Universities heed call for professional development

Amber Smith
Amber Smith

Amber Smith

We’ve all heard it by now: Despite poor economic conditions and the inevitable decrease in available resources, nonprofits’ to-do lists are no shorter.

Organizations across the board are being asked to do more with less, a challenge that more than ever requires the application and development of knowledge, skills and creativity by nonprofit personnel.

While nonprofit consulting firms and professional associations often have been the go-to sources for this type of training, professional nonprofit development programs increasingly are finding new homes in universities across the U.S.

With their ears to the ground, academic institutions have increasingly started to answer the nonprofit sector’s call for the professional skill development nonprofits need to help their organizations come out on top of inevitable crises.

Through her extensive, long-term research on the topic, Roseanne M. Mirabella of Seton Hall University noted an increase of 26 percent in the number of universities offering graduate courses in nonprofit topics from 1996 to 2006, when the total reached 161 schools. Those offering undergraduate courses have increased by 77 percent, to a total of 117 schools over the same period.

These schools have taken it upon themselves to start training our next generation of innovative nonprofit professionals, a trend that has seen not only a growing volume of university courses, concentrations and major-degree programs related to nonprofit skill development, but also a broadening in the scope of topics to address the sector’s needs.

In addition to studying the ins and outs of nonprofit leadership and management, students in these university and college programs now can delve into fund development, explore the nuances of volunteer recruitment and human resources, master marketing and public relations, and debate and apply strategic-planning and program-evaluation techniques.

The non-credit, continuing education and online course offerings at these schools also are valuable, as these programs, by design, make it even easier for existing nonprofit professionals to return to education to flesh out their nonprofit knowledge base and skill sets.

Nonprofits and nonprofit professionals can reap the benefits of this trend in a few key ways:


Determining how an organization can benefit from the increasing academic attention to nonprofit skill development is first a matter of knowing what courses and programs are offered at local colleges and universities.

Depending on what coursework is offered, getting connected to and engaged with these schools may afford unusual opportunities to scout out future nonprofit stars.

In the interest of making nonprofit coursework realistic and applicable, it is not unusual for professors to seek partnerships with community nonprofits. Organizations may be invited into classrooms to speak on issues or collaborate, enabling them to get to know the students who will make up their future pool of job candidates.

Contact professors of these courses, or the department in the university that houses nonprofit-focused courses, to learn how to get an an organization involved.

Many nonprofit concentrations require that students complete internship work. Inviting an intern into an organization is a great way to test the waters with upcoming graduates and put their skills to work.

Nonprofit professionals

Whether new to the nonprofit landscape or a sector veteran, skill development is an important and continuous process.

One doesn’t have to be enrolled as a full-time student at a university to take advantages of non-credit course offerings, certificate programs or online or continuing education programs.

University websites or their departments housing nonprofit programs typically offer information on program offerings and what options are available for those with varying schedules.

The impact of universities’ contributions to the development of the nonprofit sector is something to keep an eye on.

In times that call for nonprofit professionals to be more resourceful, resources offered by these educational institutions should be valued, celebrated and utilized whenever possible.

Amber Smith is education program coordinator for the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University.

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