Skip to main content

Talent Show

The Truth About Sustainability Compensation

<p>Although CSR professionals are by and large drawn to their work by passion for the planet, that doesn't preclude fair pay for fair work. Here's how to know what you can expect to earn working in sustainability, and what your peers are making.</p>

Sustainability or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) professionals state that factors other than compensation are largely what drew them to the field; however, they still want to be compensated fairly.  As a CSR recruiter, I work directly with hiring managers. It's my experience that hiring managers want to compensate CSR professionals fairly.  Yet, I have also found that neither job seekers nor hiring managers know what is fair. 

Given that transparency is a tenet of CSR, it's ironic that CSR salaries are not more transparent.  The truth is that human resources policies, and salaries for that matter, still function on the traditional operating principles of the corporate sector. 

In addition, CSR is still a relatively small and nascent field with scant salary information available.  Worth noting is a well done 2010 survey conducted by U.K.-based Acre Resources [PDF], which had 595 respondents, of which 150 were based in North America. However, the report does not provide information specific to the United States, nor does it provide salary information by sector or job title. Also, a valuable new report is the just-released Profile of the Profession [PDF] from the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship (BCCC), which includes a gender-specific salary comparison, and is definitely worth checking out.

What is the Truth?

I'm hoping to shed light on CSR salaries with the purpose of helping hiring managers and employees benchmark what is fair. The source of this information is the hundreds of sustainability professionals I have interviewed during my searches. In the course of the recruitment process, these professionals disclose their salary.

While the information is anecdotal, I have observed consistency across so many candidates that I am confident that the salary information I share here is valid.  As such, this article has useful information for both employers and employees. 

Salaries Vary at the Surface; Dig Deeper for Enlightenment

Overall, salaries vary. The salary range that I have observed for sustainability professionals ranges from $48,000 to $500,000.  Not too helpful.

However, this wide range narrows when one adjusts for key factors. After taking these into account, the salaries become much more consistent and predictable.

The key factors are:

  • The employer (size, sector, industry)
  • Job title
  • Number of years post-graduation
  • Number of years professional experience plus education
  • Location (For example, NYC and San Francisco are among the most expensive cities and, therefore, one often finds higher salaries)
  • Reporting relationship (number of direct reports and proximity in reporting relationship to CEO)
  • The overall package (benefits, bonus, vacation, etc.)

In fact, when I take these factors into consideration, CSR salaries become so consistent that I am able to guess a candidate's salary with amazing precision. 

What, exactly, are the salaries?

Two of the most important factors are level of the position and experience. Clearly, these are also interrelated. Let's take a look:

Heads of Sustainability / CSR: Based on my conversations with more than 30 Director-level CSR candidates, $150,000 is the average (mean) income for Director-level CSR positions. Most commonly, Director-level salaries fall in the range of $120K-$130K.  A Vice President-level leader earns about $220,000. These positions can easily reach in the $300-$350K range for base salary.

Recent MBA graduates: Those with less work-related experience, such as recent MBA graduates, can expect to earn $100,000 plus or minus $20,000 for a CSR position. 

The assumption that sustainability professionals earn less than other comparable positions is false if you hold all the factors listed above constant. I call this the ceteris paribus assumption, the Latin term for "all things being equal." If you are a hiring manager wondering what salary to offer your new CSR hire, you don't have to look far; rather, look at who this hire's " "near" colleagues will be.

A CSR professional is likely to earn a similar salary to those working in the same department for which sustainability falls.  In other words, if the CSR Director sits within Public Affairs, their salary will be similar to their parallel level colleagues in Public Affairs. 

To test the ceteris paribus assumption, let's visit Note that while publishes salary information for such seemingly obscure titles as "Child Life Specialist," a keyword search for "sustainability" and "responsibility" return nothing at all. estimates that a Director of Marketing based in San Francisco with an MBA will earn $147,000.  This supports my finding, as discussed above, that other marketing salaries compare evenly with sustainability salaries.

CSR Salaries Don't Always Measure Up

Still, despite the desire to be fair, CSR salaries are not all together fair. They fall short in three areas:

  • Transferability
  • Comparing to CSR professionals who fit in departments
  • Start-ups

Transferability: Lack of internal upward mobility
Once the CSR professional gets her foot in the door and lands a job, eventually they will be concerned about their own career advancement. What comes next for a CSR Manager? Is it a CSR Director? Is there availability in your company for that role? Because the CSR department within any company tends to be relatively small, the employee has fewer options for professional advancement internally. Her non-CSR co-workers have greater flexibility and internal mobility options over time.

My experience leads me to conclude that CSR employees are more committed to sustainability than they are to their employer. This leaves the employee with fewer options with their company. They have fewer options to move within the company to other departments and are more likely to move to another employer. Taking that one step further to salaries, an employee with less room for advancement and mobility has equally fewer opportunities for salary increases that would accompany a promotion.

Comparisons to other departments within the same company
We have seen that a CSR professional's salary is in line with that of other staff in the same department as CSR sits. But, CSR departments across companies are all over the org chart. Sometimes they fall under Supply Chain, sometimes Human Resources (HR), sometimes Public Affairs. This is where CSR salaries can fall short. For example, careers in human resources are notorious for low compensation. If a CSR position is based in the HR function, then it will likely fall short compared to a CSR department housed in another company's legal department.  

Start-Ups: Lack of resources
Where salaries clearly fall short is within start-up situations or amongst fledgling small businesses. The unfortunate reality is that some socially responsible businesses pay their hard-working staff unfair wages.  Truth be told, the candidate does not have a lot of negotiating power.  One would hope that the socially-responsible employer would compensate their employees fairly, but this is not always the case.

How Do the CSR Salaries at Your Company Measure Up?

Do they fall on the low end? This isn't necessarily a negative. Low salaries can be good for the employee.  A low salary increases the employee's flexibility and security.  She becomes more adept at changing jobs.  Potential employers find it attractive when a candidate takes on a lot of responsibility with a relatively low salary. Also, in the time of layoffs, her job is more secure.  

Do they fall on the high end? While high salaries sound like a favorable position, they are not all good for an employee.  It is those with the high salaries that are more likely to be laid off.  During a downsizing exercise, the firm will often let those earning high salaries go and then hire someone new at half the salary.  

What Can You Do?

A good first step would be for all involved to be more transparent about salaries, just as the CSR field strives to be more transparent overall. As a hiring manager, benchmark other companies. As an employee, agree to share your salary with someone in a comparable role at a comparable company if they agree to do the same.

Finally, consider the position in light of the factors identified above. A better understanding of these salaries will make both employees and employers feel they are being compensated fairly. 

Ellen Weinreb is the CEO of Sustainability Recruiting, a search firm based in Berkeley focusing on sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate citizenship jobs. Follow her @sustainablejobs on Twitter and /SustainabilityRecruiting on Facebook.

More on this topic