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Nonprofit Management: How a Doctorate in Social Work Prepares Students

November 30, 2021

Throughout the United States, nonprofits work to 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 underresourced or marginalized groups — from low-income families to Indigenous peoples — 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.

These organizations also require adept nonprofit management to achieve their goals. What is nonprofit management? Most fundamentally, nonprofit management is the oversight of the administrative functions that allow nonprofits to meet the needs of their target population. Individuals with a background in social work who are interested in becoming nonprofit managers can develop the necessary skills by pursuing an advanced degree in social work.

Definition: What Is a Nonprofit? 

A nonprofit is characterized by two main elements. First, the organization must have a visionary aspect. It must work to effect positive change, from supporting individual and community needs to advocating for policy changes. For a business, the primary goal is always to make a profit; for a nonprofit, however, the primary goal is to achieve a social good.

Second, the organization must meet the legal requirements of a nonprofit. 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, an organization that campaigns around the world for human rights, and the American Heart Association, an organization that raises awareness regarding cardiovascular health. The local nonprofit Youth Empowerment Project in New Orleans, Louisiana, 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.

Definition: What Is Nonprofit Management

Nonprofit management involves overseeing daily 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.

Below are the nonprofit manager’s three main responsibilities. 

Community Impact 

Nonprofits need to connect with the communities they serve and measure how well they are performing their mission. Performance is often measured by the number of programs launched or individuals served, metrics predicated on short- or long-term goals. 

For example, a local diaper bank distributes 50,000 diapers a month, immediately helping hundreds of families. The added long-term impact is that a parent who received diapers was able to acquire reliable child care 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 that their organizations run 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. Fundraising efforts range from letter-writing campaigns to sit-down dinners. Grant writing is another way to receive funds. 

Managers must keep track of their organizations’ 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.

What Are the Key Skills for Nonprofit Management? 

Those who are considering a role in this field will benefit from cultivating the right skills, both through advanced education and on-the-job experience. What is nonprofit management’s ideal skill set? Key nonprofit leadership abilities include the following:

  • Integrity. Nonprofit managers must embody the highest standards of integrity. This involves ongoing alignment with their organizations’ mission as well as ethical behavior in all personal conduct.
  • Storytelling. Gaining supporters, including both volunteers and donors, means being able to craft a compelling narrative about the cause in question: why it matters, who it impacts, and how the organization can help. Robust storytelling skills are paramount.
  • Problem-solving. From a lack of resources to regulatory hurdles, nonprofits face many challenges. The best managers are adept at analyzing these challenges and developing creative solutions.
  • Organization. Nonprofit managers must be able to manage multiple volunteers and various projects at the same time. This requires strong time management and organizational abilities.

What Are the Benefits of Working in Nonprofit Management? 

Those who work in nonprofit management experience a number of benefits. The reasons to pursue a career in this role include the following:

  • Purpose-driven work. Nonprofit organizations provide a chance to align vocation with meaningful social causes, including causes related to social justice, economics, or the environment.
  • Leadership opportunities. Nonprofit management offers a chance to take on a leadership role and make strategic decisions that can shape the direction of an organization. This can be appealing to those who are drawn toward executive-level work and team oversight.
  • Diverse skill-set development. Nonprofit managers usually need to wear many hats, ranging from fundraising and budgeting to program development and community outreach. These responsibilities make it possible to develop a diverse skill set that can be applied to virtually any field.
  • Personal fulfillment. Working in nonprofit management can be personally fulfilling, as it provides a chance to make a tangible impact within a local community or among a particular population.

What Are the Nonprofit Management Career Requirements? 

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 in social work or a related area, followed by a master’s degree in a relevant field, such as a Master of Social Work (MSW). 

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 Doctor of 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 Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Social Work, a degree that is more data focused and research driven, a DSW provides the marketable leadership skills needed to enact hands-on change.

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

  • Advocate for underresourced 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 nonprofits offer.
  • Motivate and inspire change. Managers must strengthen the tenets of their nonprofits from the top down, for instance, by developing mission statements with their staffs and communities.

What Is the Nonprofit Management Salary Range? 

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 by 7 percent, a faster-than-average rate, between 2022 and 2032. The median annual salary in this field was $58,380 in 2023, though professionals with a doctoral-level degree and a leadership position may command even higher earnings.

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, they would no longer be needed. One of the great social worker benefits is being able to advance worthy causes related to justice and human dignity, and those who manage nonprofits can have an especially big impact.

The Tulane University Online Doctor of Social Work 

Students who want to contribute to their communities and advance their careers in nonprofit organizations and public service agencies should consider the Tulane University Online DSW. This program can accommodate the lifestyles of working professionals and provide students with in-depth knowledge of their area of scholarship, equipping them with the critical-thinking skills needed to evaluate and develop social work programs. 

Students in the Tulane Online DSW program can 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 in social change.