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Nonprofit Management: How a Doctorate in Social Work Prepares Students

November 30, 2021

Throughout the United States, nonprofits work to strengthen the fabric of communities by providing people of all ages, genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds with everything from food and shelter to education and resources needed for well-being. By fostering civic engagement and leadership, they empower individuals and communities alike. According to BKD’s 2021 Annual Report: State of the Nonprofit Sector, people need the services of nonprofits now more than ever: Requests for help with food, housing insecurity, and mental health issues have skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

These organizations address various societal issues, such as improving public education systems; enhancing awareness regarding preventive health measures like vaccines; or serving communities with mental health counseling, youth empowerment programs, or parenting support. Nonprofits frequently serve under resourced or marginalized groups — from low-income families to indigenous populations — working to empower individuals and create more equitable societies in the process. To succeed in this mission, they rely on civic engagement and support both in terms of financial donations and volunteer time and expertise from the communities in which they work.

Nonprofit managers are at the helm of this ambitious endeavor, leading organizations in their efforts to meet their communities’ needs. Nonprofit management is an expansive job with three major areas of responsibility: community outreach and impact, organizational leadership, and fundraising and grant management. Individuals looking for a challenging career that enables them to make a difference in the world may find their calling as nonprofit managers.

What Is a Nonprofit?

A nonprofit is characterized by two main elements. First, the organization must have a visionary aspect. They work to effect positive change, from supporting individual needs, serving communities, or advocating for policy changes. As U.S. News & World Report explains, for a business, the goal is always to make a profit; for a nonprofit, however, the goal is to have a positive impact.

Second, the organization must meet the legal definition of a nonprofit in financial terms. Nonprofits are technically exempt from paying federal income taxes, according to rules set by the U.S. Congress. According to the National Council of Nonprofits, the relevant legislation is outlined in Section 501 of the tax code, which sets out the criteria for a nonprofit, namely “no part of the organization’s net earnings can inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.” Nonprofits that fall under this umbrella include social welfare organizations, public charities, and private foundations.

Within this scope, the diversity of nonprofits is significant. Examples of nonprofits at the national level include Amnesty International, which campaigns around the world for human rights, and the American Heart Association, which raises awareness regarding cardiovascular health. The local nonprofit Youth Empowerment Project in New Orleans engages underserved young people through community-based education, mentoring, and employment readiness programs. Other examples of nonprofits at the community level include after-school literacy programs and free HIV testing clinics.

What Does Nonprofit Management Entail?

Nonprofit management involves overseeing day-to-day operations, both operational and financial, while always ensuring that the organization is maintaining its mission. Nonprofit managers may work for foundations, faith-based organizations, and charities. They must lead and inspire people not only within their organization but also in the wider community, developing meaningful relationships with other entities, encouraging and overseeing volunteers, and rallying external parties to contribute financial or in-kind donations.

The nonprofit manager has three primary responsibilities:

  • Impact: Nonprofits need to connect with the communities they serve and measure how well they are performing their mission. This often manifests in terms of number of programs launched or individuals served and may come in the form of short- or long-term goals. For example, a local diaper bank may distribute 50,000 diapers a month, immediately helping hundreds of families, with the added long-term impact that a parent who received diapers was able to acquire reliable childcare and go back to school to increase the family’s financial opportunities. Additional impact comes in the form of advocacy for those the nonprofit serves. Understanding needs, raising awareness, and communicating about the mission’s effectiveness can connect the nonprofit’s constituency with access, resources, policies, funding, and leaders to assist in alleviating or mitigating a pressing problem.
  • Organizational Management: Nonprofit managers must ensure their organization runs smoothly on a daily basis. This requires overseeing broader programs as well as teams and their members, supporting overall organizational as well as individual professional growth. Nonprofit managers must also implement managerial and financial controls and determine organizational capacity.Through strategic planning, for instance, they ensure that the nonprofit will function in a way that allows for maximum impact — and thus make the largest difference possible for those it seeks to empower.
  • Fundraising and Grant Management: Nonprofit managers must develop goals and strategies to raise the money needed to enhance their organization’s impact and leverage fundraising practices, ranging from letter-writing campaigns to sit-down dinners. Grant writing is another way to receive funds. Finally, managers must keep track of their organization’s finances and understand the fundamentals of nonprofit accounting, including program budgeting and reporting. For example, they may scope out potential grants of interest, task a grant writer with preparing a proposal, and sign off on the final submission.

The Path to the Nonprofit Management Sector

Given the importance of these tasks, nonprofit managers have a great deal of responsibility for their organizations’ ongoing functioning. While individuals of varying backgrounds run successful nonprofits, one pathway to a managerial position is through an education that helps develop leadership, program management, evaluation, and fundraising skills. A first step is an undergraduate degree, followed by a master’s in a relevant field such as social work. Potential employers will further value in-house nonprofit experience, which may come in the form of volunteering. This puts their skills into practice and provides insights into the inner workings of an organization.

Graduates who complete a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) program will be especially attractive to employers. A doctorate offers practice-based experience, giving students a deeper understanding of how to design and evaluate social work programs, while also covering core knowledge areas such as social work policy. Unlike a PhD, which is more data-focused and research-driven, a DSW provides the marketable skills needed to enact hands-on change.

A DSW teaches principles relevant to nonprofit management, such as how to:

  • Advocate for under resourced groups: Managers must have the empathy and strength of conviction to represent marginalized communities.
  • Design, implement, and improve the quality of social services: Managers must use evidence-based decisions to constantly improve the services and resources their nonprofit offers.
  • Motivate and inspire change: Managers must strengthen the tenets of the nonprofit from the top down, for instance, by developing mission statements with their staff and communities.

Individuals at the nonprofit management level will find a promising job market. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the social work field will grow 11 percent, much faster than average, between 2018 and 2028. According to PayScale’s data from September 2019, the median annual salary of a nonprofit program manager is around $51,000, while the median salary of a grant manager is around $58,000 and the median salary of a nonprofit executive director is around $65,000.

The true success of a nonprofit manager, however, is measured in impact. Nonprofit managers often work toward putting themselves out of a job, in that if they truly make the impact they strive for, such as “end homelessness” or “prevent sexual assault,” they would no longer be needed.

The Tulane University Online Doctorate in Social Work

Students who want to contribute to their communities and advance their careers to leadership positions in nonprofit organizations and public service agencies should consider the Tulane University Online Doctorate in Social Work. This program can accommodate the lifestyles of working professionals and provides students with in-depth knowledge of their selected area of scholarship, equipping them with the critical-thinking skills needed to evaluate and develop social work programs. Students can also opt to complete additional training to focus specifically on nonprofit management, preparing them to take on leadership roles that will allow them to positively impact the world. Explore Tulane and become a leader for social change.