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Nonprofit managers face the ultimate test of effective leadership--the delivery of services in the context of limited resources and strict accountability. An advanced degree in nonprofit management helps management professionals operate effectively in a nonprofit environment. The unique challenges nonprofit leaders confront include public scrutiny, government regulation, fluctuating budgets, and fundraising and advocacy demands.

An online PhD in nonprofit management prepares you to advance management practice in a nonprofit context, either as an academic scholar or as a professional practitioner. The doctoral degree is the highest qualification in the nonprofit management discipline. Achieving this distinction takes a great deal of planning and personal commitment. This guide can help you forge a path to success by taking the application process step by step, from exploring available PhD programs in business to preparing the application.

A Guide to PhD and DBA Programs in Nonprofit Management

Nonprofit management brings together a unique array of business and social science disciplines. The field draws on organizational behavior and public policy as well as business fundamentals--marketing, finance, operations management, information systems, and more. Nonprofit management represents a relatively new interdisciplinary field, emerging in the past decade or so as a doctoral-level qualification. A comprehensive 2002 study conducted by Seton Hall University found nearly 300 colleges and universities with courses in nonprofit management, 168 of them with master's or doctoral programs in nonprofit management. Since then, the proportion of online doctorate degrees has grown to meet rising demand.

PhD vs. DBA

One of the first decisions you'll encounter is which doctoral degree to pursue: the Doctor of Philosophy or the Doctor of Business Administration? Both degrees are rigorous, research-focused programs with similar course and qualifying exam requirements. Differences arise at the research stage: while the PhD degree emphasizes original theoretical research, the DBA focuses on the application of existing theory to a real-world problem.

This important distinction carries implications for your career path. The PhD is a traditional social science degree that leads directly into an academic career. PhD candidates apprentice as teaching and research assistants, and work closely with faculty mentors. The DBA, by contrast, is designed to give senior nonprofit managers the knowledge and research skills they need to perform effectively in executive-level roles.

Your career goals will determine which doctoral program in nonprofit management is right for you. Deciding whether to pursue an academic or professional track can help you focus the application process from the outset.

Career Track

PhD and DBA programs in nonprofit management open doors to a range of academic and professional practice careers. The majority of PhD graduates--about two-thirds--go on to academic degrees, with the remaining third taking jobs as consultants, researchers, or nonprofit leaders. DBA graduates typically take professional jobs, though a select few find jobs as instructors at professional business schools.

Academic careers include:

  • University professor
  • Business school faculty
  • Academic researcher or independent scholar

Academic business careers are thriving in response to a shortage of doctoral candidates. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) forecasts a shortage of business faculty, with an estimated 2,400 openings by 2012. Since nonprofit management is still an emerging discipline, graduates may encounter a more limited job market.

The average annual salary of a postsecondary business teacher in 2010 was $85,470, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); the top 10 percent in that group earned $152,310. Business instructors employed by colleges, universities and professional schools earned an average of $92,370 per year in 2010, the BLS reports.

Professional career options include:

  • Nonprofit director
  • Public policy specialist
  • Fundraising director
  • Government agency director
  • Nonprofit consultant

Graduates of nonprofit doctorate programs find themselves on the fast track to senior-level positions at nonprofits. Many graduates put their education to work by establishing their own nonprofit organization.

For more information on careers in the nonprofit sector, explore resources online or contact a career counselor at a nearby college or university. 


Universities generally classify nonprofit management as a specialized concentration of the management or leadership doctorate. However, some schools offer nonprofit management as a distinct degree with its own concentrations. Options include:

  • Fund Development
  • Nonprofit Marketing and Public Relations
  • Nonprofit Budgeting and Financial Management
  • Program Management
  • Resource Management

Since nonprofit management is an emerging academic discipline, schools are likely to accommodate your particular research interests. When choosing a program, pay particular attention to the availability of faculty who share your interests and can direct your research.

How to Apply for DBA and PhD Programs in Nonprofit Management

Armed with a clear vision of your scholarly and career goals, the application process becomes a straightforward logistical exercise: how can you get from point A to point B? The following steps will help you determine the best route to your career destination.

Find the Right Doctoral Degree Program

Which management doctorate is right for you? WorldWideLearn.com offers a range of resources to facilitate the research process. The Career Resources guide can help you identify personal traits that match up with skills and competencies for various fields of work, and will help you decide what kind of education you need. 

This step-by-step guide takes you through each stage of the school search. You'll find links to useful online resources for each step.

Step One: Find Accredited PhD and DBA Programs in Nonprofit Management

Accreditation by an independent, federally recognized accrediting agency is the basic arbiter of a doctoral degree program's academic quality. It not only ensures the value of your degree, but also qualifies you for federal loans. Any program you consider should have the validation of an international, national, or regional agency. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of approved accreditation agencies.


  • The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is the only internationally recognized accreditation authority, with nearly 600 member institutions. The AACSB offers a searchable online database of its accredited schools. You can view a list of schools based on your desired location, program of study, degree level, and campus or online delivery format.
  • WorldWideLearn.com features a database of accredited online PhD and DBA degrees in nonprofit management. The site enforces a high quality standard for all its education partners, taking into account accreditation and other factors. Learn more about the accreditation process or browse a list of university partners.

Step Two: Select a Campus or Online Program Format

Graduate business schools have led innovation in online education, serving students (many of whom are mid-career professionals) with a full spectrum educational delivery options. Choose from:

  • Online PhD or DBA degrees
  • Campus doctoral programs
  • Mixed-format programs

Online degrees offer the best option for working adults pursuing a professional practice doctorate. The Internet-mediated program allows students to complete the degree at their own pace, interacting with faculty and peers through online message boards and other media. The online format has obvious advantages for adults juggling work and family commitments.

Aside from scheduling flexibility, the online format also benefits students aiming for a career as a professional scholar-practitioner. By enabling students to keep one foot in academia and one in the workplace, the online program encourages productive synergy between academic theory and real-world applications. Online PhD and DBA programs in nonprofit management typically allow students to take advantage of their dual role by creating research projects they can apply directly in their government or nonprofit job.

Campus residency is a crucial asset for students aspiring to academic careers. Many online PhD programs in nonprofit management require temporary campus residency to ensure that students take advantage of campus resources and forge strong alliances with faculty. A full-time campus program is a great choice for an academic career path. The campus PhD affords access to teaching and research assistantships, which serve as apprenticeships for faculty positions. In addition, students enjoy support of faculty mentors and campus facilities (libraries, computer labs, etc.) to complete original research for their dissertation.

Step Three: Explore Academic Program Options

The program exploration phase is the heart of the school research process. In this stage, you'll narrow down your list of schools by exploring the unique features of each institution. In addition to finding schools with programs in your chosen specialty, you'll need to engage counselors and faculty directly to determine which program best matches your research interests.

Take into account the following factors as you explore individual PhD and DBA programs in nonprofit management:

  • Specializations
  • Faculty research
  • Curriculum and course requirements
  • Special programs (nonprofit or government internships, pro bono consulting "clinics", etc.)


WorldWideLearn.com streamlines your fact-finding mission by putting you in touch with schools that match your baseline criteria. Fill out an online form indicating your preferences and the system will automatically connect you with schools that have the programs and learning environment you want.

School Web sites can provide you with detailed information about the doctoral program. Look for faculty bios and curriculum vitae, course reading lists, and other materials. Most business school departments will post information about course requirements and special nonprofit management programs.

Academic journals offer inside insight into faculty research. Consult journals in nonprofit management to find out who the experts are--and where they teach. Since faculty mentorships are so important at the doctorate level, many students choose their school largely based on the specialist with whom they hope to work.

Major nonprofit management journals include:

  • Journal for Nonprofit Management
  • Nonprofit Management and Leadership (NML)
  • The Nonprofit Times

Step Four: Evaluate Program Quality

Finally, develop a short list of schools based on quality and value considerations. Generally speaking, your list should reflect your own competitiveness as an applicant, with at least one "dream" school slightly above your level and one "safety" school well within your reach.

Factors to consider when evaluating a campus or online PhD or DBA program in nonprofit management include:

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity
  • Graduation Rate
  • Job Placement Statistics
  • Career Support Resources
  • Student Body Profile


Selectivity data will give you a general sense of how you measure up to the average doctoral student in terms of undergraduate grades and test scores. Use this data to guide your selection of appropriate schools.

Rankings offer an independent assessment of where different campus and online degree programs stand relative to each other. Authoritative business school rankings include:

Financial Times
The Wall Street Journal
EIU Economist Intelligence Unit

Since each publication ranks schools based on a proprietary algorithm, results vary widely. In an effort to develop a more authoritative ranking system, Financial Times has introduced a comprehensive ranking that incorporates data from all five rankings.

School Data. Contact school representatives to obtain detailed, up-to-date data on student retention, job placement statistics, student body profile (including gender and racial distribution, etc.)

Preparing for a PhD Program in Nonprofit Management

Once you've settled on a shortlist of PhD or DBA in nonprofit management programs, the application process is a matter of connecting the dots. Plan to complete any prerequisites and compile the materials for your application.

Prerequisites may include:

  • Basic business or management courses
  • A bachelor's degree in a related field
  • Work experience
  • Standardized tests such as the GRE or GMAT

Application materials typically include:

  • Faculty or professional letters of recommendation
  • Undergraduate grades
  • Test scores
  • A personal statement

Financial Aid

Finally, explore options for financing your education. PhD programs typically offer research and teaching assistantships that cover tuition costs and offer a small stipend. Professional and online PhD programs are less likely to cover expenses. Many of these programs do offer students loans with favorable rates. Other financial aid options include private grants and scholarships and federal loans.

Joining the Academic Community

Planning your PhD or DBA in nonprofit management represents the first step toward your career future. As the highest degree available in the field of nonprofit management, the doctorate serves as a valuable stepping stone to both scholarly and professional leadership roles. Focus your career vision now, and you'll be well on your way to developing your expertise in the emerging field of nonprofit management.



  • AACSB International--The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, 2008-2009 U.S. Salary Report
  • AACSB International--The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, AACSB Accredited Business Schools Database
  • AACSB International--The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, Becoming a Business Professor
  • About.com: Nonprofit Charitable Orgs., A Guide to Nonprofit-Focused Graduate Degree Programs, by Shannon Bond
  • BusinessWeek, Business PhD Applications on the Rise, by Alison Damasat
  • Capella University, Management of Nonprofit Agencies Specialization
  • Financial Times, Business Education, by Della Bradshaw
  • Seton Hall University, Nonprofit Management Education: Current Offering in University-Based Programs
  • U.S. Department of Education, Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs

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