Lesley Rosenthal took a path less traveled on her way to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. She went to law school. Then she spent more than a decade in “Big Law” before moving over to the nonprofit side 11 years ago.
She’s now Lincoln Center’s senior vice president, general counsel and secretary.
General counsel is not a position found at many organizations. Rosenthal said that a large-firm background is good precursor to becoming a nonprofit general counsel as it provides experience in operating at scale, but couldn’t say whether such a path is necessarily typical. “The vast majority of nonprofits don’t have a general counsel, it’s a real priority for the sector to get a richer context of legal and governing activities,” Rosenthal said. “I wouldn’t say that there is a well-traveled pathway to nonprofits yet.”
It is old hat to look toward a nonprofit’s C-Suite to find the most revered and well-paying positions on staff. A well-respected role and generous take-home aren’t limited to the top job. Per The NonProfit Times’ annual Salary and Benefits Report, there are sector-wide positions with average salaries north of $85,000, such as general counsel at an average $137,016. With growing attention in fields including governance, financial management, fundraising and the sciences, organizations need talent and leadership in a wide range of roles and there’s good money in it.
In addition to drawing up contracts and leading compliance with regulations, an attorney in the nonprofit sector might also be in charge of government relations, with an average salary of $88,099.
While such a position might work out of the legal department in some organizations, Matthew Read, director of statewide government relations in Breathe California’s Sacramento office, often functions as a one-person operation. “I sometimes feel separate, like I’m on my own little island,” Read said. “When I’m doing my best, I’m getting people in the right room at the right time.”
Read often finds himself advocating for clean-air policies or tracking the carry-out of existing legislation. To present the strongest case, Read interacts with other departments at California Breathe to have data and personal stories to bring to the table. “I have to know, broadly, the different programs,” Read said. “I have to legitimize us to everyone I meet. I have to sell us like a CEO would sell us to a funder.”
Just like searching for a political scandal in a dark parking garage, finding the highest paid nonprofit positions outside the C-Suite often involves following the money. In fact, half of the top 10 highest-paying positions outside the C-Suite either help raise or manage organizational finances, led by internal auditor at No. 3 with an average salary of $112,785.
Internal auditors are often a luxury reserved for larger organizations. At the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, auditing the school’s hospital was contracted out up until about three years ago, according to Manu Patel, director of internal audit. With a price tag of $380,000 per year, UNM decided to put that money toward adding three auditors to the internal auditing team. The move has provided the university with more auditing hours for the same cost. The internal auditors also handle investigative and compliance tasks in subject areas ranging from fraud to sexual harassment to Title IX not previously covered by the outside contract, Patel said.
Patel has an MBA and CPA and spent more than 20 years working with the state’s legislative finance committee before retiring as deputy director of the audit unit and coming aboard at UNM about five years ago. Whether in the nonprofit, public or private sector, managers tend to look for certification as a public accountant or internal auditor in hiring an internal auditor, Patel said. Experience in budgeting and state and federal law is also valued. In the wake of the 2011 Pennsylvania State University sexual-abuse scandal, compliance matters have become an increased focus among universities, Patel said.
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