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Master’s Degree Comparison: Nonprofit Management vs. Public Administration

Industry Advice Management Public Health & Public Policy

There are more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. Of those surveyed by Nonprofit HR, 51 percent increased their staff size in 2015 and another 57 percent plan to create new positions in 2016.

The nonprofit sector’s growth has created a need for professionals with strong leadership, managerial, and interpersonal skills. But finding the talent to meet that demand is one of the biggest problems facing nonprofits today—23 percent of organizations surveyed by Nonprofit HR reported challenges hiring qualified staff.

Northeastern offers two master’s degree programs designed to create the next generation of nonprofit leaders: Master of Public Administration (MPA) and Master of Science in Nonprofit Management. How do you know which degree is the right fit, or what questions you should ask before applying? Lori Ashline, an assistant teaching professor in the Nonprofit Management program, and Associate Professor Thomas Vicino, director of the MPA program, share their advice.

Nonprofit Management vs. Public Administration: Which Degree is Right For You?

What Is Your Professional Goal?

One of the first questions you need to ask is: What role do I want?

The MPA program will help prepare you for roles in the government or nonprofit sector. Students complete core courses spanning a variety of public policy and management topics, and leverage electives to hone in on their area of interest. The degree features four concentrations—the Nonprofit Sector, Urban Informatics, Urban Studies, and Public Policy Analysis—and graduates of the program go on to work in roles like city manager, budget analyst, policy researcher, legislative aide, and executive director.

“Historically, we’ve placed most alumni in state and local government positions in Boston,” Vicino says, “including quite a number of deputy commissioners and directors of major agencies.”

Nonprofit Management students begin by taking courses covering the various marketing, legal and governance, and fundraising and development issues facing the nonprofit sector. From there, students zero in on a particular area by choosing from one of seven concentrations: Global Studies; Human Services; Leadership; Organizational Communication; Project Management; Social Media and Online Communities; and Sports and Social Change.

Alumni of the program tend to work in different departments within a nonprofit, such as marketing, fundraising, finance and grant writing, or program delivery, operating as executive directors, chief executive officers, or financial managers.

“Many of my current students are working in the nonprofit field and want to advance their careers to leadership and managerial positions,” Ashline says. “Some students are career changers, not familiar with the restrictions, accountability, and legal issues in the nonprofit field, and others who want to run their own nonprofits.”

What Is Your Personal Goal?

Before applying to either program, both Vicino and Ashline suggest focusing on what motivates you.

“One question people should ask themselves is, ‘Do I have a passion about making a difference or a social cause?’” Ashline says. “Operating a nonprofit with unpredictable resources can be a challenge, so passion is going to be what drives them and motivates them to wake up in the morning.”

Vicino notes the MPA program is looking for candidates with a public service set of values, who want “to advocate on behalf of the public interest, have an appreciation for diversity and inclusion, and value effective management and leadership.”

Nonprofit professionals are accountable to the general public and need to maintain ethical and legal compliance, while delivering quality programming with limited resources. Nonprofits operate by a different set of governance rules and, according to Ashline, are increasingly getting more creative at how they generate revenue. Being able to pair that creativity with keen business and managerial skills is key to success.

No matter the program you choose, you’ll learn from industry experts, such as former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who teaches a leadership course in the MPA program, or Rick Arrowood, an associate teaching professor in the Nonprofit Management program who’s the president of Boston nonprofit Leap Forward Institute. You will also participate in hands-on, real-world work through a variety of experiential learning opportunities, including capstone projects and internships.

“The time is always right to enter nonprofits,” Ashline says. “Right now is right. The sector continues to grow, even during the recession. It’s always a viable career option.”