The Best Graduate Degrees for Nonprofit Professionals

Passion for a Cause May Not Be Enough

Graduate students

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Many people think only of nonprofits as providers of services. But the nonprofit sector is also a healthy job market. About 10 percent of the US workforce, in fact, resides within the 1.5 million nonprofits spread across the country.

Recently, the workforce growth in the nonprofit sector has outpaced that of the private sector. For instance, from 2000 to 2013 (a period that included the Great Recession) the number of nonprofit employees grew 22.6 percent beating out the five percent for government and less than one percent for business.

Along with job growth, the criteria for landing those nonprofit jobs have changed. In earlier years, a bachelor's degree sufficed. But now, for the best jobs or career advancement, a graduate degree can be required or preferred.

Maybe you already work in nonprofit but want a career boost. Or you want to break into the nonprofit world. A master's degree could help you get there.

Just having a passion for doing good may not lead to success. That is why many nonprofit organizations now resemble their for-profit counterparts. Today's nonprofit employees need to learn business strategies that also fit public sector needs.

The good news is that colleges and universities across the country have gotten the hint. Today, many colleges and universities offer graduate programs designed for nonprofit and public jobs.

Should You Go Back to School?

Public service graduate programs have become more abundant and visible. So, there are plenty of opportunities to stand out as a nonprofit job candidate. But it also indicates that a competitive job market is afoot.

Public service jobs don't require advanced degrees. But, if you are serious about your career goals in this area, do consider a master's degree. As these degree programs become more popular, enrolling now may put you ahead of the game.

What Are Your Choices?

Is there a program out there for you? Indeed! The variety of nonprofit-focused degree programs may amaze you. Here are descriptions of a few:

  • MBA: Master of Business Administration.  These programs come with a variety of public sector “twists” such as Northwestern’s Social Enterprise concentration at the Kellogg School of Business. Net Impact's survey, Business as UNusual, outlined the interest in and availability of socially-focused business school programs. 
  • MPA: Master of Public Administration. These programs teach students how to apply business skills to the public sector. The MPA works well for a Grants Manager, Director of Development or Manager of Philanthropic Programs. 
  • MPP: Master of Public Policy. An MPP often leads to a career in local or state governments or agencies. It works just as well for nonprofit organizations or think-tanks. Positions include Policy Analyst, Director of Research or Government Relations Manager.
  • MUP: Master of Urban Planning. This degree focuses on the revitalization of cities. Or helping impoverished areas, and solving environmental concerns. MUP graduates work with international organizations, such as the UN, USAID, and the World Bank. Local and state housing agencies and nonprofits that assist the homeless prove to be good fits for this degree as well.
  • MSW: You'll need A Master of Social Work degree for any managerial position in this field. Academic programs often include a year of classroom study and a year of fieldwork. Graduates find jobs in adoption support, child protection, employment, hospice care, mental health counseling, and school social work.

Can You Afford It?

Top nonprofit-related graduate programs, such as those at Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard can be expensive.

Those costs, combined with low public sector salaries, make the decision to go back to school more challenging. But before you run to the closest investment banking recruiter, remember the following:

  • A graduate degree will increase your value to an organization. Top nonprofit executives can make upwards of $100,000 per year.
  • If you are a newcomer to the public sector, an advanced degree can help you leap past entry-level positions.
  • There is financial help. Research financial aid, scholarships, fellowships, and work-study programs. Try NASPAA’s website or general funding sites such as, or FinAid.
  • The schools you apply to may offer work-study programs, graduate assistantships or scholarships. Often you must apply early for these programs so be sure to check your deadlines.
  • Be sure your program is accredited. Check for accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA)
  • Attend graduate school fairs. maintains a calendar of nonprofit focused graduate school fairs.
  • Follow your gut. The decision to go back to school is not an easy one, especially when studying for a non-traditional degree such as an MPA or MPP.

Can't Stop Working to Pursue a Degree? Consider Online Programs

For people already working in the nonprofit world, it might not be possible to attend a traditional graduate program. Could an online graduate program be the answer?
The answer is yes. Colleges and universities know that working people are some of their best students. They seem anxious to make it easy to get a degree in nonprofit-related areas. Just keep in mind that quality matters. So pick an online program as carefully as a conventional one.

The Best Schools website lists top online graduate programs in Nonprofit Management. contains online programs for NonProfit Administration & Management Degrees.

Today, almost all graduate programs offer online access to some extent. Some of these programs are hybrid ones that allow most coursework online with occasional visits to campus for more intensive work.

To find an online program, start with the regular programs that you like or that are near you and see if they have online equivalents. Avoid diploma mills that advertise a lot, and check with peers in your field to get suggestions.

More people than ever want to make the world a better place. So if you're going to be a part of that, especially for the long haul, it might make sense to jump right into a graduate degree and not look back.