Nonprofit Management: A Graduate Degree or Certificate?

by Tracy D. Connors, PhD on 10/21/16 11:40 AM

npm_degree-or-cert_oct_2016.jpg“Should a graduate degree or certificate in nonprofit management be included in my plans to advance my career as a senior manager of a charitable-philanthropic-nonprofit organization?”

This is a big question – and one that can have an expensive price tag. What factors should you consider?

Benefits of Earning a Graduate Degree

The experts tell us that graduate school brings benefits – those having earned advanced degrees tend to earn bigger paychecks and promotions than those who only have an undergraduate degree. For example, if I have a master’s degree, on average I earn $200 more a week than someone with a bachelor’s degree, or about 15% higher overall income. Over a lifetime, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a person with a master’s degree may earn $400,000 more than one with only a bachelor’s degree. This is a reflection of improved skill sets, job-related competencies, knowledge base, marketability, and earning potential based on the significantly improved value of the holder to the organization.

However, while earning a master’s degree could increase your chances of earning a promotion or finding a higher paid job, an upfront investment is needed. According to, the average cost of a master’s degree is between $30,000 and $120,000 depending on university and area of study.

Will a Graduate Degree Help Me Get Hired?

Attitudes about master’s degrees have changed significantly since the 1970s when they were often considered simply a consolation prize for students not able to complete their doctoral degrees. Since then, master’s degree has evolved into an important professional credential highly valued by most employers.

According to Burning Glass Technologies, graduate degrees are required or preferred in more than 20% of the positions available in the U.S. job market. Increasingly, the professional world values the growing number of managerial positions that require digital skills versus the ones that do not.

Graduate Degrees in Demand

The Education Advisory Board, in their 2014 custom research brief, Development of Online Master’s Degree in Higher Education Programs, found that nationally, “demand for graduates with skills gained from a master’s degree in higher education increased 54 percent nationally from January 2010 to June 2013.”  Additionally, the Board found that metropolitan areas such as around Boston, MA and Washington, DC, reflected some of the highest demand for graduates with a master’s degree.

Connecting the dots strongly suggests that earning a nonprofit management graduate degree prepares and positions the human services professional to stay competitive in the job market.

In a 2013 national survey and study1 determined that most NPO (nonprofit organization) senior executives have either a bachelor's or master's degree.

 npm_chart1.jpgHowever, few of the hundreds of respondents, all of whom were self-selected/reported as C-PO executives, held degrees in nonprofit organization management or related fields. Over 70% reported degrees from other fields. The next largest source was from the field of social/community services. This may reflect a pattern of internal promotion for social services agencies whose executives perhaps started as hands-on providers of client services.


Less than 5% reported earning degrees in either nonprofit organization management or public administration, respectively. The aggregated totals for all degrees focused on some aspect of management (e.g., business administration, human resource management, NPO management) totaled 18.2%. In short, fewer than one in five reported having any college level educational background in managing any type of organization; and, only approximately 1 in 20 had a degree in NPO management.

Professional Credentials

The majority of the respondents (60.4%) had not earned professional credentials beyond their college bachelor’s degree. Those reporting credentials in the "other" category included holders of non-degree certificates in nonprofit management, certificates from various sources in other categories of management, certifications as facilitator/trainer, or other graduate degree programs.

When asked their preferences regarding additional professional resources, the great majority of the respondents (79%) chose charitable-nonprofit management credentialing programs. The strong response for credentialing suggests that managers and leaders of nonprofit organizations understand and validate the value of nonprofit management certificate and master’s degree programs.

The convergence of demands for more effectiveness and efficiency from nonprofit organizations, preferences for master’s degree holders, and the scarcity of senior managers of nonprofit organizations having formal management education, argue strongly in favor of including the acquisition of a graduate nonprofit management certificate and graduate degree in nonprofit management as important professional development goals and objectives.

In short, yes, you should consider a graduate degree or certificate program for reasons that match your career and/or organization’s aspirations.

Nonprofit Management at Norwich University

Continuing your education can have a variety of effects on your personal and professional development, and what moves you make next in your career. At Norwich University, we offer two pathways of furthering your education in the field of nonprofit management, both delivered online. Our Nonprofit Management certificates, encompassing four areas of study, could be the perfect addition to your knowledge, skills and abilities portfolio. Or maybe you are in need of a master’s degree credential to stay attuned to the industry or move up in your organization – the Master of Public Administration program begins with coursework tailored toward the foundations of public administration and then you can move on to a specific concentration in an area that  interests you, including nonprofit management.

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1Connors, T. D. (May 2013). Towards a theory of self-renewed excellence for charitable-philanthropic organizations [The charitable-Philanthropic organization self-Renewing management model (C-POSRM) study defined and validated fundamental organizational performance constructs to better understand those management actions and activities most valuable and contributory to sustained, superior organizational performance and mission fulfillment by charitable organizations.], Public Service Leadership, Capella University. DAI-A 74/11(E), p. 276. Retrieved from

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This post was written by Tracy D. Connors, PhD

Dr. Connors has served as a lead and core faculty member for the Norwich University Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree program since 2013. His doctoral studies focused on human services management, with a specialization in Management of Nonprofit Agencies. In 2014, Norwich University launched the nonprofit management concentration in the MPA program to which was driven by Dr. Connors Self-Renewing Management Model he introduced in 1997. The concentration provides the academic foundation for the university's four graduate certificates in nonprofit management. He has published eight major handbooks for nonprofit organization management since 1980, and published the second edition of the Volunteer Management Handbook in 2011. He served as editor for Leading at the Strategic Level by James W. Browning, a book about the new strategic leadership published by National Defense University in 2012. Captain Connors' distinguished U.S. Navy service (Airman Recruit to Captain), included 32 years of duty on ships (Surface Warfare Officer qualifications), units, flag staffs, and senior officer responsibilities in public affairs and project management on the staff of the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations.