Running a non-profit organization is a constant exercise of leadership skills. Without the big bank accounts of government or commercial businesses, non-profit managers have to lean on inspiration, creativity, and a sense of mission to build their teams and get the most out of them.
Building the kinds of strong interpersonal relationships and shared vision to make this leadership style work is more of a challenge than ever in today’s society:
If running a non-profit in the face of all these challenges is the path you are drawn to, a college education is the best way to prepare yourself for the task. And when it comes to college degrees, there is no better way to develop your skills to lead and inspire than by earning a degree in organizational leadership.
Why Organizational Leadership Skills Are Critical for Non-profit Leaders
Organizational leadership is a scientific study of the principles and theory of effective leaders. Good leadership in charitable work is nothing new; Florence Nightingale is remembered not just because she was an excellent nurse, but because her organizational skills spread new medical knowledge and put together effective clinical teams and treatment facilities where they were needed.
But while early ideas of what made a good leader tended to revolve around personality and power, research and study in the 20th century revealed that many of the traits and skills embraced by effective leaders revolved around more subtle soft skills.
Just as important, good leadership wasn’t necessarily a single approach that could be easily transferred between roles. What worked best could depend on the individuals, the organization, and the tasks ahead of them all.
Organizational leadership degrees today distill those lessons down into a package of training that helps students:
Each of those skills are critical for non-profit leaders to master. Without massive budgets, big teams, or outside support, a non-profit leader has to do more with less than anyone in the private sector. Organizational leadership degrees are a master class in the methods you need to accomplish that feat.
The Traits of a Good Leader Can Span Charitable and Profitable Efforts Alike
Not every non-profit leader starts out in the non-profit world. But the qualities that make a great non-profit leader can work just as well in many different kinds of organizations.
Maybe the most famous example of this is Bill Gates. After founding and leading Microsoft to global dominance in the software world, Gates became one of the richest men in the world. Together with his wife Melinda French Gates, he then founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a global charity funded by that pile of Microsoft wealth.
The Foundation started off with substantial financial advantages but no track record in international health and learning, its focus areas. But driven by Gates’ beliefs in hard work, knowledge, and passion, the foundation soon became just as successful as Microsoft had.
Gates was brought up by parents known for their philanthropy, and his own efforts as a leader have always been informed by generosity and selflessness. Although known as a demanding and driven leader, he has also always consistently worked to empower staff, deliver a strong vision, and offer all the support they need to succeed—hallmarks of excellence in organizational leadership.
Organizational Leadership Programs at Different Levels Cater to Every Kind of Non-profit Management Role
Those degrees are available at almost every level of college today, from a basic four-year bachelor’s program all the way up to elite PhD studies.
The most appropriate education for your own path to non-profit leadership can lead you to any of these programs, or even more than one. It will depend both on your own needs as a future leader and where you are at on your educational and career path.
Bachelor's Degree in Organizational Leadership
Provides a full liberal arts education together with extensive OL training. Can be completed in four years and qualifies you for entry-level management positions, and to apply for graduate-level studies.
Master's Degree in Organizational Leadership
Delivers advanced studies and research opportunities in OL designed for senior leaders. Takes one to two years and prepares you for executive positions in large non-profits, or even to start up and grow your own independent agency.
Doctoral Degree in Organizational Leadership
The most advanced research and lessons in OL are in PhD degrees. These are primarily intended to prepare you for academic roles and can take up to five years to complete.
Certificate Program in Organizational Leadership
Offers accelerated, focused training in OL principles and practices, taking less than a year to complete. Available for post-secondary, graduate, and post-graduate students. A good choice for people new to leadership or for busy professionals with extensive management credentials who want to burnish their OL skillset.
Any of these levels of training can come in useful depending on your role and goal for non-profit work. But even more important may be the focus you choose in your studies through a specialty or concentration option for your degree.
Finding Organizational Leadership Degree Concentrations Tailored To Non-profit Roles
Each of the kinds of degree you can earn in organizational leadership are, at heart, liberal arts programs that deliver a general, well-rounded education in the principles of organizational leadership and critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The tools and knowledge they come with can be applied to all kinds of different industries, roles, and circumstances.
But you will also find that many organizational leadership programs come with a more specific focus on non-profit leadership challenges and tools. In most cases, picking one of these programs will give you a better handle on the sorts of techniques and scenarios you will find really useful out in the real world.
These can include degrees like:
There are many different options for specializing your organizational leadership degree. Take advantage of the flexibility to find the perfect program for your goals.
Because non-profits can have so many different missions, you could also find concentrations that are particularly focused on non-profit work, but that line up perfectly with your particular mission. A manager at a non-profit daycare center for low-income families, for example, might find that a Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Leadership with a Child Development Concentration is the perfect fit. Or a Master of Arts in Organizational Development with a Healthcare Management concentration may be great preparation for an executive at a rural non-profit health clinic.
Dual Degrees Can Double up Your Skills and Knowledge in Non-profit Leadership
Depending on exactly what kind of non-profit work you plan to engage with, an OL degree might not be all you need. There are many kinds of charitable and other community-oriented assistance that require highly technical training… an organization running a chain of non-profit clinics will want a leader with a nursing or medical degree, or education in healthcare administration at a minimum. A non-profit designing crop assistance programs in drought-stricken third world countries may need someone with training in biology or agriculture.
In those cases, you’ll need to get a full-blown degree in those professional areas to even be qualified for a job. And the only way you will be able to get the organizational leadership training that you want will be to stack multiple degrees.
A dual-degree option allows you to pursue both programs at once. Although you will get twice the coursework to cover each major area, any general education requirements only need to be taken once. That saves you time versus earning both degrees separately.
It’s also common for specialists to earn one degree in their profession, and a different level of degree, or certificate, in organizational leadership. Getting a BSN to become a nurse and then earning a MAOL with a non-profit management focus will cover your bases, for example.
College Costs Can Be a Challenge for Non-profit Workers Seeking Organizational Leadership Degrees
The high cost of a college education is definitely something that anyone going into non-profit work has to consider. You’re not heading into charity work for the money, but it’s going to cost you something to get there.
There are a lot of variables to what a degree in organizational leadership for non-profit work will cost you, however. The level of the degree is a big factor, and so is your choice of whether to pursue it at a public or a private university.
For 2021, the National Center of Education Statistics found that the typical annual cost of tuition and fees in these various categories was:
- Undergraduate degrees
- Public – $9,375
- Private – $32,825
- Graduate degrees
- Public – $12,410
- Private – $26,597
What You Will Learn in an Organizational Leadership Program for Non-profit Leaders
If you are wondering how sitting in a college classroom can teach you leadership skills that will come in handy while trying to shift a water buffalo up a muddy track to a needy village in the highlands of Vietnam, the answer is the coursework.
Organizational leadership programs bring you a wide range of different classes that offer up real-world skills to boost leadership behavior in all circumstances. They break down the elements of leadership, the theory behind them, and develop specific techniques and skills that you will put to use every day as a non-profit leader.
Those classes will include subjects such as:
Foundations of Organizational Leadership
A strong background into the research and analysis of what makes organizations tick and how leaders historically have inspired and motivated their followers is essential. The non-profit emphasis will focus on the compelling ways that historical leaders in social justice and community service, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, have built movements by force of personality and compassion.
Part of the power of the inspirational non-profit leader comes from holding high ethical and moral standards of judgement and action. You’ll study what ethics are and how they are established, while exploring tricky elements of real-world ethical challenges in the non-profit world.
Having a great vision and mission are one thing; communicating that vision effectively is another area of expertise. Strategic communications is that area, and you’ll study how to craft a compelling message and deliver it by many different channels to the people who most need to hear it.
Resource Development and Management in Nonprofits
Resource allocation is always a challenge in non-profit environments. Much of the role of a leader is to make the hard calls about where to find additional money, staff, or support, and how to distribute those resources to the mission. You’ll study both angles in these classes, learning how to come up with more support and how to apply it most effectively toward your goals.
Cultural and Social Impacts on Group Dynamics
Organizational behavior is a phenomenon that is shaped by social and cultural factors. Your understanding of the underlying factors that drive how people interact inside and around your organization will shape how you approach your strategy, communications, and planning for accomplishing your organization’s mission.
Global Perspectives on Leadership
Not only are the challenges faced by many non-profits global in nature, but the various cultural and social approaches to leadership are of particular interest to many non-profit leaders. These classes will explore how leadership is viewed through the cultural spectrum and how to establish effective leadership on a global scale.
Conflict Resolution and Change Management
Every organization deals with change, but non-profits more than most. The role of a leader revolves around helping organizations recognize and deal with change, and the conflict that inevitably comes with it. These courses teach negotiation and techniques for reaching a consensus in diverse groups.
In many programs, particularly at the bachelor’s degree level, you will also have the chance to pick many electives to round out your skills for nonprofit management. With the wide range of nonprofit and social justice organizations today, you might need to polish up extra skills in areas like:
At higher levels, such as master’s programs, you can also expect to have opportunities to take practicum courses or internship placements in actual non-profit environments. This gives you a chance to view genuine leaders in action. You can develop your own ideas about how to lead, and receive mentorship from experienced managers and administrators.
How To Find the Right School for Your Non-profit Organizational Leadership Studies
In addition to considering the curriculum on offer and the costs of attendance, there are several other things to look at when you are considering a school for your non-profit organizational leadership degree. Different colleges have different strengths and areas of competency. You’ll want to find one that offers the right fit for your non-profit career goals as well as your current financial position and personal commitments.
Some of the other factors to look at include:
Another sign of quality for some degrees in leadership is whether they have been awarded specialty accreditation. Not every program is eligible for this, so it’s not a make or break indicator. But for organizational leadership or non-profit management programs run by schools of business, specialty accreditation from one of these three organizations is a good sign:
- IACBE (International Accreditation Council for Business Education)
- AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business)
- ACBSP (Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs)
For degrees that are specific to non-profit leadership and management, you might also look for an accreditation from NACC, the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council. And NASPA, the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, also accredits master’s degrees in public administration and public policy which may offer non-profit or organizational leadership specializations relevant to your interests.
Each of these organizations looks carefully at all the factors that go into creating an academic experience that is aligned with the expectations of professionals in the field. With their stamp of approval, you can be sure the school you are looking at has passed that bar.
Why Online Degrees Might Be the Perfect Fit for Non-profit Leaders
One factor that can really open up your choice of schools for studying non-profit organizational leadership is the new trend toward fully online degrees.
Remote studies have been an option for a while, but the COVID-19 pandemic really poured rocket fuel into the online learning explosion. Universities have been putting more and more resources into remote options, and today they are every bit as solid and accepted as traditional programs.
It’s easy to see why they are popular. Online options open up the chance to attend schools all over the country without the expense and difficulty of re-locating. That gives you better odds at finding the best fit for your individual learning goals.
They also offer far more flexibility than traditional programs. With asynchronous courses, you can stream video lectures in the shower in the morning, do your homework on lunch break, and contribute to a group chat in a virtual classroom after dinner. The chance to keep your current life and job on track while boosting your OL knowledge and skills is an enormous advantage for students, particularly at advanced degree levels.
Non-profit Leadership Jobs Can Take Your Career in Any Direction
The range of jobs available to skilled organizational leaders in the non-profit space is limited only by the needs of the community and your imagination. There’s a strong tradition in the field of doing what needs to be done. A leader has to demonstrate a willingness to dive in and take care of the critical pieces of the work, whether it is stuffing sacks with food for distribution, or going to fundraising meetings with government officials or executives from Fortune 500 companies.
Many of the differences in the daily activities of non-profit leaders comes from the size of the organization as well as the specific kind of mission it has. Working in a tiny community historical society offers an entirely different experience from leading an international aid organization with thousands of staff and multi-million dollar budgets.
But whether your days are filled with conference calls orchestrating multi-national hunger relief efforts or working the halls of city government lining up grants and support for new after-school programs for at-risk kids, the empathy and coordination skills that come with organizational leadership studies bring advantages in accomplishing your goals.
Compensation in Non-profit Leadership Comes From More Than Just Money
Nailing down the salary potential for non-profit jobs is all but impossible. Leadership training could put you at the helm of a behemoth agency managing millions of dollars in grants and running research operations toward the next generation of brain science breakthroughs; it could also put you in charge of a one-man-show delivering agricultural training to African farmers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks salaries in a wide range of different industries, but non-profit organizations may be classified in any number of different ways. Probably the most applicable categories fall into the data for Religious, Grantmaking, Civic, Professional, and Similar Organizations.
Top executives employed in the sector that includes most non-profits in 2021 made a median salary of $125,560 for the year.
But you might get a better idea of salary expectations by breaking it down even further to some of the industries that make up the larger category, such as:
Six-figure salaries are pretty respectable no matter how you cut it, even if you could make more in a comparable private sector position. But the truth is that most non-profit executives are driven by far more than just money. The mission that you take on as a non-profit leader becomes more important than your paycheck.
So the ultimate reward from earning a degree in organizational leadership is in the tools it hands you to accomplish that mission. With the skills you need to communicate your vision and inspire your contributors, your workforce, and even the population you serve, you will find all the compensation you need.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Religious, Grantmaking, Civic, Professional, and Similar Organizations reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2022.