New post-secondary programs offer unique opportunities to nonprofit professionals

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Over the last few years, a number of academic programs specifically focused on the nonprofit sector have been popping up across the country. This fall, the first four-year undergraduate degree program in nonprofit management will be launched at Brescia University College at Western University in London, Ontario.

It was time for CharityVillage to look at this growing trend, to consider the value of such programs to the sector —particularly in contrast to the a more traditional emphasis on experience — as well as to help prospective and young nonprofit professionals consider how they might best move into (and upwards within) the sector.

For many reasons, the nonprofit sector is attractive to young people who want to make a difference in the world. A recent HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector study showed that fully 10% of young Canadians are interested in careers in the nonprofit sector.

Vanessa Glasby is one such person. When she was in high school, Glasby became highly involved in her school’s Free The Children and Me to We groups. A volunteer trip to Ecuador cemented her desire to work in the nonprofit sector, and throughout her undergraduate degree, she worked as a regular volunteer at a street mission. “I had no idea you could get a third sector degree,” says Glasby, who discovered academic programs focused on the nonprofit sector as she began to apply to graduate school. “Why wouldn’t I study something so specific to my area of interest?” Glasby applied to Carleton University’s Master of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership (MPNL) program, from which she will graduate at the end of 2015.

So what’s out there?

Canada has lagged behind the United States and Great Britain when it comes to academic programs directed at nonprofit professionals, but we’re quickly gaining ground. There are now a wide variety of Canadian programs offering various levels of certification (from diploma and certificate to degree and graduate degree programs) in diverse aspects of the work of the nonprofit sector (volunteer management, human resources, fundraising management, special event planning, leadership, etc.), as well as programs that are not specific to the sector, but which offer an opportunity to focus on the nonprofit world (such as MBA degrees with an option to study the social sector or international development). CharityVillage maintains a list of all such programs in Canada as well as a number of international programs.

But do we need such programs?

Colleen Sharen, associate professor, management and organizational studies, who together with Melissa Jean developed the Brescia program, notes that the broader nonprofit sector is is already professionalized (and has been so for years) in some areas, such as service delivery, but is less so in other areas, such as management.

Cathy Barr, senior vice president, Imagine Canada, says, “All our work indicates charities and nonprofits are facing increasingly complex challenges. We are seeing more talk of mergers and collaboration amongst groups, while the funding environment is also complex. The more challenging tasks nonprofit leaders need to deal with, the more education will become important in the sector.”

The Ontario Nonprofit Network’s Labour Force Project Lead Joan MacDonald agrees. The ONN’s 2013 study of 800 sector-wide leaders in Ontario reflected a highly educated leadership facing challenges in terms of finding key talent, rethinking models of leadership, developing leadership competencies, developing diversity and discovering future leaders. MacDonald notes “The changing nature of work in the sector means that new and different skills for leaders are needed.” While the ONN study examined Ontario organizations, nonprofits everywhere face pressure to innovate, particularly in terms of technological changes and demographic shifts (with the majority of nonprofit leaders projecting they will retire in the next three to five years).

Barr suggests that postsecondary programs in nonprofit leadership will address the pressing question often raised by current nonprofit leaders of how to encourage people to choose this sector as a career option.

Working like a business

Along with providing funding, donors and partners from other sectors are increasingly requiring nonprofits to operate within a more businesslike or entrepreneurial framework, which equates to managing complex data to demonstrate results. Nancy Ingram, president of Foot in the Door Consulting, emphasizes that any leadership training programs have to focus on managing nonprofits within the results-based management framework all donors require.

Cathy Taylor, executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network also sees this emerging demand for leaders to be more entrepreneurial in a changing funding environment. “In the past, some of those skills were ‘nice to haves’ but were not essentials. We are seeing they are essential moving forward.”

Of this growing need for nonprofit leaders to develop managerial and leadership skills to facilitate intersector mergers and cross-sectoral partnerships, Sharen says, “If not-for-profits are going to survive the next ten years — a period I think will be rough for the sector with key funding sources flat or in decline — we will need leaders who have skills beyond service skills.”

Should leaders just get an MBA?

MacDonald observes the uniqueness of the sector as a factor in the value of sector-specific training: “We are employers, service providers and stewards of community wellbeing — something that is true for no other sector. When you think of training leadership, an understanding of this tripartite role is critical.”

Madeline Toubiana, now an assistant professor strategic management and organization would agree. “Nonprofit organizations are complex entities that are often really ‘hybrid’ organizations which balance nonprofit and for-profit logics to work towards a balance of social effectiveness and financial sustainability.” She suggests the value of “cognitive flexibility” in being able to be able to shift between a profit/efficiency mindset and a social welfare/community perspective. She also observes the distinctive need to communicate with diverse populations in the nonprofit world, and to work more collaboratively within a governance structure that is distinctive to the sector.

Aren’t these lessons learned in the field?

“Education and experience are complementary,” says Barr. “It isn’t one or the other.” In Imagine Canada’s survey of 600 stakeholders across the country, Barr says, many people said they believed their challenges were unique. “But, while the nature of these challenges may differ, I believe education would provide insight that these are actually sector-wide issues, and offer ways of thinking differently about these issues.”

Barr also notes that education is not simply about skills. “Most people in the sector are so busy doing what they need to do today to keep doors open that it’s very difficult to look up and think about the future and to think differently. That’s where education can be helpful to offer time and space to think about potential solutions to problems.”

While no one wants to work with someone who says, “I took a course in this so I know everything,” Barr observes that the sector will benefit from shorter learning curves of new hires who already have an idea of how the sector works. Glasby agrees. “In my program, I’ve learned a lot about the more intricate details of the sector, things you don’t necessarily learn as a volunteer.” She adds, “I have a lot to learn from people who have worked in the field.”

Ingram believes that the value of higher education in the sector has a lot to do with the quality and length of any practicums, something the Brescia University College program is focusing on. Sharen says the Brescia undergraduates will be fully paid interns working in eight-, twelve- or sixteen-month practicums with nonprofits between their third and fourth year of the program. “We are really trying to provide a balance of experience and education,” Sharen says, adding that the program faculty and instructors include people who are currently working in the nonprofit sector.

How to move into (and upward in) the sector

Finding employment is challenging for young people in today’s work force and adding credentials can be both challenging and helpful in any sector. MacDonald says credentialization can become a barrier for those without degrees or certification, and Kathryn Black, a recent graduate of Carleton’s MPNL program agrees: “When you are young, the experiences you can gain (even as a volunteer) are somewhat limited. Sometimes if you don’t have qualifications on paper, you don’t have a shot at employment.” Black chose to do her accreditation right out of her undergraduate degree in the hope that it would open doors rather than intimidate others in the sector. Happily, the organization that would become her employer was excited to see someone come through this new program: Black is now working in policy work for children’s mental health.

Black’s academic colleague Amanda Mayer, now governance and communications manager for the Lawson Foundation, took a different route, working in the nonprofit sector for a decade before going back to school for a degree in nonprofit leadership. “For me, it was helpful to work in the sector for a few years and then go back. I had long been waiting for a program like this and was pleased when it launched as the courses have been relevant, timely, and necessary. The MPNL program has provided me with an opportunity to learn the theory behind the practice, and has enhanced my knowledge and skills in an integrated way that has not only informed me about the nature and practice of philanthropy, but also has provided me new knowledge on opportunities and new fields within the sector.”

MacDonald sees enormous value to the sector in experiences like Mayer’s: “There is benefit in this training for our existing labour force. This offers tools and support, especially for emerging leaders — and is a big factor in retaining talent within the sector.” A recent LinkedIn study supports this, concluding that certified nonprofit professionals are seven times more likely to reach a director level or higher position at a nonprofit organization, and to stay in the sector fifty percent longer than non-certified colleagues. 

Black observes that many of her cohort were people with years of experience in the nonprofit world. “That shows something – if you have people in sector for ten-plus years who choose to come back to school, there’s a lot of value in it.”

To go or not to go...

When deciding whether or not to register for a postsecondary program and deciding between various programs, there are a wide variety of considerations:

  • Glasby advises when choosing between programs: Dig into what the courses will be like, who the professors are and whether their backgrounds and teaching styles will be a good fit for the experience you are seeking.
  • Black says you should really think about what you want to do: is it something that requires an MA or can you do it with a diploma or certificate?
  • Get skin in the game, advises MacDonald. Direct experience in the sector is always highly valuable to give you a sense of what you want to do, what’s out there, and aligning that knowledge with what you train for.
  • Balance dreams with flexibility, says Black. Have a vision of where you want to go but benefit from what you learn along the way.
  • Make sure any program you consider is current with technology and other emerging trends in the sector, cautions MacDonald
  • Consider how you will manage the workload, time and money required for your course, says Glasby. Do you have the option to study part time or would full-time study be better for you?

The emergence of academic programs focused on the nonprofit sector is the “sign of a maturing sector,” says Barr. “This recognizes that there are specialized skills in managing a nonprofit. This helps our sector be respected and enhances its — and our — credibility.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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