Higher Education for Nonprofit Leaders? Part One: Considerations

We receive many inquiries from emerging nonprofit leaders – mid-career professionals, those new-to-the-workforce, and those coming from the for-profit sector – about advanced education in nonprofit management.

This two-part series focuses on considerations and options. We’ll post regional degree options as a follow up to this piece shortly.

Photo by Steve Braund via flickr - modified
Photo by Steve Braund via flickr – modified

As with all nonprofit planning processes, this question breaks into two questions – what do I need to do based on where I’m at and my goals? and, with that understanding, what are my options?

These questions include various shades of the following questions:

Do I need another degree? Will I be able to use my undergraduate degree, on-the-job experience and skill-specific training to advance in my career? Is this the right time?

What degrees are available in our area and which are most suitable to my career path? What practical information can I get about applying, financial aid, and student loan debt? How will I pay for this?

Who can talk to me about career planning? Who has experience with some of these particular options?

Happily, you have access to some quality, reliable, and authoritative resources to guide your decision making process.

To help you answer the basic question, “to go or not to go,” Commongood Careers offers the following guidance.

“When contemplating “to go or not to go,” ask yourself the following questions:

  • What educational credentials are required in my field or career of interest?
  • How will a specific degree or certification help me achieve my career goals?
  • Are there comparable ways to earn the same training and knowledge available through a graduate or continuing education program? (e.g. internships, volunteering, on-the-job experience)
  • Will a specific degree or certification make me a more attractive candidate to particular nonprofits? (This is especially relevant to jobseekers new to the nonprofit sector and recent college graduates.)
  • Will I be able to manage the expense and potential debt resulting from a graduate or continuing education program?
  • Does the time required to continue my education fit with my current or desired lifestyle?”

– from the post, “Advancing Your Nonprofit Career Through Continuing Education

Click through to thier post to discover some of the personal stories of nonprofit continuing ed, and to check out the handy nonprofit course of study chart.

In your information-gathering stage, be sure to visit Idealist’s Grad School Resource Center. Here you’ll find quality articles, videos, and podcasts. (Some resources require registration to gain access.)

Idealist‘s Grad School Resource Center Topics include:

Idealist also offers a rich list of degree overviews:

If you are considering a degree outside of nonprofit management, the IdealistNonprofitManagement guide (PDF) asks you to ponder:

“When you enroll in a specialized degree in nonprofit management you gain the skills and knowledge specific to and necessary for leadership in this growing and dynamic sector. The sheer diversity of nonprofit organizations and the issues they work on means that nonprofits require leaders with a thorough understanding of the complex nonprofit landscape.

Furthermore, your classmates will be very likely to share your interest in and knowledge of nonprofits.”

That’s not to discredit programs such as Masters of Business Administration or Public Affairs, but to encourage you to consider your personal and professional needs. How do you learn? Do you need the support and growth offered through a peer group? Will your program give you the flexibility to apply your learning specifically to nonprofit study?


A large part of your decision to pursue a Nonprofit Graduate degree will be informed by your financial options. We have no doubts about why one of our most popular posts covers Public Student Loan Forgiveness.

In Heather Jarvis you will find a Student Loan Expert who,

“didn’t realize she couldn’t afford an expensive education until after she got one.

At one time, people who earned fancy grades at fancy law schools got offered fancy jobs with fancy paychecks.  Having become all fancyfied, Heather had to decide: take the job she had been dreaming about all her life that only paid $25,000 per year (representing people facing criminal prosecution), or make a boatload of money.”  – from Heather’s About Me page

With Heather’s guidance, you will discover free tools, websites and online courses for borrowers. If you are either uninformed or overwhelmed by the options in repayment plans, tax credits, and financial aid, start with the Fact Sheets (posted under Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Income-Based Repayment).


A final resource we’d like to suggest are your peers, mentors and coaches. Who can you seek out for advice on your personal/professional growth? Who do you know who has taken steps toward or completed a degree?

Do you know someone who’s willing to provide a fresh perspective? Perhaps an executive or board member from another organization who has experience hiring for leadership positions? With whom can you have a confidential conversation?

The richest resources in your professional and personal growth are available through relationship. What steps can you take today to build supportive mentorships and coaching relationships?

Review of the M E N T O R I N G the next generation of nonprofit leaders: A practical guide for managers packet from the Center for Leadership Development gives you the values and best practices of a mentoring relationship.

We’d love to chat.  Our work is confidential. We’ve talked with emerging leaders about their career paths, some of whom have put their graduate degree on hold while they gain post-undergraduate /on-the-job experience and supplemented their learning through our programs, connections and resources.

And we’re so happy to help you. 421-1238 or nrc@acpl.info.

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