Careers in Nonprofit Management: Tips for Success

Careers in Nonprofit Management: Tips for Success

Students sitting on bench looking at laptop together.

As the Director of Fairfield University’s MPA program and having pivoted my career into the Nonprofit sector, I take pride in sharing insights on tips for success in Nonprofit Management and how our program uniquely prepares graduates to make positive and meaningful contributions in the nonprofit sector.

Nonprofit Management is a dynamic field with many options for leaders to follow their passion while making a profound difference in the organizations and communities they serve. Nonprofit Management professionals are pivotal in overseeing a variety of responsibilities, ranging from budgeting, employee management, fundraising, grant writing, and much more. That’s what makes the field so rewarding!

In this article, we explore Nonprofit career paths, essential skills to empower nonprofit leaders, and valuable tips to help navigate a successful career journey.  

Photo of Gayle Alberda

MPA Program Director Gayle Alberda

Why is nonprofit management such an essential role within nonprofit organizations?

Nonprofits are playing an increasing role within the public sector. They offer essential programs within a community that the government cannot fully provide. This is a hefty responsibility. Similar to managers in the private sector, nonprofit managers handle a variety of aspects within their organization, such as budgeting and employee supervision. However, nonprofit managers must also help with fundraising and grant writing. They must have the leadership, vision, and skills necessary to advance their organization. Strategic planning and overseeing the nonprofit operations to ensure that the organization maintains its mission is crucial. An MPA degree or a nonprofit management certificate is an excellent way to develop these skills.

What are three examples of career paths available in nonprofit management?

Fundraising/Grant Writing

Fundraising or grant writing is an excellent choice for an in-demand career path. Nonprofit organizations rely on grants and donations to sustain their programs and services. Those in this role oversee and help with fundraising efforts, such as organizing fundraising events, asking for donations, developing relationships, managing funds, and collaborating with other leaders within the nonprofit to establish budgetary needs and the fundraising plan to achieve them.

Program Director

Program directors are a popular career pathway. They develop, implement, manage, and evaluate a program within a nonprofit. In this capacity, they may oversee staff, collaborate with leadership on securing funds for the program, evaluate the program to provide essential feedback for improvement, and manage a budget. The program director must ensure their program meets the nonprofit’s goals and strategic plan. In this way, management, leadership, communication, and analytical skills are crucial to success.

Executive Director

The role of the executive director is an important leader driving meaningful impact within an organization and the community served. Typically, nonprofits have someone who oversees the entire organization; executive directors manage the nonprofit’s day-to-day operations. Executive directors are visionaries with strong strategic, organizational, and communication skills. They tend to report directly to the nonprofit’s board of directors. They are both external as the face of the organization for the public and internal as the highest leader within the organization.  

What five skills are vital to cultivate for a leader in nonprofit management?

  1. Fundraising and grant writing skills: Grant funding and donations are the lifeblood of nonprofits. Without it, the nonprofit would struggle to offer programs and services to the community.
  2. Program evaluation: No program or service delivery system is perfect. Program evaluations allow us to determine what is working well and what needs adjustments. Being able to do this ensures program success.
  3. Financial management: Every organization develops and carries out a budget. Understanding the budget process and managing a budget helps the organization achieve its mission.
  4. Leadership: Leaders draw people into the organization and motivate them in their positions, be it staff or donors, to help achieve the goals and mission of the organization.
  5. Organization and decision-making skills: Advancing the nonprofit’s mission requires adept organization and decision-making skills. Leaders in nonprofit management play a significant role in shaping the nonprofit’s image, making informed decisions, or looking for new and innovative ideas to manage and grow the organization.

What tips would you offer for a rewarding career in nonprofit management?

  1. Find your passion: A key part of success in any career is finding a way to do what you love. A personal passion that aligns with an organization’s mission is like hitting the jackpot. Both you and the organization will thrive.
  2. Embrace Continuous learning: Cultivate your learning by pursuing an advanced degree, being mentored, mentoring someone else, and looking to the industry for the newest and best practices. Continuous growth benefits you and positively impacts both the organization and the broader community we serve.
  3. Get comfortable with technology: Technology has propelled us into a global community and continues to advance quickly today. While the public sector often lags behind the private sector in adopting new technology, nonprofits are quickly adopting technology solutions to enhance their impact. Becoming versed in standard industry technology helps advance you and the organization.
  4. Reflection: Successful leaders reflect on their successes and failures. They use these formal reflections to determine how to improve themselves and the organization.
  5. Learn to love data: Data has become a huge part of governance, which includes the nonprofit sector. Being adept at using data to benefit the organization is vital – conducting focus groups, administering program surveys, creating budgets, and forecasting finances are all data-driven. Someone needs to collect, analyze, interpret, and explain what the data means. Harnessing this ability is very helpful.
  6. Flex the leadership muscles: Many people can manage, but few can lead. Figuring out what kind of leader you are, how to motivate others, and creating the space for everyone to take ownership of the organization’s vision is a smart way to continue to learn, share your passion, reflect, and become innovative – all of which help you and the organization thrive.

What additional resources do you recommend?

Networking will play a key role in your nonprofit management career. Developing and sharpening this skill by attending events and conferences is beneficial. There are a lot of nonprofit and public sector conferences that enhance skills and provide networking opportunities, such as the Nonprofit Marketing Summit. Many of these conferences have some virtual options, too.

There are also many websites dedicated to nonprofit jobs, such as the National Council of Nonprofits or Public Service Careers that are more specialized than traditional websites like LinkedIn or Indeed. Knowing where to look for a job is the first step to obtaining a career aligned with your purpose.

Why do you love being the Director of Fairfield University’s MPA program?

I am a proud first-generation college graduate and scholar, and as a former graduate student. I understand the challenges that grad students face. Reflecting on my journey from college to pursuing my MPA and PhD, I remember the excitement of my academic journey and how overwhelming it can be. After working for some time, I also returned to graduate school, allowing me the opportunity to change my career path. I understand the dreams and challenges that first-generation students face, those desiring a career change or a lateral move within their organization. This uniquely equips me to support our Fairfield grad students.

My position also allows me to attend conferences to learn about important market shifts and develop new courses to meet industry demands and best practices. I continuously share these insights with our students. As the MPA director, I am devoted to advising students one-on-one, which allows me to foster relationships with students, champion their professional and educational goals, and help them achieve them. One of the many reasons I love being the director is that I can help students curate a plan to meet their goals that reflects who they are and where they are at in their journey. I learn just as much from the students in the program as the students.

How does the Fairfield program prepare graduates for a career in Nonprofit management?

Our nonprofit management certificate consists of specific curated courses that hone the skills necessary to be successful as a nonprofit manager. Some competencies that our MPA certificate and degree develop and expand include leadership, organization and decision-making skills, program evaluation, financial management, communication skills, data, project management, and fundraising and grant writing skills.

One real-world example is how our grant writing course allows students to develop this skill and make an impact. Many students secure grant funding for the organization they selected to work with during their program. Collectively, this course in our program has raised over $200,000 in grant monies for nonprofits. Securing a grant before you leave graduate school significantly impacts your resume and attractiveness as a potential employee. Find out more about how MPA students have raised substantial funds for organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the CT Food Bank, Alliance of Fairfield County, and many more.

I am always excited to receive updates from our nonprofit management students and graduates. It is thrilling to hear their stories about how they have applied our program to advance their careers and make a positive change in the nonprofit sector. It reinforces how practical our program is in offering a comprehensive curriculum rooted in real-world application, supported by our passionate faculty.

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