Learning to Make the Difference: A Guide to Nonprofit Education

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Editors’ Note: We are very glad to introduce this special supplement on higher education opportunities in the area of nonprofit studies. In addition to this buyers’ guide-type article is a set of guidelines to help you judge curricula and a listing of programs. Many thanks to David Renz of the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership for his help in putting this package together.

Over the past two decades, opportunities for nonprofit education have increased dramatically along with the expansion of the sector. While workshops and seminars have long been available in a variety of settings, higher learning possibilities are now popping up throughout hundreds of institutions and organizations, offering educational programming for a field that has to date been largely ignored by the academic world.

How useful are these programs? Will they serve the sector well? There is a continuing debate on the impact and implications of professionalizing this “voluntary” sector, but there is no question that most of us hunger for good, practical learning experiences that will help us be more successful in our work, wherever in the sector that happens to be.

With the boom of nonprofit management studies, learning options are becoming more plentiful. Prospective students are finding it easier to match specific educational programs to their individual needs, as well as to the needs of their organizations. Now, both seasoned nonprofit professionals and people just beginning to prepare for service in the nonprofit sector are discovering that the difficult aspect of choosing an educational program has shifted from having too few choices to having so many that sifting through it all can prove confusing.

The Range of Educational Options

It is essential that students match the scope and nature of the program with their needs and interests. Generally speaking, the options are going to fall into one of six categories:

  • Noncredit events, workshops, and seminars • Noncredit certificate programs
  • Degree credit certificate programs
  • Undergraduate degree programs
  • Graduate degree programs with concentrations in nonprofit studies
  • Graduate degree programs in nonprofit studies

Noncredit Events, Workshops, and Seminars. Noncredit events and programs are likely to be of most interest to those who want to be more successful in their work but who find it problematic or unnecessary to spend either the time or money it takes to earn a degree or certificate. When a working professional takes an interest in a small but important piece of the nonprofit puzzle, he or she often gains useful knowledge or skill via such workshops without the longterm commitment required for other programs. Often, cutting-edge nonprofit teachings also appear first in these venues because they thrive on speed and newness. There are literally thousands of choices for these learners, and they vary widely in length, quality, and cost.

A new addition in the seminar category is the learning circle where a group of nonprofit leaders join together in an ongoing dialogue to explore a particular issue. These may include a course of self-designed study with groupselected readings and lectures.

Noncredit Certificate Programs. This is a group of noncredit seminars or workshops that have been organized around a particular focus (e.g., fundraising, nonprofit management). Certificate programs have become a very popular way for educators to package programs and, as with individual noncredit programs, they vary widely in the amount of work they require and the value they offer. Unlike degrees, certificates have no standard meaning in the education world. Any organization can put together a collection of workshops and declare the package a certificate program. This is not to say that these programs have no value—there are some excellent certificate programs that are worth the money. But this is one of those “buyer beware” areas because there are no standards for what constitutes a quality certificate program and there are many opportunities for abuse by lessthan- ethical providers.

Degree-Credit Certificate Programs. Certificates with formal education credits exist in a wide variety of nonprofit subjects. Many of these certificate programs combine the rigor of college-level study with components that will work toward a degree of some kind. Some programs are linked to a specific undergraduate or master’s degree; others have no link to a particular degree but offer the option to be used for credit as part of a program. For example, some institutions offer a fundraising certificate program comprised of a set of courses that also can be used toward a master’s degree.

Be aware that these credits will, of course, be accepted only for certain degree programs and this is not always made clear. When you join a certificate program with the idea that these credits will be used later as part of a degree, be sure to determine whether the specific credits can be used in the program(s) you have your eye on. Not all courses will count toward all degrees in any institution. In fact, certificates from one institution rarely count toward degrees in another. If the long-term goal is to use certificate credit in a degree program, be sure to consult with the institution’s advising office.

Some institutions offer undergraduates the opportunity through certificate programs to learn about and even experience the nonprofit world. The programs are meant to pique students’ interest in “civil society” work and hence may focus on how to make good choices and/or how to be an effective volunteer. Some institutions, like Tufts, are undertaking a universitywide effort to introduce students to their roles in civil society through specialized courses and initiatives in multiple parts of the curriculum. One increasingly well-known nationwide certificate program is that of American Humanics (AH), a national nonprofit organization that works with selected colleges and universities to offer a certificate in nonprofit studies.

Undergraduate Degree Programs. A few unique colleges and universities offer undergraduates the opportunity to learn about the nonprofit world as a part of a complete undergraduate degree program (e.g., a bachelor’s degree). Often, where these exist, they will have a special focus such as nonprofit leadership or philanthropic studies. These programs currently are quite unusual and it is wise to carefully assess their quality before enrolling.

Graduate Degree Programs with a Concentration in Nonprofit Studies. It has become increasingly common to find programs of nonprofit study at the graduate level. These typically are master’s degree programs and usually focus on nonprofit management and leadership. Many of these are designed especially to meet the needs of mid-career adults who wish to pursue part-time study; others focus on the needs of early career and full-time students.

Nearly half of nonprofit-oriented master’s programs in the U.S. are presented as concentrations within master of public administration (MPA) degree programs, and a relatively smaller number are concentrations within master of business administration (MBA) programs. In addition, some master of social work (MSW) programs and a few liberal arts programs offer nonprofit concentrations. The rest run the gamut in major areas of study. If this option appeals to you, it is wise to find a program with an orientation that holds interest for you. For example, if you see your future in community development and see yourself working in a nonprofit setting, you may find that nonprofit degree programs that are linked to community-building will be more pertinent to you than a general nonprofit management program, since their mix of courses and their field study opportunities will be more directly linked to these kinds of organizations. There are many options available across a large variety of institutions.

For those with an interest in doctoral study, the first nonprofit-specific Ph.D. program was recently created when Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy received approval to begin its doctoral program in philanthropic studies. However, it should be noted that hundreds of doctoral students in universities across the nation are engaged in research and study associated with some aspect of nonprofit organizations or philanthropy. These students are doing their work from a variety of different disciplinary bases with a range that embraces the spectrum of social and behavioral sciences.

Graduate Degree Programs in Nonprofit Studies. There are a small number of institutions that offer degrees focused specifically on the nonprofit arena (e.g., master of nonprofit organizations, master of arts in philanthropic studies). The curricula of these programs are focused entirely on preparation for work in the nonprofit arena, and they offer the opportunity for greater concentration. The best of these programs offer a strong mix of course work and field experience to prepare students for the unique requirements of a particular field of practice.

All of the options we have described are offered by universities and colleges, and in many parts of the U.S. the noncredit programs also will be offered by a variety of other communitybased organizations and agencies. While this article focuses on the academic programs, you may find additional resource information on noncredit programs at the Alliance for Nonprofit Management and its Web site.

Still a New Field

Just as with any fast-expanding new market, there is much variation with very limited guidance regarding program quality and standards. This puts more responsibility on you to undertake your own assessment as you consider which programs are among the most promising. And there are many criteria for you to consider: program focus and philosophy; relevance and value of the certification or degree offered; academic credibility and program content; program cost and the time required for completion; the unique expertise, quality, and experience of the faculty and staff—the choices can appear endless. But there are important clues we can share to help you sort things out.

Is There a Standard Ranking System?

When we make important decisions, it’s often helpful to rely on some kind of pre-established evaluation or accreditation system. For instance, business schools are accredited by AACSB; public administration degrees are accredited by NASPAA. It’s useful to look for these certifications, but they reflect on the quality of the overall program and not the quality of the specific nonprofit concentration. One academic association, the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council (NACC), has developed curriculum guidelines for graduate degrees in nonprofit studies, and a review of these can help you know what to look for in degree programs. But this is such a new academic field that there is little history for determining particular standards, and there is no single standard design for a quality nonprofit program. Each will reflect the orientation of the school that offers it.

Another issue may be institutional credibility, and this raises another values question for you. A Yale education may carry with it a caché that the University of Massachusetts does not. And a classically-revered school’s degree can have more impact in certain circles that pay attention to traditional kinds of power. But do beware: people may assume that attachment to a wellknown institution correlates to rich program content, but this is not always the case. For example, the program at the University of Massachusetts has a rich history of connection to local community-based nonprofits, and many of the teachers in the program have been nonprofit practitioners. You need to consider what will be more important to you and your career.

It is wise to be wary of organizations, magazines, or newsletters that have created ranking systems for nonprofit education because the most active of these reflect a particular value orientation— and you may or may not agree. For example, some programs rank on reputation, or the amount of money the graduates make. Is this important to you? If you use these rankings, investigate the criteria the publishers have used or explore the background of the organization that has created this ranking system. Do they have something to gain by steering students in a certain direction? Is your ideology similar to that of the organization doing the ranking?

Finding the Right Match

One of the most important considerations in finding the right fit is matching yourself with a program that shares your passion. What is your passion? Day care? Access to health care? Community building? Or is it more generally the field of fundraising or the study of nonprofit activity? Being clear about what interests you most will prove to be extremely useful. Is this a program you can be excited about? Will you learn from fellow students as well as faculty, and in multiple ways? Will the learning energize and engage you, leading you to apply what you learn?

This takes us back to that extremely important gateway question: Is this program’s philosophical orientation right for you? At the core of the successful learning experience is an alignment between the program’s orientation and your values. For example, if your passion is grassroots community action, do not enter a program designed to prepare you to work in a large human services bureaucracy. The advisors of a high-quality program will be able to help you assess your alignment with their program.

How current is the curriculum? Fundamentals should not change every season, yet it is also true that nonprofit studies is a young and dynamic field, and we learn more every year about how we should, and actually do, function. Does the program’s curriculum reflect this? For example, do fundraising courses discuss e-philanthropy? Does the strategic management curriculum reflect our rapidly changing understanding of organizational effectiveness and delivering services through networks? Some institutions claim they have new nonprofit courses but the reality sometimes is that they simply renamed old courses.

Does the program’s approach to education match the way you learn? Most nonprofit programs are intended to serve adults, but not all are taught by people who understand adult learning. A program should challenge you to develop learning skills and styles that you do not normally use, but it should also be able to meet you where you are.

Faculty differ from program to program. Consider the makeup of the faculty when thinking about your learning needs. Who does the teaching and how effective are they? Is there a useful mix of full-time faculty and adjunct faculty who are drawn from the community of practitioners? Most adult students value instructors who are experienced and actively engaged with the nonprofit community because they better understand the realities of the world they are preparing students to serve. Are the faculty engaged in research or other work that enables them to stay in touch with and use the emerging research in their areas of expertise? Are instructors connected in the field, and thus able to link you with organizations in your area of interest? Investigate their qualifications both on your own and by asking the program how it assesses the quality of its programs and instructors.

With whom will you be learning? Students are influenced by the characteristics of the people with whom they learn. What do the other participants bring to the program? This can be just as important as the faculty. Are your fellow students coming to the table with a useful blend of core similarities plus enough varied experience to become a learning resource as well? Exploiting all aspects of the learning environment will add much to achieving your long-term goals.

What type of center or research capacity is associated with the program you are considering? This is important because it may have a lot to do with your learning experience. Does the program or center associate with certain kinds of nonprofit organizations? What about research? How well-equipped are they to help you further and better explore your subjects of interest? Are they narrow in their purview and will this be reflected in program content?

What’s the Bottom Line?

When you invest precious time and money in an educational program, you want to know the following: Is it going to be worth it? The answer is a qualified yes. We know that quality education programs do make a significant difference in the professional success of their participants. Participants of strong programs report that they are more effective in their work and that their education has enabled promotions and enhanced career success. Employers and other community leaders also report improved performance and career success for those who participate in these educational programs. Of course, the poor quality programs cannot boast the same value. There are no educational “silver bullets,” but it is clear that the right education at the right time can make the difference in your career and, ultimately, increase your ability to make a difference in the community you have chosen to serve.


A Nonprofit Academic Center in Arizona

The Center for Nonprofit Leadership and Management (CNLM) at Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ), was founded in 1999. A collaborative community-based planning process involved leading nonprofit practitioners, university representatives, funders, government officials, and corporate leaders who informed the Center’s development. Four primary themes frame the Center’s portfolio. They are: 1) Research that Matters, 2) Innovative Education,
3) Technical Assistance and 4) Contemporary Conferences.

A core design imperative for CNLM is a commitment to community-based partnerships. Practitioners and academics work closely together to assure that activities are relevant and designed to improve the leadership and management effectiveness of nonprofits. CNLM is governed by a representative community board.

The Center has developed several community-based capacity building activities. For example, its organizational self-assessment incubator is facilitated by faculty, students and community practitioners. Another strategy is the Practitioner-in-Residence (P.I.R.) program. The P.I.R., who changes yearly, is the ‘first responder’ for technical assistance questions from the community and she manages the ‘Ask the Nonprofit Specialist’section of the Center‘s Web site. Dozen of community inquiries are responded to each month by the Practitioner-in-Residence and a cadre of CNLM faculty and staff.

The appeal of such strategies is that academics and practitioners work together in a spirit of collegiality and mutual learning. Initial evaluations suggest these strategies hold promise for how university and  communityengagement strategies can improve nonprofit effectiveness.

Robert Ashcraft
Center for Nonprofit Leadership and Management, Arizona State University


Curriculum Guidelines for Graduate Study

In order to help students, educators, and community leaders as they think about the content that should be included in a high quality graduate nonprofit degree program, the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council (NACC) developed the following curriculum guidelines. NACC is the network of university-based centers that are devoted to the study of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. NACC’s mission is to build the sector’s capacity to enhance civic engagement, democracy, and human welfare, and to do so by helping academic centers to be effective in education, research, and community service.

Built from the knowledge, research, and experience of leading nonprofit educators and leaders, these guidelines offer a clear model for a strong program of graduate study. There is no one best way to structure a graduate-level nonprofit degree program. However, effective graduate programs will present a program of study that includes essentially all of the topics discussed in these guidelines. How they do so will vary depending upon the program’s mission, student population, and educational approach. The prospective student should look at a degree program’s content from the perspective of his or her own needs, interests, and career goals. Of course, nonprofit programs that are concentrations within other professional degrees (e.g., MBA and MPA) will include other courses that are relevant to that particular degree’s requirements (an MPA program, for example, also would include courses such as government finance and policy analysis).

It is the graduate programs whose content is consistent with these guidelines that are more likely to provide their students with the knowledge and skills that will be needed to be successful in their careers and, ultimately, to enable their organizations to make an essential difference in the lives of the people and communities they serve.

—David O. Renz


The degree program should have a clearly defined mission with specified goals related to educational intent, pedagogical approach and targeted populations.

Curricular Content

Graduate degree programs that are focused on philanthropy , nonprofit organization management and/or nonprofit sector studies should incorporate all of the topics listed below. The allocation of time, the attention paid to each topic, and how the topic is considered should be appropriate to the mission the program. Likewise, the expected outcomes, or demonstrated competencies of graduates will vary according to the mission and purpose of the specific academic program. In addition to the body of knowledge outlined below, some demonstrated skills and competencies might include critical thinking, problem solving, negotiation, team building, program planning and development, evaluation/ research, organizational management, supervision, written and oral communication, and proficiency in current technologies.

There is no assumption that each topic below would (or should) warrant its own course.Degree programs are encouraged to define the level of coverage and method of delivery in a manner consistent with mission, goals and anticipated student outcomes. Likewise, it should not be assumed that all programs would include an internship or field experience; it is expected, however, that all programs will demonstrate ways in which both academic and practice experiences are integrated into the students’overall learning experience

Particular attention should be paid to the differentiation of graduate-level work versus undergraduate consideration/coverage of similar topics.

1.0 Scope and Significance of Philanthropy and Voluntarism
1.1 The role of mission in philanthropic, andvoluntary action and nonprofit sector organizations
1.2 The size, impact of, and trends in philanthropy, voluntarism and the nonprofit sector throughout the world
1.3 The diversity of types and forms of voluntary action within society
1.4 The diversity of fields of activity undertaken by nonprofit organizations, including but not limited to advocacy, health, education, social services, religion, arts and culture, and the environment
1.5 The relationship and dynamics among and between the nonprofit, government and for-profit sectors

2.0 History and Theories of Philanthropy, Voluntarism and the Nonprofit Sector
2.1 The history and development of philanthropy, voluntarism, voluntary action, and the nonprofit sector within the north American context and how this experience compares to the development of comparable sectors throughout the world
2.2 Civil society, social movements and related concepts that are important components of our understanding of philanthropic action and the nonprofit sector
2.3 Theoretical explanations of the emergence of the nonprofit sector, including (but not necessarily limited to) political, economic, socio-cultural theories

3.0 Ethics and Values
3.1 Consideration and understanding of the values embodied in philanthropic and voluntary action, such as trust, stewardship, service, voluntarism, freedom of association and social justice
3.2 The foundations and theories of ethics as a discipline and a practice
3.3 Knowledge and awareness of the standards and codes of conduct that are appropriate to professionals and volunteers working in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

4.0 Nonprofit Governance and Executive Leadership
4.1 The history, role and function of governance and executive leadership in achieving the mission and vision of nonprofit organizations
4.2 The history, role and functions of nonprofit boards of directors, and how these roles and functions compare to boards in the public and for-profit sectors
4.3 Theories of leadership and an understanding of the role of leaders in building both effective and sustainable organizations
4.4 The role of nonprofit boards and nonprofit executives as agent(s) of and for social change and social justice at both the organizational and societal level

5.0 Advocacy and Public Policy
5.1 Roles of nonprofit organizations and voluntary action in the public policy process in both the North American and international contexts.
5.2 Key public policies and their past, current, and potential impact on the nonprofit sector, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropic behaviors
5.3 How nonprofit organizations shape public policy through such advocacy strategies and techniques as policy research, public education, lobbying, and litigation

6.0 Nonprofit Law
6.1 The legal frameworks under which nonprofit organizations operate and are regulated
6.2 The legal rights and obligations of directors, trustees, officers and members of nonprofit organizations
6.3 Legal and tax implications related to charitable giving, advocacy, lobbying, political and commercial activities of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations
6.4 Oversight responsibilities of the Internal Revenue Service and various and respective state agencies as they relate to the nonprofit sector and nonprofit organizations

7.0 Nonprofit Financial Resources
7.1 The emergence and development of philanthropy (and the raising of philanthropic gifts and grants) as distinctive dimensions of the nonprofit sector
7.2 Knowledge of the various types of revenues pursued by nonprofit organizations, the strategic choices and issues associated with each type of revenue, and the methods used to generate these revenues.
7.3 The relationship between and among earned income, government funding and philanthropic gifts and grants and how they influence fulfillment of an organizationís mission

8.0 Accounting and Financial Management
8.1 Role and function of financial literacy and stewardship in the effective oversight and management of nonprofit organizational resources
8.2 Accounting principles and concepts and their application in financial and managerial accounting (including fund accounting) systems in nonprofit organizations
8.3 The analysis and use of accounting information in financial statements and other reports as needed for responsible stewardship
8.4 Financial management including financial planning and budgeting, management of cash flows, short- and long-term financing, and endowment management policies and practices

9.0 Human Resource Management
9.1 Knowledge of human resource issues within both formal and informal nonprofit organizations and how human resource issues, as experienced in nonprofit organizations, are different from the experience in public and for-profit organizations
9.2 The role, value and dynamics of volunteerism in carrying out the work, and fulfilling the missions, of nonprofit organization
9.3 Knowledge of employee management issues
9.4 Dimensions of individual and organizational diversity within the nonprofit sector and their impact on human resource management

10.0 Organizational Theory and Behavior
10.1 Organizational theories and behavior as they are experienced in nonprofit and voluntary organizations
10.2 Strategic planning and ability to design and implement a strategic planning process
10.3 Ability to identify, assess and formulate appropriate strategies

11.0 Marketing and Communications
11.1 The theory, dynamics and principles of marketing ‘mission’in a nonprofit context Marketing principles and techniques in general and then as applied in a philanthropic and/or nonprofit environment How the fields of communications, fundraising and marketing intersect within a nonprofit context Various types of communication strategies and their use and function in a nonprofit context, particularly as these relate to the variety of stakeholder groups

12.0 Information Management and Technology
12.1 Role and function of information technology in the pursuit of a nonprofit organization’s mission
12.2 Types, sources and location of information useful to the effective operation of nonprofit organizations
12.3 Ability to utilize various technologies in fulfilling nonprofit organizational missions

13.0 Decision-Making and Analytic Methods
13.1 Knowledge of decision-making models and methods and how to apply them in nonprofit organizational settings
13.2 Ability to analyze and apply both quantitative and qualitative data for purposes of strengthening nonprofit organizations, the nonprofit sector and the larger society