Is There a Floor for Association CEO Salaries?

Graham_CEO minimum wage October 25, 2023 By: Mark R. Graham

New data from ASAE’s Executive Compensation Study team suggests that a de facto minimum wage exists for CEOs leading organizations of all sizes. The data also reveals a strong correlation between an organization’s annual revenue and CEO compensation, until revenue drops below $2 million.

The statistical bottom wage for an association CEO is around the 10th percentile of peer organizations, according to new research from ASAE's Executive Compensation Study (ECS) team. 

For a chief staff executive running an organization with annual revenue between $3.5 million and $5 million, that’s $177,035. For CEOs leading larger groups —$7.5 million to $10 million in revenue—it’s $237,814.

The 10th percentile—where 90 percent of CEOs are paid more—is a point where compensation distribution slows and begins to cluster, earning it the moniker “de facto minimum wage.”

In associations with annual revenue between $5 million and $7.5 million, the clustering is so close that half of CEO salaries below the 10th percentile are within $20,000. In the $7.5 million to $10 million revenue category, it’s even more condensed: more than half of CEO salaries below the de facto minimum wage are within $15,000. 

ECS researchers analyzed 2021 data from more than 2,600 national associations that reported paying a full-time chief executive a full-year salary. (2021 is the latest dataset where the majority of organizations have disclosed those details.)


10th Percentile Salary By Revenue Category

Organization size has the biggest influence on CEO compensation. Below shows the effect annual revenue has on CEO salary at the 10th percentile. Salary figures are the combination of base and bonus pay in 2021. 

Source: Salaries reported in the IRS form 990 from national association for the calendar year 2021


Many factors influence compensation for association leaders, but none more than annual revenue. After all, more revenue usually means more staff, more programs, and generally more activity to manage, so it makes sense that CEO pay has as strong link to revenue. 

Annual revenue figures calculated for this analysis include revenues from tax-exempt affiliates like association foundations but not revenues from for-profit subsidiaries, which isn’t reported on the IRS 990.

After annual revenue, sector or industry represented by the association played a big role in CEO pay. A closer analysis reveals that CEOs whose salaries are below the 10th percentile are leading professional societies that represent smaller industries and that are not affected by public policy or education requirements. 

For instance, the lowest-paid executives in the $7.5 million to $10 million revenue category represent dancers, rodeo riders, and hobbyists, while the highest-paid execs in that same category represent financial institutions, bankers, and insurers.

Researchers did find that the correlation between an organization’s annual revenue and the de facto minimum wage weakens in lower revenue categories, suggesting a true minimum wage.

For example, CEO pay in organizations with revenue between $500k to $1M was a hair under $100,000. In the next revenue category—$1M to $2M—the 10th percentile was $116,408, which is not a big pay difference in actual dollars for leading an organization with double the amount of revenue.

While there was one lower-revenue category analyzed in this project (i.e., associations with less than $500k in revenue), those results were excluded since researchers found too many data abnormalities and difficulty proving CEO pay was a full-time salary. 

Mark R. Graham

Mark R. Graham is vice president of association solutions at ASAE and leads the Executive Compensation Study team.