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Joanne Fritz

Will a Master's Degree Help Your Nonprofit Career?

By July 9, 2012

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A reader recently asked me if I thought a Master's degree would help her nonprofit career. I thought about the heaps of student debt weighing down many graduates these days and decided the question has become more complex than ever.

I turned to two experts in the nonprofit sector for their opinions...More...

Photo: Ryan McVay/Getty Images


July 9, 2012 at 11:32 am
(1) Amy Eisenstein says:

I just wanted to add that I went to NYU to get my Master’s AT NIGHT, while working at a nonprofit by day. Experience is just as important as a degree, if not more so. I did not intend to overemphasize one without the other.

July 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm
(2) Marc A. Pitman, FundraisingCoach.com says:

Great post. I weighed pursuing a CFRE vs an MA and opted for the MA. Mine is in Organizational Leadership. I was able to apply all the projects to my nonprofit job, including my thesis “Faculty Retention on a Shoestring.”

I would have pursued the MA anyway but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how the degree opens doors. Especially in teaching at the college level.

While I don’t think a graduate degree is “required” for nonprofit jobs, I do think professional development IS required. Association conferences and seminars are great. But the discipline of a program like a CFRE, FHAP, or a Masters degree can be a great way to do that.

I’m sure the post-grad programs focused on nonprofits and fundraising are good, but I’d encourage nonprofit employees to seek degrees that allow them to learn from the for-profit sector too.

July 9, 2012 at 12:51 pm
(3) nonprofit says:

Thanks, Amy, for adding that info….I’m sure many people are trying to fit grad ed around other things in their lives. Part time school is a good solution.

Marc, thanks for sharing your experience. Good advice about being exposed to other fields and not just nonprofit. We can get a bit insulated for sure.

July 10, 2012 at 8:12 am
(4) Michelle Stephenson says:

I came from corporate America but I am now a consultant to nonprofits, assisting them with their PR and marketing strategies as well as fundraising. I already have an MA in Cross Cultural Studies but in order to really get to know the ins and outs of NPOs, I am currently enrolled in Walden Univerity’s MS in Nonprofit Management and Leadership program. I am learning so much and I’m doing it from the comfort of my own home! I love the flexibility and the school is accredited.

July 10, 2012 at 10:16 am
(5) nonprofit says:

Good for you Michelle. I forgot to mention just the wonderful experience of studying for a grad degree, the contacts that can be made, and the inspiration that one can enjoy.

July 10, 2012 at 9:52 am
(6) Eljay Bos says:

Very relevant topic. Having worked as a consultant in the UN for the past 8 years, (and with experience in the Private Sector) Amy’s comment “I don’t believe the particular type of master’s degree matters nearly as much as actually having one” is totally true. Many highly qualified and extremely experienced people are not even short listed for interviews because they don’t have a masters.
And nowadays there seems to be an upgrade in the qualifications as well. More and more a PhD is seen as even more desirable.

July 10, 2012 at 10:14 am
(7) nonprofit says:

Thanks so much for that information, Eljay. I wonder if working in the international arena is more demanding when it comes to credentials. One of my daughters also works for an international NGO and she has a PhD. She is in public health and I find that people working in that area almost always have at least a master’s degree.

July 10, 2012 at 10:17 am
(8) Pam McAllister says:

I have advanced degrees (MA, JD) and worked for a couple of decades as nonprofit staff.

My biggest professional leaps have come from not from my degrees but from investing outside academia on …

* Leadership capacity

* Communication skills

* Professional network

* Personal “brand” and distinctiveness

* Personal development (which underpins everything else)

There’s tremendous value in non-academic learning programs, working with a coach, and creating your own structured experiences.

All those are sadly under-valued compared to academia — especially in the nonprofit world, from what I’ve seen. (I believe it’s part of nonprofit culture to value outside validation by “authorities” … but that’s a longer topic.)


July 10, 2012 at 10:28 am
(9) nonprofit says:

Excellent point, Pam!

July 10, 2012 at 10:29 am
(10) Vicki Hale says:

Mine is more a question than a comment, although I so appreciated this article. Do you know of online certificate programs? What do you think of Society for Non Profit Organizations and their 8-course, $900. offering? Thanks

July 10, 2012 at 11:35 am
(11) nonprofit says:

Hi Vicki! I don’t know anything about the Society for Nonprofit Orgs course, but here are two online certificates:
Johns Hopkins
U of Illinois, Chicago

I’m sure there are many others. I have noticed that some programs, such as the one at Duke, allows part of the courses to be taken online but not all.

July 10, 2012 at 11:22 am
(12) Cheri Friedman says:

When I was first getting into nonprofit work 27 years ago, it was easy to get lower level jobs with only a BA. Within 5 years, I started losing jobs to individuals with masters and no experience while I had experience and no masters. So I went after a masters. While getting my masters, I also ended up with my first ED position.

I’m happy to say that now in the hiring process, people are much more interested in the experience a person has. It doesn’t hurt to have a masters, especially if you are able to get about half of your classes from an MBA program while the rest is in the nonprofit area. It’s creating the delicate balance of for-profit business practices with the knowledge needed to work in the nonprofit field.

July 10, 2012 at 11:40 am
(13) nonprofit says:

Thanks for your comments, Cheri. I do think that in the past there was no particular path to nonprofit work. Many of us floated into it from a variety of backgrounds. I think the professionalism is, overall, a good thing. I’m glad to hear that experience is highly valued too.

July 13, 2012 at 10:53 am
(14) Becky says:

Quoted from the above: “I’ve seen many highly skilled and experienced individuals get passed over for jobs, simply because they didn’t have a master’s degree.

Honestly, I don’t believe the particular type of master’s degree matters nearly as much as actually having one. I might place a higher value on a degree from a well-respected institution than the actual type of master’s. ”

That is kind of sad. There are many advantages to having a post-grad education. Fitting in with other business professionals, and just the “snob appeal” of having a Master’s in anything are two of them . But I don’t necessarily believe that getting a Masters just to say you have one should be a determining factor in who an organization employs. Look at the person and their achievements, not just the document on the wall.

July 13, 2012 at 11:19 am
(15) nonprofit says:

Ah…well said, Becky!

August 1, 2012 at 4:28 pm
(16) Heather Carpenter says:

I’m not sure when your Guide to Nonprofit-Focused graduate degree programs was written but it missed discussing Master’s in Nonprofit Management or Master’s of Arts in Philanthropic Studies degree programs and the Nonprofit Academic Center’s Council, an association of many nonprofit-focused graduate degree programs. I wrote a blog post last year titled “Setting the Record Straight about Nonprofit-Focused Graduate degree programs”


August 1, 2012 at 9:09 pm
(17) nonprofit says:

Heather, thanks so much for the information. The article is on my updating list and your suggestions will be very helpful.

January 17, 2013 at 11:04 am
(18) Liz Fletcher says:

If anyone is interested in a career or education in Clinical Research then take a look at the Clinical Research Masters Degree at The University of Southampton. This Masters Degree is a recognised component of the National Institute of Health Research Clinical Academic Careers Training Pathway. Have a look at http://www.southampton.ac.uk/healthsciences for more information.

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