Podcast: Is nonprofit management the grad degree for you?

By Amy Potthast.

Right this minute, our Idealist Grad Fair season is kicking off in New York City. To celebrate, we’ve got a fresh podcast for you: a look at nonprofit management programs through the eyes of three friendly admissions counselors. The podcast comes in three bite-sized installments. Click here to learn more and listen.


With a plethora of graduate disciplines available to you—MBA, MPA, Social Work—you may be wondering, why might I go for a specialized degree in nonprofit management?

We hope this show might help answer this question. Topics include:

Special thanks to our panelists:

Edward Grice is the Associate Dean of the MBA program in nonprofit management at the American Jewish University. Chris Nicholson is the Director of Graduate Admissions at North Park University in Chicago, home of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management. And Rebecca Zirm is the Director of Recruitment at the Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organization and Case Western Reserve University.

Links to learn more:

If you listen to the podcast, I’d love to hear what you think!

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at amypotthast.com.

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My Top 10 Lessons Since Starting Idealist

When Darian Heyman told me about  Nonprofit Management 101 and asked me to write a Foreword for the book, two thoughts immediately came to mind. The first was, “Really? Another introduction to the sector? Do we really need this?” But then I saw the list of authors that Darian had assembled – many of whom I’ve known for years – and it was clear that he couldn’t have found a better group of people to write this.

The second thought was more of a wish: the wish that when I started Idealist.org in 1995 I could have had this amazing group of people whispering in my ear, and stopping me from making some of the bigger mistakes I’ve made over the years.

So in thinking about this Foreword I decided that the most useful thing I could do was share some of those mistakes with you, and then encourage you to read this book in the hope that you can avoid repeating them.

Here then are my Top Ten Lessons from the past eighteen years:

1. Focus. Focus! Mission creep is Enemy #1. Once you know what you want to do, do that and nothing else. Resist temptations, especially from funders who have their own agendas and who can blow you off course with a sweet-sounding grant. If the grant is not for something you want to do, the money is not worth it.

2. Build a good board, but first decide what “good” means for you. More or less engaged? More or less supportive? More or less meddlesome? The key here is that serious people who take on a task usually also want the authority to do it well. And so you need to decide: Do you want a board that does a lot but then also wants a say in how the work is done? Or do you want a board that is more hands-off, but gives you and your staff more freedom? What you should avoid at all costs is the worst of both words: a board that meddles but doesn’t help.

3. Hire good people. Skilled and smart, of course, but what I really mean is people you like. You’ll spend long days with this group, so hire kind and interesting people who make you laugh.

4. When you make a hiring mistake, and you probably will, try to fix it as soon as possible. There is one test that usually works well. Think about your entire team once in a while, and ask yourself, “if that person resigned, would I be upset or would I be relieved?” If the answer is that you’d be relieved, you should probably not wait for them to resign.

5. Learn some accounting. Money is the fuel on which your organization will run, and you should always know your numbers. Some people start nonprofit organizations as a way of avoiding what they see as the money-centeredness of the corporate world. But the truth is that money is at least as important in our sector as in any other, and you should know enough accounting to always know how your organization is doing.

6. Use free stuff; there is so much of it now. Blogs, Google Apps, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Salesforce licenses, and much much more. We run our whole organization on Google Apps, for example, which means that all our email and office software is free, and there is no reason why you should pay for it, either.

7. Build your network. And I don’t mean by “networking,” going to conferences, and exchanging business cards or Facebook connections. What I really mean is to try, wherever possible, to treat people the way you like to be treated. If you do this, over time you’ll have a real network of people who will be there when you need them most.

8. Collaborations, coalitions, alliances, mergers… Before jumping in, can you imagine a way out? Working closely with other organizations can be both good and necessary, but exactly at the point when the collaboration seems most tempting, stop for a moment and see if you can imagine a way out in case things go wrong. If you can’t, and the thought makes you queasy, it might be worth looking at the whole thing again.

9. Be careful with your time. Fight hyperbolic discounting! “Hyperbolic discounting” is a fancy term for a tendency that many of us have to make choices today that our future self would prefer not to make. For example, someone invites you to attend a conference across the country five months from now. It sounds good, and it’s easy to say “yes” at that moment, but when the day arrives and you have to take the trip, you find yourself regretting that quick “yes.” Most of us do this with all kinds of commitments, but these days, having regretted a “yes” once too often, I make a conscious effort not to commit to doing anything in the future without trying to imagine myself then.

10. Think big! Having said all this, what’s the worst thing that could happen if you fail? Think big, and go for it! Some days will be challenging and frustrating, but if you are doing what you want, they will never be boring. What more can we ask for?

Good luck!

Ami Dar


Thanks for reading. Want a copy of the book? It’s available now on Amazon.


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Graduate Degree Spotlight: Nonprofit Management

If you visit our site often, you probably know that we run a series of graduate degree fairs every year — and the 2010 series kicks off this week! The idea is to bring together prospective students with representatives from all sorts of graduate programs whose graduates go on to serve the public good.

To complement the fairs (or to supplement them, for those who can’t make it in person), we have created a series of “degree overviews” — snapshots of several types of graduate programs you may be considering.

Today we’re spotlighting our nonprofit management degree overview. While nonprofit organizations can differ wildly in the communities they serve and the people they engage with, they have a few basic characteristics in common. Nonprofit organizations all work towards a mission, whether broad (“abolish world hunger”) or narrow (“improve community resources in our neighborhood’), that serves the common good. Nonprofits also all have managers behind the scenes making this good work possible. Nonprofit management degree programs educate future nonprofit leaders in general operations, human resources, strategies, and fund development, amongst other skills essential to making a nonprofit run effectively and efficiently.

To learn more about nonprofit management, click here.

Better yet, if you are in New York City or Washington, DC, come visit us at our upcoming fairs this week! We will be in NYC tomorrow, June 15, and in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. Click here for more information on our grad fairs.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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