Professional Advancement? It’s All Academic
Pursuing a graduate degree in fundraising and development is an often overlooked but nonetheless viable path for fundraisers looking to expand and enhance their careers.
Degrees in fundraising reflect a trend in American higher education toward highly focused, industry-specific graduate degrees. As little as a decade ago, professionals in many industries had few options in graduate training besides an MBA. Now, applied graduate degrees serve an ever-expanding range of fields, offering relevant courses drawn from such fields as business and law.
There are close to 100 colleges and universities that offer graduate programs in nonprofit management, with a few (a growing few, at that) conferring master’s-level degrees specifically in fundraising. The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, which was established in 1987, is the largest and most comprehensive academic center focusing on fundraising and philanthropy. It offers a range of degrees, including a Ph.D. in Philanthropic Studies, and recently received a $1.5 million dollar gift to endow a chair in fundraising. Though Indiana has been a visionary trendsetter in the field, the proliferation of MS degrees in fundraising reflects their increased acceptance as an effective training medium by universities, industry professionals and nonprofit organizations.
The appearance of degree programs in fundraising also is intimately related to the ascendant professionalization of the industry, as evident in the popularity and success of such elements as certification, professional organizations, conferences, training resources and the like. Consequently, many of the traditional avenues of entry, methods of education and career paths in the field have been dramatically (and in some cases radically) transformed. The pace and character of these changes have caused apprehension in some quarters; at my own institution, for instance, concern has been raised about the apparent deviation from the field’s traditional “apprenticeship” model of training, where individuals gain experience by working at one institution — usually for a considerable amount of time — under the guidance of a mentor. The perception, perhaps somewhat romantic, is that this system worked well, as it permitted young professionals to “learn the ropes” in a supportive environment at a moderate pace.
In reality, such a system was largely dependent on the quality, vibrancy and diversity of the host institution, the relationship with the mentor, and the opportunities for advancement and mobility within the organization.
So, what does academic training offer that more traditional means of training might not?
To begin with, training in an academic environment blends theory and practice from multiple perspectives. Students are provided far more comprehensive — and far more intensive — exposure to management issues in development than would otherwise be permitted through any other training medium. In addition, students are advantaged by exposure to central theories, ideas and practices in business, especially gaining knowledge of and proficiency with financial issues.
Academic study also permits fundraisers at different levels of experience to learn new areas and techniques that they otherwise but not be exposed; thus, an annual-fund officer might learn — in a comprehensive and thorough fashion — about planned giving. This can help prepare senior managers to effectively integrate various philanthropic strategies for an organization’s overall fundraising efforts.
Students also benefit from enhanced networking opportunities, not only in the classroom with faculty and guest speakers, but also from interaction with other students in the program. This is a type of networking that is a hallmark of business schools and a time-tested formula for success: a forum in which future senior managers in the industry might develop meaningful and long-term professional relationships.
Completion of a professional degree in fundraising also demonstrates a commitment to the field. This is particularly attractive to employers who are eager to find and maintain fundraisers dedicated to the field and equipped with the skills necessary for success. A degree in the field demonstrates both, by suggesting both a baseline level of knowledge as well as a dedication to pursue relevant and advanced training. This is particularly valuable for career changers, who often possess transferable skills but nonetheless require a more rapid and comprehensive introduction to the field. A degree in fundraising can help facilitate and expedite this transition.
Finally, advanced degrees are becoming increasingly important for senior management positions in many industries, the nonprofit sector included. For those pursuing careers in fundraising, the availability of a degree that equips, augments and enhances the skills necessary for success, while simultaneously awarding them the level of education increasingly expected of senior managers, is a highly appealing prospect. And, as many of these programs are offered in executive or part-time evening formats, students can maintain full-time employment and family commitments while completing a degree.
So, next time you’re thinking of next steps, consider the benefits of going back to school!
For more information about graduate programs in fundraising (and nonprofit management), Dr. Roseanne Mirabella of Seton Hall maintains a comprehensive list of programs at http://tltc.shu.edu/npo/index.php
Lucas Rubin is director of the Master of Science in Fundraising Management program at Columbia University. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.