• Becoming-a-nonprofit-manager

    By Lynn Wilson, PhD, Academic Department Chair, Public Administration and Communication

    Nonprofit management is a draw for new graduates with the right credentials, experienced professionals in a variety of fields, and current nonprofit employees. In addition to my role as Chair at Kaplan University, I have been managing a nonprofit organization for over a decade, so changing conditions within the nonprofit sphere are part of my daily life. Like any other field, nonprofit management has trends that influence transitions into (and out of) management. Because of the unique cultures and types of public service provided by nonprofit organizations, both tangible and intangible considerations apply when developing a successful career path to nonprofit management.

    The size of an organization offers clues. Smaller ones tend to need a more generalized skill set at every level; budgets are tighter but opportunities for creativity and impact are often greater than at the larger organizations. Larger organizations may offer more apparent stability and resources, but a careful examination of funding and growth patterns will reveal whether or not a program is truly solid. Larger organizations are frequently more compartmentalized with fewer “hands-on” opportunities for managers to work with the program constituents, but they have larger budgets and a broader potential reach.

    As aspiring managers update curricula vitae or resumes with an eye to being serious candidates for nonprofit management, they highlight strengths and fill holes that exist. Wisely, they will consider the particular targeted organization and examine management profiles to see what education or experience is required to be competitive. Then, they honestly evaluate their own motivation seeking a nonprofit management position alongside the type and size of organization that best fits their goals, abilities, aspirations, and personality.

    Education and experience are the tangible requirements. Some graduate degrees, such as a Master of Public Administration (MPA), prepare professionals to manage projects and personnel at any size nonprofit organization. An MPA focuses on management, leadership, finance, and other areas from the public sector point of view, differentiating it from a business or other sectoral focus. While a specialized graduate degree may be required some positions (such as scientific research director), nonprofit management candidates can often acquire needed specialized skills, training, or certificates to augment an MPA degree. In my experience, employers respond positively to a strong MPA program because it provides a good foundation for public service management. And, the MPA may be transferrable across disciplinary boundaries should a nonprofit career progress into a new content area. If a PhD is required, the MPA degree offers a good foundation for many terminal degrees nonprofit managers acquire. Opportunities also exist in consulting in which the MPA is useful in a broad range of disciplines across topic like program measurement and evaluation, public finance, and fund development.

    Those looking to advance in a nonprofit career will want to gain as much experience as possible through internships, volunteer opportunities, consultancies or short-term projects (paid or unpaid), and publications. In the public sector in general and in nonprofits in particular, volunteer activity is often desirable as many of these organizations utilize volunteers in their day to day activities. Volunteering also demonstrates an attitude towards service that is in sync with many nonprofit organizational cultures. Contributing to published works and reports, particularly with a byline, helps create a portfolio of accomplishments that show expertise. That expertise may be transferable to a different nonprofit sector, or help one to enter the nonprofit arena. Creativity counts; for example, if a desired organization is working to change laws or regulations, experience as a legislative aid, researcher, or intern may be extremely valuable even if there is no intention of working in government service. High professional visibility is critical in nonprofit management advancement. Most nonprofits look for exposure opportunities and the ability to help them with social media, fund development, a website, or special project may help individuals advance towards management.

    Some organizations also require significant and/or specialized expertise or education in the field of service (e.g. child abuse, endocrine health or environmental pollution) while others may be more open to generalist public sector management credentials. In general, advocacy oriented nonprofit organizations tend to hire more generalists while research organizations look for more in-depth knowledge and expertise in the content area.  Specific management positions may also carry requirements. For instance, a concentration in emergency management within an MPA may be important for candidates looking to work in disaster relief. Fund development tends to be more generic across organizations while the work of a research program manager would likely entail much more in-depth subject matter knowledge coupled with research design and execution. But all require nonprofit management capabilities and usually an appropriate degree.

    Visit websites of interesting organizations and look at the actual work of the organization. During reviews of projects, reports, publications, products and partnerships, ask questions such as:

    Does a project manager or director need substantive knowledge in the field as well as public sector management expertise, and if so, what credentials are required or desirable? Can one obtain these through short courses delivered online or locally? What are the costs and is there a special certificate obtained upon completion of the course that holds weight in the field?

    What are the best ways to develop a network within the profession that would benefit you in achieving and advancing in a management position within a particular organization? Do the leaders of that nonprofit belong to certain organizations, attend certain conferences, or show up at particular events? Is it possible to meet them by attending the same events? Is using social media desirable or appropriate? Identifying and setting up an informational interview with a nonprofit leader and planning what to say during that interview can be a good strategy.

    Be realistic about the potential for advancement within a particular organization. If barriers appear to exist, create a plan to overcome them. For example, according to a 2012 University of Denver study, women comprise a large percentage of the nonprofit workforce but hold only 21% of leadership roles in nonprofits with budgets in excess of $25 million. What skills, education, or special characteristics can offset any such barriers? 

    Intangible factors also require your attention. Nonprofit work is a special type of public service. Successful nonprofit managers are nearly always extremely passionate about what they do. Passion is emotion; therefore connection with organizational mission, culture, and vision is important, particularly for cause-related nonprofit organizations. A nonprofit such as an educational institution may be less moved by an aspiring manager’s passion than a youth climate change advocacy group, but alignment with the larger social mission of any organization is still a critical element for successful managers.

    Nonprofits focus a considerable amount of energy on intangibles. Melanie Lockwood Herman offers a short list of these in the Nonprofit Risk Management Sector publication “Intriguing Intangibles." They include volunteer and board expertise and commitment, organizational reputation with important stakeholders, partnerships and collaborations, and intellectual property. These intangible assets are frequently non-negotiable and deeply embedded within the culture.

    After the background research has been completed, and after having talked with respected nonprofit managers in organizations of interest, make it personal. Consider your reaction to what you have learned: are you inspired by the people, products, and outcomes of the organization? Can you see yourself contributing now and into the future with this organization or sector of nonprofit service? Do you want to learn more about the subject matter and topics you would focus on every day? Are you excited to lead new initiatives? And finally, that age-old question: does this organization engage in work that you would do, even if you were never paid for it?

    There is one more step to advancing within nonprofit management; apply for positions and take each experience as an opportunity to hone your interviewing skills or professional presence, and fill any knowledge gaps you may have before the next one. Perseverance pays off and may even help you better define and prepare for the perfect nonprofit management position.


    Lynn Wilson is an Academic Department Chair at Kaplan University. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Kaplan University. The University cannot guarantee employment or career advancement.  

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    It is important to note that certain career paths are growing and our degrees are designed to strengthen your knowledge and prepare our students to advance their careers. But Kaplan University cannot guarantee employment or career advancement. Several factors specific to a student’s or alumni’s backgrounds and actions, as well as economic and job conditions, affect employment. Also, keep in mind that national long-term projections covered in articles may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.


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