Best Graduate Degree for Nonprofit Work

Those who wish to pursue leadership roles within non-profit organizations may consider earning a graduate degree at the master's or doctoral level in order to be prepared for a wide range of career challenges.

Non-profit organizations exist within a complex legal and financial framework. Obtaining graduate education may help those who aspire for leadership positions within non-profits to meet their career goals. Read on to learn more about some degree options, as well as common courses that might be encountered.

Graduate Degree Options

Master of Social Work

Nonprofit employees who would like to pursue a broad graduate degree with a wide range of career opportunities might consider earning a Master of Social Work, or M.S.W., with an administrative practice focus. M.S.W. programs may focus upon addressing social problems from a macro level, developing skills including client advocacy and needs assessment. Typically, two years of full-time study are required to complete the M.S.W. Students will be required to complete both coursework and a field placement experience, to gain practical experience. Applicants should expect to submit transcripts, GRE results, recommendations, and some programs also require a a personal narrative. Volunteer or paid social service experience is expected.

Master of Business Administration

An option for those interested in pursuing executive roles in the non-profit sector may be to earn a Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) with a focus upon non-profit work. The M.B.A. can usually be completed in two years of full-time study, though one-year programs are also available. Students will typically complete core courses in business-related topics, and then may elect specialization courses in non-profit management. To apply, students should expect to submit transcripts, GMAT scores, recommendations, and some schools also ask essays or a video essay from prospective students. Undergraduate coursework in statistics, economics, and calculus may be required; and prior management experience may be valued.

Master of Non-Profit Management

Another option to consider may be the Master of Non-Profit Management, or M.N.M. These degree programs focus specifically on the management structures and funding practices often found within non-profit organizations. This degree is often completed in two years of study. Students will often complete core courses and specialization courses. An internship or opportunity to participate on a non-profit board may be a component of the educational experience. Applicants may be required to provide transcripts, a personal statement, recommendations, and resume. GRE or GMAT scores may supplement an application.

Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership

Those who wish to pursue doctoral-level study in order to promote their non-profit careers could consider earning a Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Organizational Leadership. Program completion may involve core courses, specialization courses in non-profit leadership, and the preparation and defense of a dissertation. There are schools which require those applying for a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership program to hold a master's degree. They may be required to provide transcripts, a statement of purpose, recommendations, and a writing sample. Prior experience in a leadership role, demonstrated on a resume or CV, may be expected. Coursework in statistics and experience in research methodologies may be a component of the application process.


While course selection may vary depending on the degree that the candidate chooses to seek, there will be some commonalities in terms of coursework designed to promote the understanding of leadership within non-profit organizations.

Grant Proposal Development

A course in grantwriting may cover how to prepare grant organizations both for external organizations and within a non-profit in order to access funds to develop new programs and support existing initiatives. The steps of crafting a grant proposal, including research, budget proposal, reviewing guidelines, drafting the proposal, and evaluating the impact of the grant may be reviewed. Within this course, students may also review key funding agencies within their field of interest. Students may prepare a grant from start to finish as a final project in this course.

Research and Evaluation Practices

Within a course on research and evaluation practices, students may develop skills in identifying and selecting evidence-based practices to develop non-profit agencies. Students may become more informed on the practice and analysis of both qualitative and quantitative research. A capstone evaluative project may provide practical experience in this component of non-profit management.

Advocacy and Policy

A course in advocacy and policy provides an important background for leaders within non-profit organizations. This course may review historic and current social welfare policies that affect the well-being of individuals and communities. Various strategies for public engagement and policy change may be discussed. Case studies may provide practical examples for study.

Diverse Communities

Those managing non-profit organizations must be sensitive to a wide range of diverse communities. This course may introduce them to historical and current perspectives on issues of identity; including race, gender, and sexual orientation. Students may examine their own background and culture to increase their self-awareness and communication skills. Strategies for encouraging public participation for those from diverse backgrounds may also be a component of the course.

Strategic Management of Human Service Organizations

Within this course, students may learn how to administer and manage a range of non-profit and social organizations. Students may come to understand program design, organizational theory, and budgeting processes. In addition, the concepts of aligning the work of a non-profit with its mission and organizational goals may be considered.


Leaders of non-profit organizations must frequently manage and resolve conflicts. A negotiations course can explore the dynamics of conflicts between individuals and groups; both formally in context such as collective bargaining and informally within interpersonal communications. Furthermore, the techniques for resolving such conflicts may be explored. Students may explore communication processes and the use of empathy in resolving differences.

Human Resources in Nonprofit Organizations

Properly cultivating the human resources of a non-profit organization may be key to its strategic success. In a human resources course, students may review the various challenges in proper human resource management, including legal and economic restrictions. Students may be introduced to a wide range of topics, including developing compensation strategies, training and development programs, and staff evaluation.

Those who work in non-profit organizations may encounter a range of degrees that could assist them in meeting their career goals. These degrees can be sought at the master's or doctoral level and students may encounter some commonalities in coursework across programs.

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