MBAs in the Non-Profit Sector

Going to business school and getting an MBA does not mean you can’t go into the nonprofit sector or working for a social enterprise. If you think MBAs and nonprofits are about as compatible as oil and water, think again.
Yes, finance and consulting industries lead the top-10 industry preferences for recent MBAs, but nonprofits and social enterprises squarely make the list.
Getting an MBA does not cut you off from a lifetime of social consciousness—far from it. MBAs can contribute volumes to the successful operation of a nonprofit. Still, the nonprofit world faces some challenges attracting MBAs, as many shy away from social enterprise due to (legitimate) concerns about lower earnings, especially when you consider the post-MBA educational debt that faces most business school grads.
While this is a valid concern, some of the stereotypes about MBAs in the nonprofit sector are no more than fallacies. You can successfully apply your MBA degree and your business school skills to the world of social activism. Read on as we help bust a few nonprofit-related myths for MBAs.

Myth: If I want to work in the nonprofit sector, I should get my master’s degree in public administration or policy. My MBA would be useless.

Busted! An MBA is rarely “useless.” It is one of the most versatile advanced degrees you can get. Business school grads with MBAs can be found in every field—from technology to real estate. The skill sets you’ll learn in business school can be applied to various industries in all kinds of ways.
MPPs and MPAs, on the other hand, have a more specific focus—namely, policy analysis and policy implementation—though they often cover topics such as decision modeling and cost-benefit analysis as MBA coursework. An MBA program will cover broad topics in management and analysis, which you can easily apply to the nonprofit world, regardless of the particular mission of your chosen employer.
Think of an MBA like a potato: you can make lots of great things with it!

Myth: I want to go into the nonprofit sector, but business school is so expensive. I can’t afford to take a pay cut.

Busted! Yes, business school is a major investment of time, money, and opportunity cost. Be judicious and methodical about financing your business school education by researching which schools will support and possibly fund your goal of working for a social enterprise.
The Leadership Fellow Program at Harvard Business School, for example, which places graduates with nonprofit and public-sector organizations, gave each of its 19 graduates a $50,000 grant upon graduation. Several other prestigious programs, including Duke’s Fuqua and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, offer similar benefits.
Also, remember that your full compensation package is much more than just your salary. The intangible benefits of your job can be extremely valuable. Think of the satisfaction you’ll get from contributing to a cause that you care about. How much is that worth to you—personally and monetarily?
Regardless of your decision, remember that acing the GMAT never hurt anyone, and can help you land merit scholarships and fellowships.

Myth: I’m looking to be challenged, but a nonprofit might not use my skills to their utmost.

Busted! Scan the list of the biggest charities in the United States and you will see massive operations like the American Cancer Society and Teach For America. While these entities are distinct from businesses, their wide reach and intricate funding networks can and do benefit from the expertise of MBAs.
For example, around 12% of Habitat for Humanity’s employees have MBAs. After the recession, nonprofits and social enterprises are struggling with funding. They find themselves having to refocus their efforts on efficiency, resource allocation, and budget management. With nonprofits, the end consumer isn’t the one bringing in the money, so the challenges in bringing in and using limited funds are real and ongoing. Solving these problems can really test your mettle, but also prove extremely rewarding.

Myth: I have an MBA, so nonprofits will think I’m a bad fit.

Busted! The stereotypes you may face as a b-school graduate are the same ones that can make you a valuable asset to a nonprofit. Your industry knowledge, knack for analysis, and research skills can help develop best practices at whatever company you join.
When entering any company—nonprofit or for-profit—take the time to research its business model and goals so you can come armed with solutions. Consider doing an internship with a social enterprise in the nonprofit sector—not only to show your commitment, but also to confirm your desire to pursue this career path. Look for electives that cover topics of interest to nonprofit management or pursue an MBA with a nonprofit or social enterprise specialty.