The nonprofit world needs more MBAs: Five reasons why mission-driven professionals should get a business degree

By Bethany Romano

I graduated college just as the U.S. job market tanked in May 2008, and I accepted the only offer I received: as a volunteer coordinator at a scrappy environmental education nonprofit. The work we did was important and the problems we fought against are mighty. We attracted talented employees who willingly worked long hours in an emotionally draining context. We had great support from the community, which cared deeply about our programs.

Despite the happy memories, those years were often frustrating. Coworkers regularly burned out or couldn't afford to stay on such low salaries. Faulty supply chains and insufficient resources constantly delayed our work. Funders and donors demanded sophisticated financial analyses to prove our impact, but refused to fund the overhead positions to do that work. Our mission was grounded in principles of equity and social justice, but it wasn't lost on the staff that we regularly worked uncompensated overtime and lacked progressive HR policies, like paid leave.

This is the paradox of a nonprofit career. What we have in motivation and personal fulfillment we lack in stability, compensation and sophistication. There's a constant feeling of untapped potential--we could do it all, and so much better--if we only knew how to make the resources flow.

This is exactly why our field needs more MBAs. I spent four very happy years at that little nonprofit before taking a job in higher education and enrolling in a nonprofit MBA program. It can be a hard decision, but here's why you should do it, too.

Reason #1: These problems are real. Respect them by learning more about them.
It's easy to forget that as a society, we struggle to understand the causes or find tested solutions to homelessness, poverty, or inequality. We hear about a great idea and jump on board without asking for proof. We must have more respect for the complexity of these social issues--and that means learning a lot more about what they are and how to chip away at their causes.

Many nonprofit professionals go an entire career with only anecdotal evidence of their own impact. A management degree will show you how to evaluate your success and identify tactics that don't work. You'll waste less precious time and money, and most importantly, save your organization's beneficiaries from participating in an ineffective--or even harmful--program.

Reason #2: Learn how to be the boss you wish you had.
Leadership isn't just about giving inspiring speeches and enforcing rules. It's about listening, relationship building and strategic decision-making. An MBA program can push you to understand group dynamics, share responsibility, tinker with team structure and have difficult conversations in stressful circumstances.

While issues of power and privilege aren't limited to nonprofits, a great MBA program will force you to confront these issues and acknowledge your own biases. If a sense of social justice drives you to do this work, it's crucial that you advocate for social justice in your own office environment.

Reason #3: It's a good investment.
It's a common myth that all nonprofits pay terribly. While this is true for many (and it may be the case for your dream job), it isn't a given. Many universities, museums and hospitals are nonprofits, as well as huge international organizations like Oxfam, the Red Cross and the Nature Conservancy. Organizations of this size generally have more resources and pay a fair wage. Do your homework: use Glass Door, PayScale or another tool to see what you can expect to earn and weigh that against the cost of your degree.

Reason #4: Many nonprofits are in desperate need of basic business skills.
Nonprofits are run differently that most businesses, but that isn't necessarily a good thing. Especially when it comes to financial analysis and accounting, nonprofits as a rule lack sophistication. I've heard people scoff at leaders who run their nonprofits "like a business." As if it were admirable to squander donor dollars with poor accounting practices.

Many of us are drawn to a mission and we're willing to make concessions (including financial ones) to promote that purpose. But wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to? Implementing basic principles of accounting, finance, and economics can make nonprofits better at withstanding financial hardship. This is not only good for employees, but for beneficiaries, who should have access to a strong institutional support system rather than a patchy network of organizations on the brink of financial ruin.

Reason #5: You don't have to surround yourself with Wall Street hopefuls to get your MBA.
A lot of nonprofit professionals are worried they won't fit into the stereotypical business school environment. We've heard the horror stories: cutthroat competition, a Darwinian learning mentality, elite schmoozing and an explicit focus on wealth generation. This is true for some programs, but not all.

Boutique nonprofit MBA programs are popping up everywhere (including at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, where I now work and study). While many business schools provide a nonprofit add-on to their MBA program, others house a nonprofit management degree within a school of social policy or public administration. The difference this makes is huge. Find an MBA program with the student environment that meets your needs, and invest in yourself. We need you out here.


Bethany Romano is editor in the communications department at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, where she is also pursuing an MBA in nonprofit management. As editor she manages content strategy and production for web, social media and print publications. She can be reached at

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