Dear Dr. Civitelli,
I am interested in possibly starting my own organization, could be nonprofit, but I’m not necessarily sure at this point what to classify it as. I’m wondering as far as a degree is concerned what type of schooling you would recommend. For example if there are certain courses or a degree that could be attainable.
In some cases, the optimal degree would depend on the type of nonprofit you are starting. For instance, some nonprofit executives have told me that their degree in social work or public health was helpful because of the relevance for the mission of their organization. But in general, degrees in management or nonprofit management specifically are usually considered optimal because nonprofits are increasingly run like businesses but with a different emphasis (donors instead of investors, for example).
Although not everyone agrees, many people believe that a graduate degree gives you a competitive edge in the nonprofit world because there is such an emphasis on marketing and fund-raising. Because you live near Seattle, you may also want to explore the Certificate in Nonprofit Management offered by the University of Washington. This program may give you the foundational knowledge that you need and may take less time than would a full master’s degree program. To investigate the value of any such program, I recommend talking to their alumni to discover whether they are glad that they invested in this particular certificate program.
If the thought of all this formal education depresses you rather than excites you, you can follow the advice of people who believe that experience and connections are the most important assets in a nonprofit career and you can attain these without a graduate degree. This would mean that working in the nonprofit sector and building your network of colleagues and donors are your most important first steps to learning what you would need to know to start your own nonprofit organization eventually. One of the best websites for searching for a job in the nonprofit sector is Idealist.org.
And because many great nonprofit careers are launched by starting as a volunteer, I highly recommend doing some reality testing by volunteering for organizations similar to the one you may launch on your own. By volunteering, you can get an insider view of what works and what doesn’t and you will meet nonprofit professionals who can guide and mentor you. My favorite website to search for volunteer opportunities is VolunteerMatch.org, but many nonprofit organizations have sections on their website explaining their application criteria and participation guidelines if you would like to volunteer for them. Here is a list of Seattle nonprofit organizations.
Hope this helps!