Graduate applications rise as job uncertainty looms
After more than 17 years in the newspaper business, Lisa D. Lenoir could see only hard times ahead if she continued in journalism, given the layoffs sweeping news organizations nationwide.
She began to toy with the idea of building new skills and making a career shift. Meanwhile, in her job as travel and society editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, she learned more about local charities and grew more intrigued by their work.
In 2007, after leaving the newspaper, she was hired as director of development at the Human Resources Development Institute, a health and social-services charity focused on black Americans. But after the state cut money to the charity, she was among staff members who were laid off last August.
"Even before I left the nonprofit, they wanted me to work on getting my master's degree," says Ms. Lenoir, 42. "Once I was laid off, I had to really think about, is this still something I wanted to pursue, and would I be able to find the money to do it?"
She decided to apply for a tuition grant, tap her retirement fund, and take the plunge — and started at DePaul University this spring, studying for a master's degree in nonprofit management.
The degree, she believes, will open up her career options. "I want to eliminate any barriers to my being marketable," she says.
Meanwhile, the Sun-Times has laid off numerous workers this year and last, and in March, its owners filed for bankruptcy protection. In light of what has happened, she says, she believes her decision to enter graduate school and shift gears was wise: "I didn't want to be in a situation that made me vulnerable."
Neither, it turns out, do an increasing number of people who work in or aspire to work in the nonprofit world. As the job market continues to contract, graduate-school programs are becoming more attractive to a wide variety of prospective students.
For early or midcareer nonprofit workers seeking to advance, and business executives looking to make the transition into charity jobs, graduate programs in nonprofit management and related fields may offer a chance to build skills and a professional network that can pay off as the economy recovers, say nonprofit recruiters and educators. But their cost, both in time and money, requires careful consideration before making a commitment.
'A Bit of a Spike'
At several graduate-level nonprofit-management programs around the country, applications have risen over this time last year. The more than 40 members of the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council, in Cleveland, an umbrella group for nonprofit-management education programs nationwide, report that they are seeing "a bit of a spike" in applications and inquiries from prospective students, says Amy McClellan, the council's executive director.
At the University of San Diego, applications to enroll this fall in its master's program in nonprofit leadership and management grew by nearly 83 percent compared with last year, according to Pat Libby, director of the university's Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research.
Ms. Libby credits much of that increase to a wave of applications by local charity workers. "Because the economy is in downturn, nonprofit practitioners are saying, 'I need to learn new tricks and insights for how I can better manage and lead my organization,'" she says. Mediocre management practices that were sufficient during healthier economic times, she says, often aren't enough to keep organizations going in a recession.
Applications have also increased at Georgia State University's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, says Dennis R. Young, a professor of private enterprise at the Atlanta institution. At the university's public management and policy department, applications are up about 39 percent over last year he says. Usually, about 22 percent of people who apply to the department's master's programs also apply for its nonprofit-management concentration; this year, that figure is up about 79 percent over last year. Also, he says, "it looks like the quality of the applications is improving."
Although most people who apply for graduate-level nonprofit-management programs already work in the field, an increasing number of applicants are people seeking a way to switch to charity work from a for-profit career, say educators.
Matthew Hale, chairman of the department of public and health-care administration at Seton Hall University, says he has been fielding a lot of calls in recent months from prospective students who have had careers in the business world and have been left stunned by the economy's swift downward spiral. Says Mr. Hale, "There's an interest in nonprofits for idealistic reasons: If it's going to be that uncertain and my work world is going to be that crazy, maybe I should do something that will make a difference, something that's going to help people."
Ms. McClellan points to "the Obama effect," in addition to the tough job market, as a possible catalyst for the recent bump in applications. The president's championing of volunteerism, she says, has helped drive increased interest in charity work.
Gretchen Knott, of Fort Madison, Iowa, who trained as a graphic artist as an undergraduate, got inspired to look for nonprofit jobs after working part time at a Head Start program in college and helping out a friend's fledgling charity. Unable to find a full-time position in graphic design, she is working as a waitress and nurturing an interest in environmental organizations.
Ms. Knott, 23, found an online-study program in environmental policy and management through the University of Denver and will enroll in June while keeping her current job. She is optimistic that it will give her the preparation she needs for a future nonprofit career.
She notes, "Our new president, he's very into the green jobs."
Other students are making the leap to nonprofit graduate programs while in the middle of for-profit careers. James F. Doyle, 44, a business analyst at Embarq, a telecommunications company, expects to be laid off sometime this year. In the meantime, he and his wife are starting a charity to educate people about personal-safety issues.
He is halfway through a master's in public administration with an emphasis in nonprofit management at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, in a program that he feels will prepare him for a new nonprofit or government career. Both paths, he says, "seem more stable to me" than staying in the corporate world.
Mr. Doyle isn't worried about possibly taking a lower nonprofit salary, especially given his current circumstances.
"The money thing seems a moot point now. The people that I work with, we're all going to lose our jobs in the next year," he says, adding, "The whole corporate industry was overpaid in the past decade or so. They're just not going to find that money anymore."
But business people who are looking at graduate programs as gateways to nonprofit careers should think carefully about the salary cuts they will probably take, says Laura S. Thrall, president of the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.
A former stock and commodities broker, Ms. Thrall got a master's in public administration from DePaul in 1996 and took the top job at the Chicago United Way this year after working for the YWCA.
"For me, giving up part of the money but being able to come to work and feel good about the people I work with everyday is a fair trade," she says. "Now, not everybody believes that."
Such degrees are not, however, a direct ticket to the top, says Ms. Thrall: "It's more relevant to getting you to a mid-management position."
Nonprofit employers say that while graduate degrees in nonprofit management cannot be a substitute for experience, they do show job seekers' familiarity with and interest in the charity world.
"If you haven't worked in nonprofits before, I'm looking for other things on the résumé that reveal a commitment or a deep understanding of what it's like to work for a nonprofit," says Scott Millstein, executive director of the Coro New York Leadership Center, a nonprofit organization that offers fellowships in leadership education. "And the biggest difference is just being in an under-resourced environment."
Would-be career switchers should volunteer at an organization before committing to a degree program, says Ms. Libby. "There can be misconceptions about what the nonprofit sector is, and it's not all sunshine and roses," she says. "People need to have some experience volunteering so they know what they're walking into."
Current charity workers are also finding reasons to return to the classroom as the economy sours.
"The nonprofit sector is the Rodney Dangerfield of sectors," says Ms. Libby. "It's the sector that doesn't get any respect, and it should, because it's complicated to run effectively." More charity workers these days, she says, "are interested in studying so they can do a better job of running their organizations."
Adina Veen, 29, a volunteer-support specialist at the Girl Scouts, San Diego-Imperial Council, enrolled in the nonprofit management and leadership program at the University of San Diego to improve her worth to her organization and her future career prospects. She is scheduled to graduate next year and expects her timing to be ideal.
"Times are going to start to get tough in the market, and I'm better preparing myself to have those skills and that education and knowledge behind me," Ms. Veen says.
She is now in a strategic-planning course, which has inspired her to help her volunteer-support department rethink how it trains and supports volunteers and how it can collaborate more effectively with other departments at the charity.
"Eventually, recessions end," says Gayle A. Brandel, president of Professionals for NonProfits, a recruiter with offices in New York and Washington. And when the economy recovers, she says, "the needs in the nonprofit sector will be enormous. Because right now everything is very tight, but when things get better, they're going to start filling in those holes in their work force, and they're going to need the best people."
Any training in financial management or information technology, in particular, would particularly enhance a nonprofit résumé, she says.
Antonio Pizano, chief executive of the MAAC Project, a Chula Vista, Calif., social-service group, echoes Ms. Brandel's suggestions, and says nonprofit employers these days also prize job candidates with specialized training in fund raising and marketing.
The MAAC Project cut 10 positions by layoffs and attrition last year after its government and private support dropped.
But, Mr. Pizano says, every MAAC employee who has gotten a master's in nonprofit management has been retained and promoted. And he would like to see more of his workers take the opportunity to build skills and enhance their value to the charity.
"We already have a budget for tuition reimbursement," he says. "And to be honest with you, hardly anyone uses it."
In addition to the skills students pick up in the classroom, they also meet other people in the field, building relationships through classes, internships, and outside projects that can help them individually and aid their organizations, say students and educators.
In tough times, that network can be especially crucial, notes Ms. Veen, who says some of her classmates at the University of San Diego have recently lost their jobs.
"And they're just happy to still have school — to still have that connection to the nonprofit sector and to still be building those relationships," she says. "We're all very aware that we're all just one budget line away from being laid off."