How to Get a Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Management

It takes a skilled manager to lead effectively in a nonprofit environment. Nonprofit organizations face unique challenges, ranging from funding uncertainties to disclosure regulations. Efficient operations, careful planning, and strong communications are critical to achieving a nonprofit organization’s mission.

A master’s degree in nonprofit management prepares you to run a mission-driven organization. Available both as a social science and business administration graduate degree, the master’s in nonprofit management packs value both as a conceptual foundation for leadership and as a training ground for applied management skills. In addition to the education, the degree itself serves as a powerful credential capable of propelling you into positions of greater responsibility.’s guide to the master’s degree helps you build a foundation for success in the graduate program. Learn what your options are, research programs, and apply to the schools of your choice. Whether you intend to earn a master’s degree online or on campus, takes you through the application process step by step.

Guide to Master’s and MBA Degrees in Nonprofit Management

Understanding your graduate degree options can help you find the program best aligned with your career goals. Nonprofit management encompasses business administration, public affairs, policy, and specific subject matters related to the organization’s mission. The field touches on social science and health care disciplines such as anthropology, social work, international affairs, literacy, counseling, and public health.

Professional and Social Science Master’s Degrees

Business administration and social science master’s degrees feature similar curricula, but each program brings a unique perspective to the study of nonprofit management.

Master of Business Administration (MBA)

The MBA focuses on applying practical business skills in a nonprofit context. The emphasis is on sound financial planning, lean operations, and shrewd organizational strategy. For nonprofit managers aspiring to do more with fewer resources, this no-nonsense degree provides the necessary background.

Master of Science (MS)

The MS degree takes a more theoretical approach to the problem of managing a nonprofit. A traditional social science graduate degree, the Master of Science encourages students to pursue a specialized interest and produce an academic research thesis.

Master of Public Administration (MPA)

The MPA focuses on developing the leadership skills nonprofit managers rely on to coordinate teams and implement programs. The degree blends applied business training with more theoretical courses in policy and mission development.

Master of Public Policy (MPP)

The MPP in nonprofit management emphasizes policy issues related to nonprofits. Students focus on evaluating and improving the management of charitable foundations, fundraising programs, advocacy organizations, and international NGOs.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The MSW is designed for nonprofit managers working in social assistance organizations such as hospice care, workforce reentry programs, mental health counseling, etc. The degree focuses on the efficient delivery of specialized social services via a nonprofit organization.

Resources features an overview of master’s degree options, as well as a detailed look at online master’s degrees and online MBA programs.


No matter which master’s degree in nonprofit management you choose, you have the opportunity to pursue training in a specialized area. Specialization opportunities vary according to the degree. In an MBA program, which emphasizes broad, applied business education, specialization entails taking a couple elective courses in a topic of your choice. The academic Master of Science, by contrast, allows students to devote the final year or semester of the program to independent research in a specialized field.

Mission-based specializations include:

  • Social Entrepreneurship
  • Global Social Enterprise
  • Social Change
  • NGO Management

Functional nonprofit specializations include:

  • Fundraising
  • Accountability and Ethics
  • Nonprofit Finance and Accounting
  • Leadership
  • Program Evaluation
  • Human Resource Development
  • Nonprofit Legal Issues
  • Strategic Planning

Each master’s degree program offers a unique selection of specializations, reflecting the expertise of resident faculty and program resources.

Nonprofit Management Careers

A graduate nonprofit management program prepares you for leadership roles within charitable foundations, advocacy groups, international NGOs, public health agencies, and fundraising organizations. Sample master’s-level job titles in nonprofit management include:

  • Director of Volunteer Management
  • Managing Director
  • Budget Director
  • Development Officer
  • Nonprofit Management Consultant
  • Major Gifts Officer

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts sustained job growth of fourteen percent over the 2008 to 2018 period. Competition for management jobs favors candidates with formal training in organizational leadership and administration.

Plan for a Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Management

Once you’ve developed a sense of how graduate education fits into your career ambitions, you’re ready to tackle the application process.

Step One: Find the Right Graduate Nonprofit Management Program

First, research graduate schools to determine which programs best suit your needs. As of March 2009, there were 168 graduate nonprofit management programs in the U.S. alone. Zero in on the best master’s degree programs for you by taking into account each of the following factors in turn.

1. Program Format

Traditionally, master’s degrees required a two-year commitment to a full-time residential program. Today’s innovative graduate programs feature diverse program formats to accommodate different schedules, career goals, and learning styles.

Your program format options include:

Online or Campus Residency

Online programs create a virtual classroom using advanced digital learning and communications technology. The asynchronous, self-paced online format offers a convenient and rigorous management education. A 2009 study issued by the U.S. Department of Education found that online students performed better than their campus-based counterparts in several educational assessment metrics.

Full-time, Part-Time, or Accelerated Programs

MBA and some master’s degree programs also feature flexible scheduling options, including one-year accelerated programs and part-time extended formats. In addition, many graduate schools offer day, night, and weekend course schedules.

MBA programs are particularly accessible to working professionals. According to GMAC, 75 percent of all MBA students and 61 percent of full-time MBA students work more than 35 hours a week while completing the master’s degree. The option to earn a master’s degree online or at your own pace makes it possible to manage your professional education alongside your work.

Resources offers more information and links to online degree programs, online MBA degrees, and on-campus master’s degree options. For campus programs near you, search for master’s degrees by location.

2. Accreditation

Once you’ve developed a list of institutions that offer your chosen program format, check for program accreditation. Accreditation by a national or regional agency offers an important guarantee of the quality of the program and value of the degree. The U.S. Department of Education Web site lists approved accreditation agencies. Find out more about accreditation standards at

Resources maintains a database of accredited nonprofit management programs, with an emphasis on institutions that let you earn a master’s degree online. Search for graduate nonprofit management programs in Business Management, Public Administration, or Social Work.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International) is the gold standard for graduate business program accreditation. Search the online database of graduate management programs by degree level, field of study, location, and campus or online format.

The National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) offers professional accreditation of master’s degrees in public administration, public affairs, and public policy. Search their database for MPA and MPP degrees in nonprofit management.

3. Academic Resources

Next, examine each of the nonprofit management programs on your list to determine the academic emphasis and resources. Take into account the following features:

  • Curriculum: What courses and specialization options are available?
  • Degree Format and Requirements: Does the program incorporate lectures, case studies, group presentations, internships, and/or a capstone research project?
  • Faculty: Are instructors industry professionals or academic researchers? Do their areas of expertise match your interests?
  • Industry Relationships: Check job and internship listings, clinics, corporate-sponsored competitions, and recruitment participants.
  • Career Support Services: Does the program provide a support network, including placement counselors, resume and interviewing assistance, and professional networking events?
  • Student Life: Does the program encourage teamwork and networking among colleagues?
Resources facilitates your academic program research. Fill out a form indicating your academic program criteria, and the system automatically puts you in touch with schools that meet your requirements. You can arrange to discuss the details of the program directly with school representatives.

School Web sites present detailed information about the program, with links to graduate handbooks, degree requirements, faculty CVs and areas of expertise, campus facilities, and more.

Informational interviews with faculty, alumni, and current graduate students can help you glean candid information about the academic experience and the value of the degree. Campus visits also allow you to explore school facilities and local resources firsthand.

4. Program Quality

Finally, rank your top schools by program quality and selectivity. Consider criteria such as:

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity
  • Job placement and salary statistics
  • Student demographics, including years of work experience

Aim for a final list of five to ten graduate programs that meet your quality standards without overreaching your competitiveness as an applicant. Your grades, test scores, and work experience figure prominently in a school’s admissions decision.


Admissions Department Data Sheets help you gauge a school’s selectivity, job placement resources, and student demographics.

Rankings help you assess a program’s reputation. Influential publications include:

U.S. News & World Report features separate rankings for business and social science graduate programs.

        Business publications rank MBA programs. Each specializes in a specific type of business graduate degree:

                      Step Two: Apply to MBA or Master’s Programs in Nonprofit Management

                      Once you’ve settled on a list of schools, the application process becomes a straightforward set of instructions. Though each graduate program stipulates its own admissions requirements, you can expect to encounter the following features:

                      1. Prerequisites

                      Each nonprofit management program sets eligibility standards for master’s degree applicants. Prerequisites may include:

                      • Bachelor’s degree in a related field
                      • Courses in fundamentals such as statistics, writing, or economics
                      • Work experience
                      • Standardized tests: GMAT (for MBA), GRE (for master’s or MBA degrees), and TOEFL (for international students)

                      ’s Education Resources Guide can help you meet graduate degree program eligibility requirements. The guide includes test preparation resources, prerequisite courses, and online learning tools.

                                2. Application Materials

                                Prepare and submit materials to support your application. In addition to the basic information form, you may need to supply:

                                • Academic transcripts
                                • Standardized test scores
                                • Academic or professional letters of recommendation
                                • Resume
                                • Personal essay

                                            Since some of these items depend on your colleagues and administrative personnel, be sure to set the wheels in motion well in advance of the application deadline.

                                            Step Three: Finance Your Graduate Nonprofit Management Degree

                                            Your management education begins with a complex finance problem: paying for your graduate education. Fortunately there are a number of resources to help you fund your master’s degree. For best results, start planning your finances early.

                                            1. Calculate your education expenses

                                            Take into account tuition, books and materials, and living expenses.

                                            2. Apply for financial aid

                                            School funding ranges from grants and scholarships to private loans.

                                              • Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply for federal grants, scholarships, and low-interest loans.
                                              • Check with your employer about any education grants, tuition reimbursement, or loan forgiveness programs.
                                              • Apply for private student loans.

                                                3. Calculate your graduate school ROI

                                                A sense of the financial value of your educational investment will help you decide whether and how much debt to take on, if necessary. Factors in this calculation include opportunity costs (if you quit your job), expected salary increases and promotions upon graduating, tax credits, etc. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, private-sector MBA graduates regularly report a 30 to 40 percent salary boost upon completing the degree. Consult alumni in nonprofit management to gauge the financial impact of the master’s degree.

                                                4. Create an education budget

                                                Use your estimated expenses, funding, and ROI to plan a budget for graduate school. You can ease financial pressure by keeping your job. Earn a master’s degree online while you earn a living at work.

                                                  Step Four: Build Your Professional Network

                                                  Graduate study offers not only an education but also a forum for building professional relationships. To take full advantage of the networking potential:

                                                  • Join professional associations such as The National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) and the Alliance for Nonprofit Management.
                                                  • Read journals in nonprofit management, such as Nonprofit Management & Leadership (NML), Public Performance and Management Review, Public Administration Review, and Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.


                                                  A graduate degree offers a powerful catalyst for your nonprofit management career. Today’s innovative distance learning programs allow you to earn a master’s degree online without taking time out from your job. Whether you choose the applied MBA or a social science master’s degree, you’re sure to acquire valuable skills–and a solid credential–for effective nonprofit leadership.


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                                                  • AACSB Accredited Business Schools Database, AACSB International–The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
                                                  • Advocacy, Grantmaking, and Civic Organizations. Career Guide to Industries, 2010-2011 Edition. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
                                                  • Best Business Schools Specialty Ranking: Nonprofit, U.S. News & World Report (2009).
                                                  • Bond, Shannon. “A Guide to Nonprofit-Focused Graduate Degree Programs.”
                                                  • “Business School Rankings and Profiles,” BusinessWeek.
                                                  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
                                                  • Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Education. U.S. Department of Education (2009).
                                                  • Exploring Graduate Business Degrees, Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).
                                                  • Master of Science in Nonprofit Management, Northeastern University.
                                                  • “MBA Rankings and Executive Education Programs,” The Wall Street Journal.
                                                  • Mirabella, Roseanne M. “Nonprofit Management Education: Current Offerings in University-Based Programs.” Seton Hall University.
                                                  • National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA).
                                                  • Online MBA 2009, Business School Rankings. Financial Times.
                                                  • Programs in Business and Management, The Sloan Consortium.
                                                  • Program on Social Enterprise, Yale School of Management.
                                                  • Public & Nonprofit Management Program, Boston University School of Management.
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