Undergraduate Studies for the Nonprofit World

It may still feel like summer, but this week thousands of college students will be heading back to universities across the country.  Just how many of them will end up in the public sector, we may never know, but with more than 1.5 million nonprofits active in the United States, the chances are high that some of them will.

Question: Is there a preferred undergraduate major for a career in nonprofit management? 

Answer: No, but there are tons of courses, academic resources, and internship opportunities that can help undergraduates stand out when applying for jobs in the public sector.  You just have to know where to look.

My Story

My undergraduate adventure certainly wasn’t glamorous. I found that there weren’t many options for someone who wanted their major to be “Saving the World,” so I made an honest effort to prepare myself for a career in the public sector.  I enrolled initially as a government major, which offered a combination of political science, philosophy, and economics classes. By the time junior year rolled around, I was in desperate need of a change of pace; attending university in a small northern town with more cows than people didn’t do much for my internship prospects.  So I moved to Austin and enrolled as a double major in history and government, grateful that so many of my credits transferred. As grateful as I was that my credits transferred, I was more excited about the fact that my employment at a national nonprofit crossed state lines as well.  It became abundantly clear that I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector, and the University of Texas at Austin (like many large universities) had countless opportunities for someone like me, even if they didn’t offer a nonprofit oriented major.  I enrolled in relevant classes, thought carefully about my elective choices, and participated in as many organizations, internships, and volunteer opportunities as my schedule would allow.

Nonprofit Professionals

No single person I have met in a decade of nonprofit work studied the same undergraduate curriculum as me, and, as a result, they bring unique skills to the table.  Some enroll in ethics and philosophy courses while others pursue a business route.  Still other professionals assume that fundraising will mirror corporate communications and while others major in marketing.  Specialized  nonprofits have needs for social work backgrounds, while others rely upon graphic designers and salespeople. As frustrated as I was at the time, years of experience has shown me that no two nonprofits are alike.  Sure, we all look for ethical, dedicated, and organized staffs, but we seek the kind of diversity that brings a variety of ideas and skills to the table.  When I was in diverse environments, there was never a shortage of ideas, and having sat in countless meetings since then, I value the organic innovations diversity fosters. If everyone brought the same skills to the office, every nonprofit would solicit donors the same way, and the 12.5 million people who wake up each morning and head into a 501c3 would find themselves hitting the same brick wall.  Nonprofits exist on creativity, innovation, and solution.

Resources and Guidance

My best suggestion to undergraduates looking to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector would be to study what interests you, what will encourage you to think critically, and what will take you out of your comfort zone. And while you’re there, take full advantage of your experience by volunteering locally, joining student groups that share your mission, and filling your resume with skills and experiences that make you an asset to multiple organizations. 

If you’re not seeing the types of courses or nonprofit-focused guidance at the undergraduate level, look up.  At the University of Texas, the graduate school is home to the RGK Center for Philanthropy, and whether in California or Indiana, other universities have excellent nonprofit-oriented centers at their graduate institutions.  Your tuition helps pay their salaries too, and most are excited about their professions and are interested in helping you succeed.  Most undergraduates have access to the same online course scheduling system as the graduate students, and many professors post syllabi online. Check out the reading lists, required assignments, and course objectives...not only will you get a taste of graduate school, but you'll see the developed subject matters surrounding philanthropy.

Buying a cup of coffee can change your life.  Don’t be afraid to meet with a nonprofit CEO or professor to talk about your future.  From time to time I still sit down with my former writing for nonprofits professor, and I am forever impressed with her insight and connections.  Sometimes they provide the fresh eyes and perspective we need.

Sometimes the best education can be found online.  With so many nonprofit professionals accessible online, you constantly have a reliable resource of professionals to bounce questions off of or seek guidance. 


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