What Can I Do With a Nonprofit Management Degree?

Even a charitable nonprofit serving the common good is, at the end of the day, a business. Nonprofits that don’t deliver value soon fail. Nonprofits that operate efficiently and effectively succeed. A nonprofit can only benefit society to the extent that it operates well and brings in the funding needed to keep operating. Too many nonprofits rely on passion alone, and lack the solid business management foundation they need for long-term success.

nonprofit management

To operate smoothly and effectively, a nonprofit must recruit and retain great staff, create a compelling message and deliver it to the public, develop employee skills, set fiscal goals, and stand out from organizations doing similar work. Performing these tricky tasks requires more than idealism and commitment- it requires a set of solid business skills that are specific to the nonprofit sector. That’s exactly the skill set that a nonprofit manager delivers.

Nonprofit managers are directors who oversee the management of staff, finances, programs, business operations, or public relations for a nonprofit. They must understand the ins and outs of grants and fundraising, managing staff, and creating budgets. They must also have leadership, organization, and communication skills.

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Employment in nonprofits is rising. Nonprofit jobs now account for as many jobs as the manufacturing sector. Nonprofit managers are in demand as leaders at global and community nonprofits, healthcare, schools and universities, foundations, or in the arts. Nonprofit managers are especially sought-after as development and fundraising leaders.

With a degree in nonprofit management, it’s possible to make a good living while still serving the greater good. But the path to earning a nonprofit management degree and a career in the field can be a long one. Read on to learn about the discipline, the academics, and the job market for a nonprofit management degree.

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What is a Nonprofit?

We tend to think of nonprofits as scrappy, idealistic movements undertaken for the public good. And while this is often true, many are incredibly large and well-established institutions. Grassroots nonprofits aren’t big on their own, but there are thousands of them. Taken altogether, nonprofits of all sizes add up to a surprisingly large piece of the workforce and economy.

We’re all familiar with traditional charities like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Second Harvest, the World Wildlife Organization, Doctors without Borders, and Habitat for Humanity. The National Council of Nonprofits estimates that there are 1.3 million charitable nonprofits in the US alone. These institutions serve the public good by providing goods or services to the public or specific groups in need. But many other organizations can be nonprofits as well, some of which may be surprising:

  • Chambers of Commerce
  • Daycares
  • Hospitals
  • Credit Unions
  • Private Foundations
  • Civic Leagues
  • Labor Unions
  • Sports and Recreation Clubs
  • Fraternal Societies

The IRS recognizes over 30 types of nonprofit organization. And while not all nonprofit are exempt from all state and federal taxes, each category qualifies for some degree of tax exemption.

At the most basic level, a nonprofit is an entity created to further a particular social cause or advocate for a certain viewpoint. In practical economic terms, a nonprofit is different from a business because it puts any revenue it generates back into serving its mission, while a business directs that revenue to partners, shareholders, or members. Money raised by nonprofits through donations, fees, fundraisers, sponsorships, and grants all goes back into the cost of operations and advancing the goals of the nonprofit’s mission.


What is Nonprofit Management?

In a nutshell, managers create value by strategically deploying limited resources. Managers are both leaders and administrators. Simply put, nonprofit management is the administration and management of a not-for-profit organization.

Those at the top of an organization, such as the CEO, executive board members, and director of an organization are tasked with defining the organization’s mission, strategy, and coordination. Those at the bottom of the organization’s ladder are the “boots on the ground,” performing the hands-on, day-to-day operations that the organization performs. A manger helps the employees directly providing services to perform their roles and communicates between this group and the higher-ups. They serve as a bridge between the people performing the work of an organization and the leadership setting the organization’s strategic goals. Managers need to keep C-suite executives informed about practical operations and keep direct workers informed about the organization’s big-picture strategy.

Some of the broadest responsibilities of a nonprofit manager include:

  • shaping the team’s culture
  • promoting collaboration and team building
  • finding and developing resources
  • setting and aligning employee expectations
  • facilitating communication between employees and departments

Business is a risky venture, and nonprofits are, too. The National Center on Charitable Statistics has found that about 30% of nonprofits fold within ten years. According to Forbes, poor planning and oversight play a major role in this high rate of closure. Qualified and skilled nonprofit managers can be the deciding factor between a nonprofit’s success and failure. They can improve the performance of ground-level staff and shape the perceptions and expectations of top leadership, laying the groundwork for a more sound venture and greater long-term success.


What Do Nonprofit Managers Do?

The duties of a nonprofit manager vary according to their role. Managers working for a small nonprofit will typically wear many hats, while large nonprofits will have managers for their different departments and functions. A large nonprofit organization may have managers who are dedicated specifically to handling:

  • fundraising manager
  • human resource manager
  • operations manager
  • public relations manager

In a small organization, a nonprofit manager will usually take on the responsibilities of two or more of these roles. Small nonprofits usually have limited staff and tight budgets, so they need to be especially resourceful and flexible to stay afloat. Nonprofit managers working in small and grassroots organizations are usually expected to pitch in as new projects and problems arise. In addition to their usual nonprofit management tasks, they may find themselves recruiting new staff, writing grants, onboarding new employees, planning a pledge drive, or reorganizing the supply room.

Broadly speaking, nonprofit managers mainly focus on either (or both) of two primary areas in their daily tasks: securing funding and overseeing staff. Getting funding is all about reaching outside the organization to bring in resources. Managing staff is all about looking within the organization to help employees be successful in their roles and keep day-to-day operations running smoothly.

Some of the specific tasks that relate to fundraising include:

  • creating fundraising strategies
  • searching and contacting potential donors
  • networking with funding contacts
  • planning events like fundraisers and pledge drives
  • researching and writing grants
  • set and track progress towards fundraising goals

Some of the specific tasks that relate to managing staff include:

  • assign duties to employees and volunteers
  • oversee activities and outcomes
  • monitor staff usage of resources
  • supervise staff and provide performance feedback
  • resolve conflicts between staff members and facilitate communication
  • inform executives and spokespeople about day-to-day operations

Miscellaneous tasks often c completed by nonprofit managers may include:

  • writing and publishing press releases
  • creating and posting content for social media accounts
  • soliciting input from the population served by the nonprofit
  • researching news and following trends in the organization’s areas of operation

What Degree Do I Need for Nonprofit Management?

It may be possible to move up to a nonprofit management position without a college degree by starting with an entry-level, direct work position and rising up through the ranks. But most nonprofit managers hold at least a bachelor’s degree.

Many people working as nonprofit managers did not earn degrees specifically related to this field. Most hold a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts discipline such as political science, sociology, gender studies, psychology, or English. Nonprofit managers with this type of background bring potentially useful outside knowledge to their jobs, but will not have received formal training in management or nonprofit organizations as part of their academics. In fact, a survey conducted by Proinspire found that half of nonprofit leaders report that they didn’t possess the “knowledge, experience, and resources to be successful.”

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A degree in nonprofit management can provide a strong foundation for leadership success, and is best for those who know that they want to work in the nonprofit sphere. There are some schools that offer a Nonprofit management degrees are usually offered as master’s degrees. This means that you’ll first need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as business administration, sociology, or communication. Either during or after earning your undergraduate degree, you’ll want to gain workplace experience at a nonprofit before applying to graduate school. This nonprofit experience could be through an internship, practicum, or as an employee.

A master’s degree in nonprofit management can be earned as a Master of Professional Studies (MPS) or Master of Science (MS) degree or as a Master of Business Administration (MBA). An MPS/MS in nonprofit management typically requires two years of full-time study, which an MBA usually takes longer, often requiring three years to earn. Many programs also offer part-time and/or online degrees, designed for those who already hold jobs to earn their degrees while keeping their work schedules. There are also accelerated master’s degrees available for those who want to finish sooner by completing the same content in a shorter time frame. Accelerated master’s degree programs, whether online or on-campus, typically take 18 months to complete.

An MBA in nonprofit management is an excellent choice for those who want to shape the financial and structural well-being of a nonprofit. Unfortunately, nonprofits are widely known for being driven by mission-focused passion rather than objective and sound business decisions. But without robust finances, nonprofits simply can’t deliver on their missions. Leaders with an MBA in nonprofit management are poised to solve this all-too-common problem by applying sound business practices to nonprofits. This qualification is relatively rare and highly sought-after by employers.

Some nonprofit management degrees offer concentrations in career-focused areas such as:

  • Operations and Finance
  • Leadership and Strategy
  • Talent Management
  • Fundraising and Marketing
  • School Leadership

What Classes Will I Take for a Degree in Nonprofit Management?

Every university designs its own curriculum for their degrees in nonprofit management, and the content and structure varies between institutions greatly. That’s largely because teaching management isn’t a technical discipline like teaching, say, anatomy or software programming. There are many different approaches to building skills like leadership, decision-making, and communication, and each school will emphasize its own framework.

A degree in nonprofit management will demonstrate to students how different types of nonprofits operate, and teach theories of management. A quality program will also introduce students to the crucial current topics in the success of modern nonprofit organizations, such as:

  • new technologies relevant to the field
  • digital media communications
  • data gathering and analytics
  • public-private partnerships

As students progress through their curriculum, coursework usually transitions from introductory and theoretical to practical applications and specialized material. Most programs include electives as well as requirements, allowing nonprofit management students to specialize in an area of professional interest.

Typical classes for a nonprofit management degree include titles such as:

  • Introduction to the Nonprofit Sector
  • Ethics in the Nonprofit Sector
  • Nonprofit Governance
  • Introduction to Fundraising for Nonprofits
  • Nonprofit Marketing and Communication
  • Mission and Management
  • Measuring and Analyzing Impact
  • Nonprofit Financial Management
  • The Business of Philanthropy
  • Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Nonprofit Organizations
  • Grant Writing
  • International Nonprofit Management
  • Introduction to Planned Giving
  • Legal Issues in the Nonprofit Landscape

In addition to course work, graduate degree students usually complete a Capstone Project or Thesis in their last semester. Nonprofit Management master’s degree students usually also complete a workplace internship under the supervision of an experienced nonprofit manager. In addition to building real-world experience, many nonprofit management students form important professional connections through their internships.


Where Can I Work in Nonprofit Management?

According to the Concord Leadership Group, there will be openings for 80,000 senior and management leaders in the nonprofit sector each year. Nonprofit managers can choose their workplace among an almost-infinite variety of nonprofit institutions, such as:

  • social justice organizations
  • environmental groups
  • healthcare centers
  • arts organizations
  • advocacy groups
  • schools
  • religious institutions
  • research organizations
  • international development programs
  • foundations

Of these, healthcare is the biggest overall employer in the nonprofit sector, accounting for 55% of nonprofit jobs, followed by education (16%) and social assistance (12%).

Nonprofit managers typically work in an office environment, but regularly make trips to perform site visits, personally oversee program activities, meet with potential donors, attend conferences, and deliver speeches. Depending on the size and nature of the nonprofit employer, travel may be regularly required.


What is the Job Market for Nonprofit Management?

Nonprofit Hub reports that the nonprofit sector has expanded by 20% over the course of the past decade. The for-profit sector, on the other hand, has grown by just 2-3% during that time. Existing nonprofits are also mostly set to expand in the near future. This means more job openings, and more upward mobility for qualified nonprofit managers.

According to Salary.com, the average salary for a job in nonprofit management ranges from $80,893 and $96,954. Not surprisingly, staff that generate money for their nonprofit earn more money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Nonprofit Public Relations and Fundraising Managers earn an average of $114,800 per year, with the bottom ten percent earning $64,250 and the top ten percent earning $208,000. Nonprofit Public Relations and Fundraising Managers usually work for large institutions that rely on donations, such as large museums, universities, and hospitals. Positions in this field of nonprofit management are expected to grow at a rate of 8% between 2018 and 2028, faster than the average across all occupations.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports that nonprofit social and community service managers typically earn a salary of $65,320, with the bottom ten percent earning $40,720 and the top ten percent earning $111,150. This type of nonprofit manager does less administrative and communication work, and focuses more on supervising the workers providing direct services to the public. They also oversee day-to-day operations and programs within a nonprofit organization. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that demand for nonprofit social and community service managers will grow 13% between 2018 and 2028, far faster than the national average for all occupations.


What are the Pros and Cons of a Degree in Nonprofit Management?

A degree in nonprofit management is not the right fit for everyone- or even for most. To pursue a degree in this field and succeed in the workplace, you’ll need a head for business, excellent people skills, and a sense of personal investment in a cause. Most people with business skills, simply put, are drawn to business, and dream of climbing the corporate ladder. Nonprofit managers are leaders who use their skills not only to support themselves but to serve the greater good.

Of course, the biggest drawback of a nonprofit management career is the compensation. Nonprofits know that to attract talented leaders, they need to offer the best possible salaries, and nonprofit management is lucrative compared to other roles in the nonprofit world. But in comparison to similar positions in the for-profit world, nonprofit managers’ salaries are far lower. Nonprofits are accountable to donors for every dollar they spend, and most want to minimize money spent on overhead rather than delivering services. To help offset salary constraints, nonprofits usually aim to offer other benefits, such as ample vacation time, flexible hours, or professional development opportunities.

On the other hand, the obvious reason to pursue a nonprofit management degree is the potential to achieve meaningful change and affect social improvements. This degree gives graduates a clear path to a career that is both well-compensated and personally fulfilling. According to a recent Gallup poll, 80% of recent college graduates stated that feeling a sense of purpose in their work is very important to them.

If you would rather advance an ideals-driven mission than promote the interests of a corporation, and are willing to accept a more modest salary, this may be the right field for you. To succeed as a nonprofit manager, you’ll also need to be:

  • business-minded
  • goal-oriented
  • flexible
  • resourceful
  • an excellent communicator

Further Reading

Carrie Morris

Warren Dahl