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Opportunities for MBAs in the Nonprofit Sector

December 13, 2022

People are drawn to nonprofit jobs because they want to make an impact, and MBA graduates are no exception. When the Graduate Management Admission Council asked incoming MBA candidates to describe their ideal careers, it found many of them were motivated by the desire to do good. One respondent said they wanted “a job that is self-fulfilling, allows for growth, and makes the world a better place.” Another answered that they were looking for “steady career growth correlated with a higher impact on society, customers, and colleagues.” Both would likely find philanthropic work fulfilling. Whether they will look for positions in nonprofit organizations after earning their degrees is another story. 

Many MBAs don’t explore opportunities in the nonprofit world because they assume there isn’t demand for business school graduates. The reality, however, is that nonprofits and for-profit corporations are very similar from an organizational perspective. Both require marketing, financial, operational, and strategic management. Both must remain financially solvent to achieve their goals. And the internal structure of established nonprofit organizations tends to mirror corporate hierarchies—both may have a CEO, COO, CMO, and other executives; departmental managers; and human resources, accounting, and communication staff.

Programs such as the Online Master of Business Administration at the Howard University School of Business prepare students to excel in the business world and in organizations they are passionate about. Coursework covers a comprehensive range of management skills, with an emphasis on hands-on experience. The curriculum, collaborative culture, networking opportunities, and resources offered by the Center for Career Guidance help students take advantage of opportunities for MBAs in the nonprofit sector.

How do nonprofit organizations use MBAs?

At the frontline level, nonprofit organizations employ fundraisers, outreach specialists, event planners, community managers, sponsorship coordinators, and volunteer coordinators, each of whom plays an impactful role in fulfilling the organization’s mission. Behind the scenes, managers oversee day-to-day operations and the leadership team ensures the organization complies with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reporting requirements, keeps a balanced budget, meets fundraising goals, hires the right team members, taps into the best funding streams, and takes advantage of every opportunity to capture new supporters.

MBAs bring their strategic financial, operational, and development skills to all types of nonprofits in executive leadership roles. The American Red Cross, for example, has a team of active corporate officers and organizational leaders who provide strategic management of the organization’s global operations. But even smaller charitable organizations rely on professionals with advanced business acumen to achieve and maintain sustainable growth. At the administrative level, MBAs employed by not-for-profit organizations oversee the implementation of marketing, fundraising, outreach, and service initiatives. Most nonprofit organizations have in-house staff or work with consultants and partners, and managers help these paid contributors and volunteers contribute to the fulfillment of the mission. 

Ultimately, nonprofits face many of the same challenges for-profit companies do, and the strategic planning, ethical management, problem-solving, and decision-making skills professionals learn in on-campus and online MBA and Executive MBA programs let them thrive in both spheres.

Why work for a nonprofit as an MBA?

MBAs work for private and public charities because they want to use their skills to enhance others’ ability to focus on service and advocacy. In social welfare, environmental conservancy, housing, public safety, education, and healthcare, nonprofit leaders help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems and provide essential community resources. “Many nonprofit organizations are tackling issues such as poverty, community health, and climate change head-on, but with limited budgets and—in some countries—dwindling government aid, and resources are strained,” writes Joanmarie Foster for GMAC. MBAs help mission-driven organizations develop partnerships, double the funds they raise, and trim fat from their budgets to succeed during challenging times. 

It’s not uncommon for on-campus and online MBA program graduates to work in nonprofits. In the 2018 GMAC Alumni Perspectives Survey, 13 percent of b-school graduates reported working for nonprofit or governmental organizations. This is a sizable percentage, given that only 20 percent worked in products and services and 17 percent worked in tech. 

Many MBA holders choose careers in the nonprofit world because they realize they can make a difference and earn more than $100,000. In the same GMAC survey, MBAs working in nonprofits and government organizations reported salaries between $75,000 and $115,000, with a median salary of $145,000 at the C-Suite level. For comparison, MBAs working in products and services—the industry most entered—reported earning between $90,000 and $125,000. Another factor in their choice to focus on nonprofit work may be loan forgiveness. Some professionals in nonprofit jobs are eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a program that forgives federal student loan debt after 10 years of service in specific agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Six nonprofit jobs for MBAs

There are many nonprofit jobs—including most leadership positions—in which an MBA is required or can make an applicant more competitive.

Chief Executive Officer

Depending on the size and structure of a nonprofit, the chief executive may be called executive director, director, or president, among other possible variations of the name. No matter the job title, the CEO is responsible for making sure the tax-exempt organization under their helm is running smoothly. This person will manage other departmental executives and work with the board of directors, setting long-term strategies and deciding how to allocate the organization’s resources. Advanced training in business administration lets nonprofit CEOs appropriately guide the directors who report to them.

CEO responsibilities and job descriptions range from very hands-on to strategic. In the case of large nonprofits and governmental organizations like Americorps, the CEO oversees program directors and program managers across the country and keeps an overhead perspective on initiatives, partnerships, and collaborations. They are not involved in every operational decision. This is especially true for international nonprofit organizations like Americares or The United Way, where program managers run operations across the globe. In smaller organizations—a New York City park alliance, for example, or local religious organizations—executives may be more involved in day-to-day decision-making. 

Chief Financial Officer

Nonprofit organizations must follow specific legal requirements when it comes to finances. These requirements differ from those of private foundations and for-profit entities. If nonprofits aren’t compliant with the Internal Revenue Code and other applicable laws, they risk losing their tax-exempt status. The Chief Financial Officer—sometimes called financial director or financial manager—oversees cash flow management, budgets, and other fiscal matters and has a thorough understanding of the tax code that governs the organization’s finances. They also manage the financial managers or directors beneath them.

The Bridgespan Group—a nonprofit management consulting group—contends that this is an era of “increased scrutiny of nonprofit organizations’ financials and performance.” The public is holding nonprofits more accountable at the same time as the sector is seeing growth and increased complexity, according to a report from the group. As a result, the CFO’s function is becoming more critical. The Bridgespan Group found that CFO roles were more common at mid and large-sized nonprofits and responsibilities associated with the job varied depending on the organization’s size.

Many nonprofit CFOs begin their careers in the for-profit sector and transition into the nonprofit world after gaining significant experience and earning MBAs. CFO roles in the nonprofit sector differ from for-profit finance roles, where a company’s biggest concern is its bottom line. Many people who make the switch say it’s worth contributing to a cause. “I get more fulfillment here in a day than I did in a year in the for-profit world,” one such CFAO told the Bridgespan Group. 

Chief Impact Officer

The Chief Impact Officer (or Chief Purpose Officer) assesses the organization’s impact in the context of its mission. Their overall purpose is to ensure that decisions about resources, fundraising, time allotted, and more align with an organization’s mission. 

This role has become more common in recent years, according to SHRM. An impact officer is involved in both planning and review—helping to guide decision-making, then assessing the results of those decisions over a fiscal or calendar year. They will often communicate with program coordinators, managers, and development officers about the money spent compared to the impact achieved through that funding. CIOs use strategic management and analytics skills, so MBAs are well-qualified for this role.

Director of Communication

Also called the Chief Marketing Officer, communication director, communications manager, or director of public relations, the director of communication’s role is to publicize the organization’s impact and generate awareness of and support for its mission. Nonprofit communications professionals develop an organization’s branding, marketing, outreach, and communication efforts. This can include overseeing the organization’s social media presence, press communications, event marketing, and campaign strategy. 

Many CMOs in the for-profit and nonprofit world hold MBAs because business administration programs teach students to manage and evaluate outreach, communication, and branding initiatives. 

Development Director

The development director, or director of development, is in charge of the fundraising arm of a nonprofit. They build and manage relationships with donors and other financial partners and may be involved in grant writing, or oversee one or more grant writers, depending on the size of the organization. Development heads also report to upper-level management and the board of directors and often work closely with the marketing team to develop and launch fundraising and donor engagement efforts. 

MBA programs provide the financial literacy and communication skills needed in development positions. Because so much of the job is about building and maintaining relationships, communication and network-building are extremely important. Howard’s Online MBA program encourages students to expand their professional networks. Strong relationships can be useful after graduation, especially in the nonprofit world. “Howard is not your typical online program,” said Executive Director of Executive Education and the Center for Career Excellence Kim R. Wells. “Our alumni network includes the heads of business, industry, government, law, and currently, the vice president of the United States.” 

Financial Analyst

Financial analysts are highly skilled individual contributors at for-profit and nonprofit organizations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for this position is about $96,000. At nonprofits, financial analysts collect and analyze data about their organizations’ revenue and spending. They then use analyses and projections to develop future financial plans. They may also research the financial performance of various fiscal assets for their organizations’ endowments.

An MBA is typically not required to become a Financial Analyst, but it is a preferred qualification in larger nonprofit organizations. And many MBA graduates look at financial analyst positions as a step along the path to becoming a CFO.

How the Online MBA program at Howard prepares professionals for nonprofit management

The traditional MBA leaves the door open for a broader range of opportunities. “[Students] might want to go into nonprofit management, or government, or explore different entrepreneurial ventures,” said Dean of the Howard University School of Business Anthony Wilbon. “My goal is to create a variety of options and access for students in our business school so they can explore their interests and leave prepared to go after any of their goals.” 

Howard University has long-standing relationships with nonprofit organizations, and faculty and leadership have expertise in various fields. They share their experience in rich virtual classroom discussions that encourage MBA candidates to think about the many different ways they can use their developing leadership skills.

Rather than focusing on the familiar, Howard faculty work to fill gaps in students’ skillsets, Wilbon said. For example, they may advise students with backgrounds in the arts and humanities to take a statistics class to develop a more holistic range of skills and thus expand their career options. In courses such as Organizational Management, Financial Accounting, Marketing Management, and more, Online MBA candidates learn the core competencies nonprofit leaders need to do more good in the world.

Connect with an enrollment advisor today, or read the Howard School of Business FAQs to learn more before submitting your application. 

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