A gradual impact: Inspiring tomorrow’s leaders through higher education

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As the mission-driven sector in Canada continues to grow, so does the need for young innovators and leaders who can confidently carry it forward. Stepping up to fill what has become a prominent educational gap in a country that prides itself on philanthropic values, Carleton University is launching a new Master of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership degree and graduate diploma in the summer of 2013.

This first-in-Canada program is meant to help prepare graduates for leadership roles in nonprofits, social enterprises, philanthropic foundations, development offices, and in the governments, financial institutions and businesses that interact with them.

Over the past two decades Canadian nonprofits have become significantly more professional, and as the sector continues to grow in this direction, the demand for strong professional leadership will tag right along. Future financial, social, and political hurdles will call for young and inspired leaders, and that’s what this program is aiming to create.

“These organizations play such a huge role in our society that they need to be well run,” says Jo-Anne Ryan, vice president of philanthropic advisory services at TD Waterhouse Canada and member of the program’s advisory committee. “And in order to have the best people running them, we’re putting them through this type of a rigorous master’s program that will create really, really excellent leaders.”

Headed by the university’s School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA), the new program will take those with a burning passion to improve the sector and turn them into efficient leaders capable of heading highly effective organizations. These change-makers will gain a strong understanding of emerging trends in the sector and be able to apply their knowledge and expertise to solving real world problems.

Applicants must have an undergraduate or post-graduate degree (or equivalent) with an average of B+ or higher, but can enter the program from a wide variety of backgrounds in the social sciences, humanities, and sciences. The school also considers mid-career applicants who do not satisfy this degree requirement, but who have demonstrated professional excellence over at least five years.

In the United States, there are 168 similar graduate programs that train future leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector, but the Canadian environment is unique. According to Susan Phillips, professor and director of the SPPA, we have a lot further to go as a country, given the size of our nonprofit sector and our slow start on filling this educational demand.

“We tried to develop something that would really encourage people and give them the knowledge to be innovators, to be leaders, and to be audacious and think about grasping some of the changes that are upon the sector,” she says. “It was long in the making, but we tested it all along the way to make sure we were doing something that was really meeting the current and future needs of the sector.”

The idea behind this degree started in 2007 when Carleton offered a summer course in nonprofit management and had some 90 applicants sign up within hours. Noting that the sector is also facing major succession issues with many senior employees retiring in the near future, it became obvious there was a huge demand for a program like this.

The plan was to create a degree that would be for the nonprofit and philanthropic sector what the Masters of Public Administration (MPA) is for the public sector or the Masters of Business Administration (MBA) is for the private sector. While some program elements reflect aspects of these degrees, Phillips says there are key differences.

“It will start with a course on the foundations of philanthropy – so really understanding where philanthropy comes from, how it’s changing, cross cultural differences, and international trends – which you wouldn’t get in any other program,” says Phillips.

Students in the masters program will acquire a foundational knowledge of philanthropy and nonprofit leadership through seven required courses, and can then use the remaining elective courses to tailor the program more to their own relevant interests. The core courses provide an understanding of the roles and ethics of philanthropy, policy processes and regulatory contexts, the procedures and strategies for governance, financing and accountability, and the concepts fundamental to evaluation and research. It is designed for both full-time students who aspire to be leaders in this field, as well as experienced professionals studying part-time in order to advance their knowledge or position in the sector.

“We hope that applicants will come from a wide range of backgrounds,” says Keith Sjögren, senior consultant and managing director of consulting at Investor Economics and chair of the program’s advisory committee, a group assembled to act as the link between the SPPA and the nonprofit sector.

“I think we would expect to appeal to people who have some experience in the sector, and maybe even people who are thinking of switching from the for-profit sector into the nonprofit sector,” he says. “But certainly a combination of policy makers, practitioners, and students looking to build on an undergraduate program.”

By combining intensive two-week summer sessions and interactive online courses throughout the rest of the year, the program will be accessible to students all across Canada. The masters degree consists of 11 courses plus a research project that integrates the learning and applies it to a practical issue. The shorter graduate diploma, which consists of six courses, enables working professionals to upgrade their knowledge.

According to Ryan, the masters degree will encompass more areas and go deeper into every aspect of nonprofit management, while the diploma program will provide good practical knowledge. She says the graduate diploma, not unlike many college programs, would be more likely to attract someone looking to quickly develop skills in order to be able to jump into a job.

“People who would be looking in the masters program would be really looking to build their career in a nonprofit leadership position and rise to the top, and to understand all aspects of nonprofit management and philanthropy,” she says.

Admission to the masters program is competitive. The first round of applications is for full-time admission and closes December 1, and the second round, for both full and part-time admissions, ends March 1. Other than length, there are no significant differences between the masters degree and graduate diploma in terms of rigor or programming.

“We would not expect to draw from a radically different group for the diploma program,” says Sjögren. “It really depends on their time availability and their ability to take on a masters level program. There’s a cost issue as well, and we wanted to put the diploma program out there to make sure that the umbrella program as a whole was as wide as possible.”

Phillips says she anticipates the graduate diploma will be more attractive to those already working in the field full-time. They could easily study part-time and get the shorter diploma, or start with it and transfer over into the masters program if they choose.

According to Ryan, the program will create some very skilled, knowledgeable, and high-calibre leaders, and when you have excellent leadership in a nonprofit, the services they deliver have a much greater impact.

“It will mean they can either serve more people than they’re serving, help them meet their mission statement, get more people out of poverty, or look for solutions to problems as opposed to just putting band-aids on them,” she says.

But this change won’t happen overnight.

“I think over time the program is going to raise the level of expertise in the sector,” says Sjögren. “That’s our goal – to have a program that eventually builds the quality of leadership in the nonprofit arena.”

Though it will take time, this masters level program – and all the similar programs surely to now pop up in universities across the country over the next few years – will inevitably have an important impact on nonprofit organizations in Canada. Though we may have some catching up to do in terms of education in this field, the young and empowered leaders coming out of these programs will eventually strengthen the expanding sector.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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