003,964
British Heart Foundation£180,0003,000
National Trust£179,0008,015
British Red Cross£173,0004,000
Save the Children£188,0001,148
Oxfam GB£124,0005,000

This trend continues with US non-profits.

Non-ProfitCEO Salary (USD)Number of Staff
American Red Cross$694,00019,000
World Vision$563,85334,000
Catholic Relief Services$500,3675,211
CARE international$427,65711,853
International Medical Corps$498,0787,000
International Rescue Committee$800,30011,000

They Require Extensive Previous Experience

Another reason charity CEOs can make a lot of money is that the position requires extensive previous experience in senior management. Like all CEOs, the leaders of non-profits need to have expert knowledge in how large organisations are ran effectively, as well as technical knowledge in company management.

The significant previous experience needed to be a charity CEO is one of the main reasons for the high salary.

Charity CEOs need to have extensive experience in running large companies and non-profits as they need to understand of the role of CEO and how to do in effectively. Most non-profit CEOs have had prestigious previous careers in senior management. This can be key reasons why non-profit CEOs make so much money.

Many non-profits recruit CEOs who have ran large companies or been senior in other charities, the large salary reflects the previous experience they have.

Non-Profit CEO Must Manage Organisational Risks

As the CEO of a non-profit has final oversight of the organisation, they must also manage all the risks that come with running a charity. Like all enterprises, not-for-profits must navigate economic, political and social changes, as well as internal events that can risk the stability and future of the organisation.

Non-profit CEOs ultimately manage these risks as a result and collect large salaries for doing it well. Financial, compliance and reputational risks also all finally rest with the CEO, and this can be a reason they are paid so much.

Another reason why having to manage the risks that charity organisations can face means the CEO collects a large salary is that if something goes badly wrong, usually the CEO must resign.

Charity CEOs need to continually monitor and make the right decisions based on the risk profile of the non-profit, and the level of skill needed to do this well can be a reason they are paid so much. Managing a non-profit can be unpredictable, meaning CEOs need to make sure their non-profit can adapt to risks and, as a result, can be paid a large salary.

They Oversee Enormous Budgets

Large not-for-profit organisations have huge budgets, in the tens of millions or even billions of dollars. The CEO of these charities is ultimately responsible for this budget.

Overseeing multi-million-dollar organisations is one the big reasons non-profit CEO make so much. They need to ensure funds are spent correctly, they are also ultimately accountable for how the charity uses the money donated by the public and must ensure it is used correctly.

”The bigger the charity’s budget, the bigger the CEO’s wallet: Not surprisingly, the higher the charity’s total expenses, the more likely it is that the CEO will earn higher compensation.  Charities with over $500 million in total expenses report a median pay of $422,578 for their CEOs whereas charities with $1 – $3.5 million in total expenses report a median pay of just $95,661”


Non-profit CEOs are responsible for the management of their organisation as well as its financial future. This is one the reasons they make so much. They also have final oversight of the finance departments of their charities and usually directly manage the CFO.

However, final financial responsibility lies with the CEO of a charity and so any financial mis-conduct, or even if the non-profit does not perform well financially, it is the CEO that is responsible. This is a big reason non-profit CEOs can be paid large salaries.

Below is breakdown of American non-profit CEO salaries and the total budget of the organisation. As can be seen, the huge revenues of these organisations justify the CEO’s high salary.

CharityBudget (USD)CEO Salary (USD)
American Red Cross$2,937,181,875$694,000
Feeding America$2,823,972,605$206,501
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute$1,883,293,263$450,000
City of Hope$1,819,787,572$644,396
Direct Relief$1,187,834,078$449,241
World Vision$1,149,108,329$563,853
Catholic Relief Services$1,011,642,141$500,367
International Rescue Committee$775,635,208$800,300

…the same applies to UK charities.

CharityBudget (GBP)CEO Salary (GBP)
Wellcome Trust£25.9 billion£445,220
Cancer Research UK£634,000,000£240,000
Amnesty International UK$49,584,122£210,000
British Heart Foundation£32,700,000£180,000
National Trust£634,000,000£179,000
British Red Cross£244.9 million£173,000
Save the Children£1,586,299,000£188,000
Oxfam GB£409,000,000£124,000

The CEO of a Charity Needs to be an Advocate for Their Cause

CEOs of non-profits can often be one of the main public figures advocating for the cause the charity supports. They often promote their charities in the media, at events and to the government. The level of knowledge and skill needed to be a strong advocate for sometimes niche causes is one of the reasons non-profit CEOs make so much. Charity CEOs must be able to build support for their cause and promote their non-profit organisation.

Having to be a strong advocate is one of the main reasons why non-profit CEOs make so much. CEOs of not-for-profit organisations need to make sure their charity stays relevant and continues to get public attention. This pressure of ensuring the charities cause is continuously communicated is also why non-profit CEO make so much. They also directly advocate with governments, businesses and international institutions about their non-profits cause.

The skills needed to do this effectively are another reason charity CEOs can earn a lot.

High Salaries Attract Better Talent

Being the CEO of a charity is a highly demanding job that requires significant skills and previous experience. This means non-profits needs to attract top talent to CEO roles.

As highly experienced senior managers can work for many organisations, including in the private sector, not-for-profits need to pay CEOs high salaries to attract accomplished people. Not many people have the skills to be a CEO and so non-profits use the high salary to attract talented people.

Non-profits need to hire the best people possible to be CEOs. The role is crucial in continuously building a strong organisation and charities require exceptional leaders to work for their cause.

High salaries are needed to attract people to the CEO job at not-for-profits, as charities must compete for talent with the private and public sectors. Also, remember that being a CEO, especially for a non-profit, is a lot of work – highly successful people simply won’t do it for little money.

They Bring Their Networks and Contacts

People who have reached the top of their careers and are able to take positions of CEO in non-profits have many years’ experience, often across several industries. This means they have built up a valuable network and made many connections that can be advantageous to the charity.

Being able to leverage their network is one of the reasons non-profit CEOs earn so much.

CEOs for charities often have connections in business and government that can help the non-profit. Getting access to this network can help promote the charity, as well as give it connection to powerful people in government and business that can make large donations. The network a CEO can bring to a non-profit is a good reason they are paid high salaries.

The CEO is Responsible for Major Decisions

As the head of a non-profit, the CEO is responsible for all major decisions the organisation makes. Making the right decisions can steer the charity to increased reach and better help to beneficiaries, as well as more funding and great public perception.

However, the wrong decisions can irreversibly damage a non-profit. Having to continually make the right decisions, especially on decisions that have a major impact on the charity’s future, is one of the reasons non-profit CEO make so much.

Non-profit CEOs are under huge pressure to make decisions quickly and react to developing events. Charity CEOs need to have good knowledge of their organisations, the wider non-profit sector and ongoing political and economic events to know what decisions to make. The level of knowledge and skill needed to make quick decisions that can have huge impacts on how the charity operates is another reason non-profit CEOs can collect high salaries.

They Usually Oversee Famous Brands

Many large non-profits are hugely famous, and many have long-established histories. Some non-profits are as well-known as major companies. CEOs of charities are in control of these brands and are responsible for their reputation and continued success. This amount of responsibility is a good reason non-profit CEOs make so much.

The public also puts a lot of faith in non-profits and expects them to be well ran. This is another reason for the high salaries for CEOs of non-profits.

CEOs of well-known non-profits must ensure the charity avoids scandals and continues to remain respected by the public. Major errors can seriously damage a non-profits brand and as the CEO is responsible for the overall management of the charity, this a reason they can earn a lot. The CEO of a non-profit acts as the custodian of the charities image, it’s identity and public perception.

The responsibility for keeping the public supporting the charity is another reason non-profit CEO earn so much.

As CEO They are Responsible for Non-Profits Strategic Direction

The CEO is a non-profit is responsible for strategic direction of the organisation. This means they need to do long-term analysis and planning to ensure the future development of the charity. Having the skills and knowledge to do this is one of the reasons non-profit CEOs can earn a lot. A non-profits strategy must be aligned with wider political, economic and cultural developments.

The CEO also needs to assess developments in the specific cause the charity works in. The level of understanding needed to do this well is another reason non-profit CEOs can earn high salaries.

Charity CEOs have oversight of the strategy of their organisation. However, this means that if the strategy fails it is the CEO who is ultimately responsible. Having this high-level of risk and responsibility is why non-profit CEOs get paid so much. Charity CEOs are also responsible for the organisation meeting targets in fundraising and beneficiary reach.

Being able to make sure the organisation consistently meets demanding targets is another reason non-profit CEOs make so much.

They Need to Ensure Growth and Development

Like all organisations, non-profits need to be continuously growing and developing. As the head of the charity, non-profit CEOs are tasked with ensuring that continuous growth. This is a major reason why non-profit CEOs earn a lot of money. By ensuring the non-profit grows continuously, it can help more people, raise more funds and gain more exposure.

A CEO that can oversee sustained development, especially in the competitive non-profit sector, is worth the high salary they’re paid.

Another reason non-profit CEOs make so much is because they must ensure their charity changes with the times. As societies and economies develop, they have different needs and different issues arise. Non-profits need to adapt both how they fundraise and how they work to remain relevant. The CEO of a non-profit is in charge of this ongoing drive to remain relevant, and this is one of the reasons they are paid so much.

Charity CEO Pay is Now Often Linked to Performance

In companies, the pay of the CEO is often linked to the performance of the company. Although in the not-for-profit sector this used to not be the case, recently there has been a drive to link charity CEO pay to performance. As opposed to how much profit is made, like in a private business, charity CEO pay is often determined by how much growth the non-profit has seen. This new ‘bonus culture’ in the not-for-profit is another reason charity CEOs can make so much.

”Simon Cooke, the chief executive of Marie Stopes International saw his pay increase from £173,000 to £217,250 within a year, topped up by a performance-related bonus of the same amount.”


The aim of linking non-profit CEO pay to their performance is to make CEOs more accountable for their pay. By having a part of the salary linked to performance, it is a motivating factor for CEOs. It is also another reason they can earn high salaries.

Performance linked salaries help attract talented people, including from the private sector, to charity CEO jobs, but it can result in non-profit CEO’s collecting some very large salaries.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.