Young Nonprofit Workers Get Creative to Make Ends Meet

Jeremy Baird, 30, has an apartment in Southeast Washington. Baird supplemented his first salary, as a staff assistant at the American College Personnel Association, with a part-time job to help pay the rent.
Jeremy Baird, 30, has an apartment in Southeast Washington. Baird supplemented his first salary, as a staff assistant at the American College Personnel Association, with a part-time job to help pay the rent. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

Landing your first job at a nonprofit group can be exhilarating. With it comes the promise of that elusive component sought by so many in the workforce -- job satisfaction, or the knowledge that what you do has direct impact on a community or issue you care about.

But there's often a trade-off. With entry-level salaries rarely much higher than $30,000, it can be tricky to pay for the roof over your head, let alone basic living expenses; a credit card balance; and, oh, yes, those monthly payments on the loans that got you through college or graduate school as the six-month grace period (variable depending on the source of your funding) comes to a screeching halt.

Add to that the costs if you relocate from college or to a new city and the material necessities that modern professional life demand of you -- a car if you don't have easy access to public transportation and the clothes, computer, cellphone and gadgets to give you a newly burnished veneer of professionalism -- and the lure of a mission-driven organization with its non-monetary rewards can suddenly dim.

But with a little creativity, it is possible to make ends meet.

"I've done way better-paid work and not been able to get out of bed in the morning," said Sarah Rimmington, a lawyer who quit her $52,000-a-year job at a legal aid clinic, returned to school to get a master's in international affairs, and lives off a $15,000 stipend as a communications and advocacy fellow for Jubilee USA Network, which works toward emerging-world debt cancellation. "Now I love what I do. I have no regrets."

The first thing to manage is living expenses. While some choose to live at home, many do not have the option. In that case, "make sure you have roommates or share a house," advised Charlotte Jones Voiklis of, a group that provides online updates on nonprofit jobs and volunteer opportunities. Or, said Carmen Wong Ulrich, author of "Generation Debt: Take Control of Your Money -- A How-To Guide," "If you're not able to live with family or friends, search in unusual neighborhoods," where you're often likely to find bargains.

Second, Wong Ulrich advised, "Have a goal in mind, and commit to your tight budget." Rimmington, 34, got rid of her car, is more selective about where and how often she goes out, and forgoes extravagances she used to enjoy such as manicures and the latest fashion. She said she's taking a calculated hit that will pay off as she climbs the nonprofit ladder with the expertise she'll have built through her current job. "The work experience is so good that it's worth the sacrifice," she said.

Third, "keep in mind your personal and professional priorities and the larger trajectory of your career," Jones Voiklis said. "Taking internships [or low-paying jobs] can pay off."

In the short term, that often can mean taking on an extra job. Jessica Jones, 23, a development coordinator in individual giving at the Brookings Institution with an annual salary in the low $30,000s, lives with a co-worker in the District. She disciplines herself to set aside a small amount from her paycheck each month and works part time in retail in hopes of saving enough "to eventually go back to school."

It also means sometimes opting out when friends with more lucrative jobs select bars with $14 drinks. "Be on your feet and willing to take your chances. There are a lot of things to do for free in cities -- tastings and screenings," said Diya Bose, 22, who makes $24,000 at the Center for Economic Progress in Chicago. "Yes, it limits how often I can go out with some of my friends, but it doesn't affect me. I really prioritize. I'm getting a ton of experience, and it's great."

"It was tight, but it's all about choices," said Jeremy Baird, 30, who has worked in nonprofit groups since he left college. "My choice was to live on my own with no roommates." On a starting salary of $22,000 a year as a staff assistant at the American College Personnel Association nine years ago, he said, his biggest surprise was discovering the mismatch between his bimonthly paycheck and his rent. So he supplemented his full-time job with part-time work in property management on weekends.

When his student loan payments clocked in, Baird opted to put them into forbearance, in which loans are either postponed for a period or reduced to fit the holder's ability to repay.

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