Advancing Your Nonprofit Career Through Continuing Education

Graduate degrees and professional certifications can provide nonprofit jobseekers with a leg up in their careers; in some cases, a degree or certification in a specific field may even be required for certain positions. Even if not required, post-bachelor’s education provides the opportunity to establish professional contacts, experience an internship, and increase knowledge about a specialized function or field within the nonprofit sector.

How do you decide if a graduate degree or professional certification is necessary to reach your career goals? Here are some ideas.

To Go or Not to Go?

The decision to invest in a graduate or continuing education program is an important one. These programs typically require a substantial financial and time investment. According to Cassie Brown, Vice President of Commongood Careers, knowing what you’ll get out of a particular program can inform your decision.

“Generally, there are two reasons to go to graduate school,” Cassie says. “The first reason is to acquire job-specific, vocational training as required for positions in certain fields. For example, if you want to be a public school teacher, you get a Master’s in Teaching with certification.”

“The second reason is to gain experiential or environmental knowledge, such as pursuing a Master’s of Education in order to work as an administrator in a nonprofit or school setting. While this type of training is more theoretical, it provides the intellectual knowledge needed to operate in a particular professional environment or arena,” Cassie adds.

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?

When it comes time to choose a course of study, there are many options. To assist in your exploration of program options, consider the following:

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Many nonprofit professionals hold other important degrees, such as law degrees, master’s degrees in public health and social work, and specialized degrees in functional areas like accounting, fundraising, counseling, finance, and technology.

Putting a Degree to Work

Here are a few examples of nonprofit professionals who have used their advanced degrees to help them pursue exciting career opportunities:

Caitlin MacDonald, Events and Communications Manager at Year Up, a professional training program for young urban adults, worked as a high school English teacher before deciding to pursue an MBA with a concentration in Public and Nonprofit Management. Eager to work in an organization that creates educational opportunities, Caitlin believed earning this degree would provide her with the hard skills and experiences needed to transition from the classroom to a new environment.

“Before going to business school, I had a lot of experience in the education field, but not a lot of experience in how nonprofits operate,” Caitlin says. “My degree gave me hands-on experience in core nonprofit functions like development, accounting, and strategy.”

“The result of this education goes well beyond the acquisition of hard skills,” Caitlin adds, “I learned so much about nonprofit environments in general, such as common nonprofit inefficiencies and organizational cultures. Upon completion of my degree, I felt really prepared to join an organization in a strategic role. I wouldn’t have been able to get the knowledge and experience required for my current position if I hadn’t gone to business school.”

For Krista Clarkson, earning a Master’s in Teaching not only allowed her to work as a social studies teacher, but prepared her for a program role at a nonprofit organization that supports educational programs. A former Teach For America participant and charter school teacher, Krista is now the Associate Director of the Fellowship Educational Program at Building Excellent Schools, a national training program for charter school founders.

“In addition to allowing me to become an instructor, my Master’s program provided the intellectual space to think about big issues in education,” Krista says. “I acquired the knowledge to understand how to access and leverage resources in an educational setting, a critical skill when forging new ground in developing a new charter school.”

Krista found her training in classroom instruction to be an asset in her current role. “Being able to approach a non-teaching role with an instructional eye is key. When I know what a good classroom looks like, I’m better able to inform the educational needs of the charter school founders I’m currently working with, and develop systems to support them.”

Throughout her 20 year career, Claudia Alfaro, Director of Volunteers at Citizens Schools, has held program and operations management roles at a number of education-related organizations. In order to expand her knowledge and expertise, Claudia invested in continuing education classes in business, including business strategy, nonprofit management, and business management.

“At Citizens Schools, our programs and operations are growing extensively. The training I received through business classes allows me to bring a strategic eye to creating systems and scaling for growth,” Claudia says. “As my classes were case-based, I received exposure to many different business scenarios. I am able to apply that experience to implient successful partnerships and to develop programs in a nonprofit setting.”

Some Helpful Resources

There are numerous books, web sites, and other resources about graduate and continuing education programs. Here are a few of Commongood Careers’ favorite resources on the subject:

Idealist Graduate School Fairs
A multi-city annual free event created to help people considering graduate education as a way to improve their skills and advance their nonprofit careers

Harvard Business School Guide to Careers in the Nonprofit Sector
A print resource MBAs interested in entering the nonprofit sector as full-time managers, board members, or volunteers.

Social Enterprise Reporter
An overview of MBA programs that focus on nonprofit management and social entrepreneurship

US News & World Report
A ranking of over 1,200 graduate programs in a number of disciplines