What business does a business degree have in the nonprofit sector?

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The nonprofit sector in Canada – which employs more than two million Canadians and accounts for almost 9% of economic output – is constantly growing, putting thousands of organizations under a great deal of pressure.

Today there are more than 175,000 nonprofit organizations across the country. While demands for services keep increasing, many are struggling to secure long-term core funding, and the consequent reliance on program and project funds is spreading them thin. As they do their best to stay afloat without hindering their long-term missions, more and more nonprofits are incorporating business practices to help them be more resourceful, efficient, and effective.

“In a lot of ways, these organizations are essentially businesses. People have never traditionally thought of them that way, but I think we’re all realizing that now,” says John MacFarlane, vice president of development at the London Health Sciences Foundation. “In our case, we’re a 25 million dollar business. We have revenues of 25 – 30 million dollars every year, so it’s pretty significant.”

As the nonprofit world continues this shift, professional business training is becoming even more important. An undergraduate degree in business provides you with a solid foundation and a strong understanding of how businesses – and nonprofits today – operate. Organizations need people with this background to help them be as effective as possible with the revenues they do have.

“That’s really the crux of what a great deal of charities or nonprofits are struggling with. They have limited resources and they have to be creative in terms of how they communicate and how their systems work,” says Debi Andrus, assistant professor of marketing at the Haskayne School of Business. “And so that’s really what a commerce student would be able to market.”

But the nonprofit world is bigger than ever, and as it takes on a more business-oriented structure, job-seeking graduates need to focus in on what they have to offer potential employers. Though there are many ways a business degree fits into the nonprofit sector, opportunities generally vary depending on an organization’s size. Today, 99.6 % of charitable and nonprofit organizations qualify as small or medium – less than 499 employees – and less than 0.4% are considered large.

Most have at least a fund development manager or someone of a similar title responsible for evaluating the financial needs of an organization and implementing a plan to secure funding. Larger ones might have a program manager, who leads the overall planning and management of a charity’s fundraising program, and some will have a general administrator to manage all aspects of business administration. At the more entry-level, a recent graduate might find jobs like major gifts officer, assessment coordinator, marketing and event manager, or program planner.

Nonprofit foundations, which differ from other organizations in that they donate their raised-funds to a particular cause they deem worthy, typically place more emphasis on directors or trustees. MacFarlane says that as vice president of development of his foundation he oversees all the philanthropic revenue, and manages a large number of people.

“It also involves managing budgets and looking at the strategic direction of the foundation. And, obviously, looking at what our goals are, how we’re doing in terms of getting to those goals, and what our bottom-line number’s going to look like at year-end,” he says. “And all of these things are things you talk about when you’re in business school.”

Regardless of whether or not you choose to focus in on a specific area like accounting, economics, or marketing, an undergraduate degree in a business-related field provides you with a deep understanding of best business practices. This strong base of knowledge and skills can be adapted for work in any organization.

Since there aren’t many formal university degrees specifically in fundraising and nonprofit management, you can go a lot of different ways with your education depending on what kind of work you eventually want to do.

For instance, if you’re a more creative person, you might want to look into marketing, a field that would set you on a path towards developing effective brands and helping organizations articulate their public value. Those who focus on the marketing side of business graduate with a more complete understanding of commercialism, and tend to develop a knack for clear expression and numbers.

A background in economics can also be a good way to go, especially if you're interested in working for an international organization. Marie-Hélène Boubane, the fundraising programs manager at Amnesty International, minored in economics while earning her undergraduate arts degree. She says it helped give her an understanding of the global economy that is crucial in her day-to-day work.

“When you understand economics, you can understand the impact of the economy on poverty and the developing world, and you have a better idea of how you can improve that,” she says.

No matter what aspects of business you may or may not want to focus on, an undergraduate degree will give you the chance to experience it all. You will come away with some grasp of every area, and this will make you even more marketable to employers. Today, organizations tend to be looking for critical thinkers with a broader academic background.

Since every nonprofit has a different structure and mission, it might be smart for students to stick to a general business degree, according to James Robertson, vice president of central office services at the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

“I think those degrees with a broader range are beneficial in the long run for people that are trying to build a career, because every company has a different scope,” says Robertson, who himself earned a degree in business administration before moving on to study law. “And if you’re going into the smaller nonprofit world, you’re going to end up doing multiple things – not just finance – because that’s just the nature of the nonprofit sector.”

Students get a lot more out of undergraduate business programs than just a strong understanding of finance. As a rule, they also develop the ability to think critically and strategically, and to plan in advance. They often acquire strong research and analysis skills, and learn to work both individually and as part of a team. Combine those with some hands-on worldly experiences and a deep-rooted passion for the mission of a nonprofit, and you’re set.

“If you can show that you have the benefit of different aspects of training, but you’re also prepared to get into a world that’s all about relationships, then that’s what’s going to make you successful,” says MacFarlane.

Andrus agrees. “If you can bring these skills that will help improve an organization or make it as effective as possible, and also bring a passion for a particular cause, it really does make a powerful combination for any charity,” she says.

As with any profession, the more practical experience you have, the better you stand out to prospective employers. You should try to build up your resume with internships, volunteer opportunities, and any prior work experience you have in the field. Even more importantly, if you’re passionate about a certain organization’s mission – pursue it. Your business education will be fairly adaptable within the nonprofit sector, and that passion and general fit with an organization can be just as important as the skills you learn in school.

Keep in mind, however, that you will probably have a better chance of breaking into the sector if you start off looking into larger nonprofits. These tend to involve more various aspects of business, and usually have more entry-level positions to fill.

“Some may be disappointed if they go into a smaller organization straight out of school,” says Robertson. “They might find it too small in scope, and they may want something a bit larger that gives them a little more range and a little room for upward advancement.”

As the sector continues to expand, the demand for passionate workers with a solid business background will also grow. Organizations of every size will be facing more and more pressure to carefully manage their funds without losing sight of their missions. If you can soak up as much as you can from your undergraduate business degree, and combine that knowledge and those skills with an open mind and the desire to do good, you’ll be well on your way to finding a fulfilling career in the nonprofit world.

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a series that explores how you can apply your undergraduate degree in the pursuit of a career in the nonprofit sector. Previously, we explored how to put a liberal arts or a marketing/communications degree to work in the nonprofit sector. In the coming weeks we’ll also look at how degrees in pure sciences and even engineering can help you find your way to work in a nonprofit.

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

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