The Idealist Guide to Understanding Employee Benefits was originally published on Idealist Careers.

The Idealist Guide to Understanding Employee Benefits


Here is a short list of some common benefits currently being offered at many organizations across the sector. Take a read through to understand what each benefit means, as well as what questions to ask (and what you may want to negotiate) before accepting an offer and benefits package.

Child- and elder-care benefits

Each year, there are new professionals entering the workforce who are also responsible for caring for a friend or relative, and as a result, child care and elder care provisions are becoming more prevalent in benefits packages. Some examples of what an employer may offer in the way of child and elder care include the provision of flextime and location flexibility, long-term care insurance, child- and elder care centers, voluntary reduced time, and job sharing. If you plan to utilize these benefits, be sure to find out what the employer offers either in terms of payment or referrals.

Compensatory time

While employers generally wouldn’t make offer overtime pay available to exempt staff, many do offer “comp time.”

Comp time means that for every extra hour you work over your contractually agreed-upon work hours, you can take up to an hour off. This may come in the form of a formal system that requires you to keep careful records, or it may mean that you have the flexibility to come in late, leave early, or take a full day off after working a on a day that is not a part of your usual schedule. Note that there may be a cap to how much comp time can be used in any one pay period as well as whether you can roll comp time into the proceeding pay period if left unused.

Family-friendly benefits

Workplace policies and culture can have a huge impact on work-life balance for employees as well as for their families.

For example, an employer may offer staff opportunities to work remotely, create their own work schedules, and/or receive paid leave to care for sick family members, a new baby, or newly adopted child.

Workplace practices that benefit families may include recognizing the family responsibilities of both parents as opposed to assuming the mother manages childcare (in a two-parent home) and continuing to consider staff for promotions, raises, and bonuses even when they take advantage of family-friendly policies.

For more on family-friendly workplaces check out:

Flex time

When considering whether an job offer will work for you (and whether you would like to negotiate a bit), you may find that while an employer may not be flexible on salary, they’re still willing to be flexible about your hours.

Here are some suggestions on questions to ask when negotiating working hours:

  • Is it possible to reduce the number of hours on the job?
  • Is it possible to work alternate hours (outside of or overlapping with the traditional 9-to-5) that would allow you to pursue other opportunities?

You may also want to ask about job sharing, compressed workweeks (e.g., working 10-hour days four days per week), and remote work.

Health insurance

This is one of the standard benefits that organizations usually offer to full-time employees. Note that most internships and part-time jobs will not provide health care benefits. This is also one of the benefits that will probably not be open to negotiation because of laws requiring employers to provide consistent health benefits to all employees. However, you should still find out the specifics of the health care options that each position offers.

Some organizations offer several options of health care plans from which to choose:

  • Preferred Provider Organization [PPO]
  • Health Maintenance Organization [HMO]
  • Point of Service [POS]

There should be an HR person (or someone in operations or administration who acts as a benefits coordinator) in the organization who can explain the pros and cons of each option.

This is a particularly complex part of your compensation package and you should inquire about the plan’s details and costs.

  • Structure: Medical services have gradually changed from traditional fee-for-service organizations into health maintenance organizations (HMOs). HMOs receive a fixed premium each month, and in exchange offer a range of services. HMOs provide many services under one plan, while fee-for-service providers operate less centrally and allow members to choose which medical practitioners they use. With these plans, there may be different pay scales for doctors outside a network.
  • Mental health services/employee assistance programs (EAPs): Some employers offer EAPs, typically set up with an outside contracting agency, to provide confidential counseling in dealing with stress, substance abuse, relationship problems, and family issues and/or personal concerns.
  • Other services: If you have specific, recurring medical needs (physical therapy, allergies, prescriptions, etc.) check to see that your treatments are covered by your employer’s plan.
  • Dental and vision insurance: Some heath plans include dental and vision insurance while others may only partially cover it or not cover it all. Consider whether preventive care and surgical care are covered and to what extent (deductibles, co-pay, and annual and lifetime maximums).

Life and disability insurance

Life insurance usually affords a certain amount of basic coverage for employees with the option of buying additional coverage for employees and their families. Disability insurance provides a percentage of lost wages in case the employee is unable to work due to a non–work-related injury or illness. The period and cost of this kind of coverage varies from plan to plan, and is above any disability coverage required by the state.

Please note that worker’s compensation is another form of insurance that most employers are legally required to carry for injuries that happen while on the job.

Phased retirement

For workers who plan to retire (eventually), some employers offer opportunities to gradually reduce responsibilities and working hours as a way to help ramp-up the knowledge and skills of the next generation of organizational leaders.

Professional development programs

Professional development reimbursement is an incredibly valuable part of a compensation package. Let’s face it, whether you’re brand new to the field or an old hat, it’s always useful to have opportunities to expand your skill set and expertise. In addition to participating in courses and workshops, you’ll want to inquire opportunities to attend conferences or national meetings as well.

Even the smallest nonprofits will often see the value of networking and development. Expressing interest in these opportunities at the outset will make it clear that you are interested in growing with the organization.

Relocation expenses

If a position within an organization requires a move, sometimes an employer will help pay for your moving expenses. Employers can help defray the cost of a move in many different ways. Some employers will pay a percentage of your salary as their contribution to moving expenses; others will offer a flat contribution; still others reimburse an employee for the exact cost of the move. If relocation is necessary for the position, you’ll want to ask if reimbursement for relocation expenses is available.

Pro Tip: If you’re trying to determine the tax implications of relocation costs and reimbursement, start by checking with the IRS.

Retirement investment plans

The most common retirement plans are Sections 403(b) and 401(k).

These plans allow employees to deduct a portion of their pre-tax salary and put it into a fund for their retirement, which can help employees fall into a lower tax bracket. The money is invested while in the account and cannot be taken out of the fund (without incurring penalties) until an employee reaches retirement age.

An employer may contribute or match a percentage of the employee’s contribution; whether or not your employer does is an important question to ask.

Most nonprofits offer 403(b) retirement plans that mainly differ from a 401(k) plan in how they are administered.

For all practical purposes, the benefits of these two types of retirement plans are comparable.

Some nonprofits offer defined benefit plans (a pension plan with guaranteed payouts).

Sick, personal, and parental leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act requires that most organizations with 50 or more employees provide up to three months of unpaid leave for personal or family illness, and parental leave for the birth of a child.

Some employers only offer what is required under the FMLA, while others provide some form of paid time off for similar reasons. Often an employer will require staff to use vacation and sick days first.

Some states offer six weeks of paid family leave to everyone.

Total compensation

This is a useful term to be aware of. While there may be somewhat differing opinions on the exact definition of the term, most employers agree that it covers all elements of value that an employee regularly receives, beyond base pay. All of the following may be included in the figure: wages, health insurance, retirement benefits, bonuses, paid time off, training opportunities, and any at-home office equipment purchased by the employer (as long as it doesn’t need to be returned upon resignation).

An attractive total compensation package can go a long way in efforts to attract, retain, and motivate employees, considering both monetary and non-monetary aspects of the employment relationship. As a job seeker and ultimately, and employee, total compensation can aid in your informed decision making, salary and benefits negotiation, and long-term career planning.

Tuition reimbursement

These programs help support an employee’s continuing education. Reimbursement can range from a single workshop or a college course to a full degree program. Larger organizations are more likely to offer a formal plan, although smaller organizations are often willing to negotiate time away from work for educational purposes, even if they can’t help with the cost.

Also keep in mind that many education-focused nonprofits (like private universities) offer scholarships to partners, spouses, and children of employees.

Vacation time (or paid time off)

This is one of the more flexible and variable benefits. However, there are often specific guidelines on vacation days.

For example, vacation days may be limited during an employee’s first year (or first few months); they may not begin accumulating immediately; and there may be a cap on the number of days an employee can take consecutively or during peak busy-periods when time off may discouraged. Similarly, be sure to find out if and how the organization delineates between vacations, personal days, paid holidays, mental health days, and so on.

Workplace resources

Does the organization have the resources (equipment, office space, personnel, budgets, software, policies) that would make your work life easier? Is there a budget for other things that you need to do a good job? Some employers are willing to make adjustments or investments to accommodate your work needs. A great example of this would be any ergonomic equipment that you either require (or simply prefer) in order to keep you comfortable and productive.

Consider if you need any other information about your work environment and the resources that will be at your disposal to evaluate the job offer properly.


Wondering about a benefit that we didn’t cover? Email us at or and we’ll be sure to add it to our growing list.