Careers in the nonprofit sector have become increasingly professionalized. Most now require at least a bachelor's degree, and to be competitive in a tight job market an advanced degree may be helpful.
A reader asked me recently if she should pursue a master's degree and which kind would be the best. She is currently a grant writer and looking to move up in her career.
I think this question is tougher to answer today than it was a few years ago. Tuition has increased at higher education institutions pretty much across the board, and there are fewer scholarships and fellowships available. Students at every level often wind up with hefty student debt.
Although some nonprofit jobs do pay quite well, the fact is that many do not, compared to those in the private sector. Serving a good cause and quality of life issues often lure people into nonprofit work...not high salaries.
So, is a master's degree worth it today? I turned to two nonprofit experts for advice.
Amy Eisenstein is a consultant, speaker, and author who has been in fundraising for most of her career. She has her own consulting firm, Tri Point Fundraising, and is the author of 50 Asks in 50 Weeks: A Guide to Better Fundraising for Your Small Development Shop.
Amy, who has a MPA (Master of Public Administration) with a concentration in nonprofit management from NYU, had this reply to the question of whether to get a master's degree or not:
My feeling is that a master's degree of most any kind (especially focused on nonprofit management/administration or fundraising) is extremely helpful in the nonprofit world, especially if you have aspirations of being a development director or executive director. 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.
Rosetta Thurman is an expert on nonprofit careers. She has been a force in the young professionals movement and is coauthor of How To Become A Nonprofit Rockstar: 50 Ways To Accelerate Your Career. Rossetta has addressed the question of whether to seek a master's degree several times on her blog.
Here is Rosetta's answer to my question about master's degrees:
It depends on the exact nonprofit path you want to take. For highly specialized nonprofit careers - like social work, medical or legal fields - a graduate degree may be required. For most nonprofit jobs though, a master's degree is a "nice to have" but certainly not a "must have."
If you want to stand out as a candidate for your dream nonprofit job, a master's degree is not quite as useful as relevant experience in that role or having a network of peers who feel you would make a good fit for the position. While a graduate degree certainly looks 'good' on your resume, it's simply not a guaranteed ticket into the sector.
If you do have a master's degree and want to leverage it for a successful nonprofit career, it's important to be able to talk about how your degree is relevant to the nonprofit job you'd like to have.
Whether or not to go for an advanced degree is clearly a complicated decision for those pursuing a nonprofit career, especially right now when both jobs and money for education are more constrained than usual. There is not only the decision about whether to pursue an advanced degree, but also choosing the right degree and program, whether to attend classes at a campus or online, and how to finance it.
I would advise that you weigh the cost/benefit ratio carefully. It might be wise to pursue a master's degree while still working, or make sure that you continue gaining experience during the time you're in school in some way. Plus there are a lot of ways to improve your skills short of going back to school for a master's.
Certificates in nonprofit fields are becoming more available, such as the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Certificate offered by AZ State's Lodestar Center. Professional certifications, such as the AFP's CFRE and ACRFE programs for fundraisers are also a valuable option.
Getting more experience through service programs such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or Vista can be very valuable. Attending professional conferences, taking seminars, and being active in professional organizations all add to one's creds, as well. Be sure to keep track of any professional development and list the best ones on your resume.
I agree with both of our experts. If you are set on leading a nonprofit or heading up the development department, then an advanced degree might be well worth the time and expense. If not, you could be better off beefing up your experience and engaging in career-long professional development.
Find out which master's degrees are popular for nonprofit careers and how to evaluate which is right for you in A Guide to Nonprofit-Focused Graduate Degree Programs.