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A Guide to Graduate Degree Programs for Nonprofit Professionals

Choosing a Master's Degree Program in Nonprofit


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Close to 11 million people, or about 10.1% of the U.S. workforce, are employed by the nonprofit sector. Are you one of these people? Do you want to be?

Whether you’re looking for a career boost or an opportunity to break into the nonprofit world, a masters degree focused on the public sector may help you get there.

As the realization that passion doesn’t automatically lead to success comes to more and more non-profit managers, public sector organizations have changed their business model to run themselves more and more like their for-profit counterparts.

The good news is that colleges and universities across the country are getting the hint. Nonprofit-focused graduate programs exist many schools and they are sure to grow as organizations begin to rely on the training and talent of a new generation of public sector leaders.

Should I go back?

The recent growth in the number of nonprofit-focused graduate programs means that there are plenty of opportunities to stand out in the pool of nonprofit job candidates, but it also indicates that an increasingly competitive job market is afoot.

While graduate degrees are not generally required for public sector jobs, if you are serious about your career goals in this area, an advanced degree is certainly something to consider. If the growing popularity of these degree programs continues, enrolling sooner rather than later will put you ahead of the game.

What are my choices?

Is there a program out there for you? You may be surprised at the variety of nonprofit-focused degree programs that exist. Here are descriptions of a few:

  • MBA: Master of Business Administration programs come with a variety of public sector “twists” such as Northwestern’s Social Enterprise concentration at the Kellogg School of Business. Net Impact published a survey titled Business as UNusual, which outlines approximately 40 business school programs that successfully incorporate a socially-focused curriculum.
  • MPA: The Master of Public Administration teaches students how to apply business skills to the public sector. If jobs like Grants Manager, Director of Development, Manager of Philanthropic Programs, or Community Involvement Representative interest you, an MPA may be what you are looking for.
  • MPP: A Master of Public Policy can lead to a career in local or state governments or governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations or think tanks. Positions may include Policy Analyst, Director of Research or Government Relations Manager.
  • MUP: A Master of Urban Planning degree focuses on city revitalization, empowerment of impoverished areas, and environmental concerns. Graduates typically secure jobs in such organizations as the UN, USAID, the World Bank, local and state housing agencies and nonprofit organizations that assist the homeless.
  • MSW: A Master of Social Work degree is generally required for any managerial position in this field and academic programs often include a year of classroom study and a year of field work. Graduates often find jobs in fields including adoption support, child protection, employment, hospice care, mental health counseling and school social work.

Can I afford it?

Top nonprofit-related graduate programs, such as those at Columbia, Johns Hopkins and Harvard, can be very expensive. These costs, combined with notoriously low public sector salaries make the decision to go back that much more difficult. But before you turn and run to the closest investment banking recruiter, remember the following:

  • A graduate degree will increase your value to an organization. Top nonprofit executives can make upwards of $100,000 per year.
  • If you are a newcomer to the public sector, an advanced degree will help you springboard past entry-level positions.
  • There is financial help. Research financial aid, scholarships, fellowships and work-study programs. Try NASPAA’s website or general financial aid sites such as FAFSA, GradLoans.com, or FinAid.
  • The schools you apply to probably offer work-study programs, graduate assistantships or scholarships. Often you must apply early to be considered for these programs so be sure to check your deadlines.
  • Be sure your program is accredited – Check for accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA)
  • Talk to current students and alumni – Take advantage of alumni networks or seek out fellow graduate students online to get advice and ask questions. Visit websites such as onPhilanthropy.com’s Future Leaders in Philanthropy (FLiP) page, the AFP Blog, or Charity Blogger to connect with people who share your interests.
  • Attend graduate school fairs – Idealist.org maintains a calendar of nonprofit focused graduate school fairs.
  • Follow your gut – The decision to go back to school is not an easy one, especially when studying for a non-traditional degree like an MPA or MPP. However, each day more and more attention is being placed on how to make the world a better place. So if you want to be a part of it, especially for the long haul, it might make sense to jump right into a graduate degree and not look back.
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