Graduate School, Professional Certifications, Certificate Programs, Oh My!

Everywhere I turn there are new professional development opportunities, but it can be tough to commit and take the leap into graduate school, a certificate program, or even a professional certification process. The good news is that so many options exist, but that can also be bad news if you’re uncertain which step is right for you.

I’m hanging out in professional development purgatory for now, plunging through the wealth of information available about these opportunities and determining which is right for me.  Just as important as determining a development plan is the timing of implementation.  Where and when seem to go hand in hand.

So what is out there for the young nonprofit professional ready to broaden his or her horizons? A lot…so get ready for a lot of abbreviations.


Graduate school is obviously the most academically rigorous of all of the continuing education options, the most expensive, and offers the highest payoff.  There are two basic routes in graduate school in nonprofit management: schools of government/public policy/social service or schools of business.  The curriculums couldn’t be more different, so taking a look at what schools offer really can sway you toward or away from a particular institution. A big attraction for me when I looked into programs, were research centers and nonprofit focused studies.  At the University of Texas, the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service offers specialized programs, research opportunities, scholarships, and more. Most schools offer concentrations in social development, philanthropy, nonprofit management, and even let you combine degrees/programs, meaning you can walk away with a Master’s in nonprofit management AND sociology, history, or whatever else you’re interested in.  The flexibility of the curriculum and the liberal arts approach to studying philanthropy is the biggest draw for me.

Here are some great schools offering programs in Nonprofit Studies:


Oh business school. The idea is great; teach nonprofit leaders how to be social innovators and entrepreneurs while helping htem e stablish a business sense and fiscal accountability. But, business schools are typically thousands of dollars a year more expensive than the MPA route.  Which when you consider the salaries of most nonprofit professionals, it may not be the best option in the long run.  That being said, MBAs are more respected in the business community and if you ever want to transition between public and private sectors, I think MBAs offer the most opportunities.  For me, it really is a curriculum-based decision. Do you want to study numbers or words. Write papers or take exams?  While the MPA seems to be the more academic approach, the MBA is the more practical approach.  You can’t lose anything with an MBA other than money.  Looks great on a resume and you can specialize in nonprofit management.

Here are great schools offering nonprofit-related MBAs:


The Certified Fundraising Executive credential is probably the best-known out of the list I have here, but it comes with the highest price tag at over $778.  This includes the exam fees and preparation materials, but it can be steep, especially for someone working for a nonprofit. This certification requires a minimum of five years experience, so it may not be for the younger nonprofit professionals.  There is a continuing education component, and a recertification process every three years.  The process seems rather involved with a written application and assessment on education, professional practice, and professional performance. As much as I cringe at the thought of swiping my debit card for that much, I have to admit that everyone I’ve met who had the credential was successful in their field, and that is motivating.


The process to become a Certified Volunteer Administrator is broader than some of the other professional credential processes.  Through the exam and the portfolio review process, candidates need to prove their competency in ethics, organizational management, human resource management, leadership and advocacy, and accountability. If you’re employed by an organization that provides health services, there is a specialized designation within the CVA for healthcare professionals. The overall cost for the process is $75 for textbooks, $265 for the exam, and additional funds to develop the portfolio. Of all of the professional credentialing programs out there, this is probably the one I would be most likely to participate in; I think its relatively economical and it has the broadest scope.  That, combined with the fact that I’ve never worked with a nonprofit that didn’t utilize volunteers, makes this a winner in my book.


The Certification for Grantwriting Professionals may seem very specific, but when you consider that more than 70% of nonprofit organizations are either fully or partially funded by grants, it really provides a competitive advantage when applying for nonprofit employment, even positions that may not directly tie in with grantwriting. One tricky part with the GPC is that you have to earn continuing education credtis to maintain your certification, which means that the process is ongoing.  The exam itself is $525 for the first time, and if necessary, the cost is cut in half for a repeat attempt at the credential.


Depending on the scope and scale of the nonprofit you work for, an accreditation in public relations may provide an edge when articulating your organization’s message.  The process for an APR (accreditation in public relations) is fairly straightforward, and the cost $385 for the examination, is the lowest of the options we’re about to explore.

How to Cut Costs and Stress with Professional Certification Programs

  •  Register early (almost all exam sessions have an early registration period with lower costs)
  •  Study with a coworker or friend and save money by sharing textbooks and supplies
  •  See if your department can join the councils or societies that manage the exam, and take advantage of lower rates and have both organizations and credentials on your resume or cv
  • Save yourself time and stress by keeping in contact with former supervisors and references; don’t let their first call be from the inquiring agency
  • Talk to people who have taken these exams before; there is a great fundchat transcript with nonprofit professionals talking about their credentialing experiences


To me, portfolio programs are like mini-colleges.  Generally 3-8 week courses, these certificate programs are designed to allow career-minded executives the ability to obtain accreditation in subject matter without stopping life for several years and heading back to college.  Some very prestigious schools offer portfolio programs, including Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, and my local favorite, the University of Texas at Austin.  The idea behind these programs is to provide intensive studies into the subject matter, assuming that participants have practical experience around their belt that takes the place of introductory classroom time.


Philanthropy & the Legacy of Steve Jobs

Central Texas Wildfires