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Learning Center Experience
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Don’t Let Self-Doubt and Negative Thoughts Keep You From Achieving Your Goals
Falling Into a Career
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And if you are considering pursuing higher education we invite you to find out more about Kaplan University’s programs and explore our undergraduate and graduate degree offerings.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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