Master’s in Non-Profit Leadership vs. MPA Degree: 6 Important Differences

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For graduate students who dream of a career in the non-profit sector, two advanced degree options stand out. They can either pursue a Master of Public Administration with a concentration in non-profit leadership or a Master of Science in Management – Non-Profit Leadership. Either degree can round out a resume nicely and qualify the graduate for a leadership position at a non-profit organization. However, the more focused Master’s in Non-Profit Leadership available at New England College offers several key advantages.

By choosing a master’s degree that centers around non-profit management, students may reap the following benefits above and beyond what the typical MPA degree can offer:

  • More specialized coursework
  • Deeper background knowledge
  • Unique, cutting-edge skill sets
  • Familiarity with non-profit cultures
  • Valuable networking opportunities
  • Resume tailored for non-profit positions

More Specialized Coursework

Compared to an MPA degree, a Master’s in Non-Profit Leadership offers more specialized coursework. The program at New England College requires 36 credit hours, broken up into several courses:

  • Organization Leadership and Change
  • Managing Projects in Organizations
  • Professional and Organizational Ethics: A Global Perspective
  • Organizational Communication, Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
  • Strategic Planning and Policy
  • Dynamics of Non-profit Governance
  • Strategic Human Resource Management
  • Strategic Fundraising
  • Research Methods
  • Strategic Capstone

Each of these courses has been customized for the non-profit sector. While MPA programs will likely cover a few of the same topics, such as finance, human resource management, and research methods, not every class will be geared toward non-profit work specifically. MPA students can often pair their degree with a concentration in non-profit leadership. A concentration typically means taking the same general courses as other MPA students plus a few courses that are specific to their area of focus. The core classes will remain, whether students choose the general MPA track or a concentration.

A Master of Public Administration curriculum must be designed with both the public and non-profit sectors in mind, because its graduates may go on to work in either field. By offering a distinct Master of Science in Management – Non-Profit Leadership program, New England College is able to tailor each course in the curriculum toward aspiring non-profit leaders. This approach keeps classes from being diluted with information specific to the public sector.

Deeper Background Knowledge

A Master of Public Administration that offers a concentration in Non-Profit Leadership can provide a broad base of knowledge regarding management topics. Many of the skills learned will even be directly applicable to non-profit leadership. However, some of the techniques and strategies learned will not be the best fit for non-profit organizations. For those working toward a career in philanthropy, an MPA will not provide the same depth of knowledge that a Master’s in Non-Profit Leadership can.

Even students who already have significant experience in leadership positions can benefit from the specialized coursework of a Master’s in Non-Profit Leadership. Leaders will notice several differences when switching from the private or public sector to the non-profit sector. Legal issues, accountability, and restrictions present in the non-profit sector differ from those in the private or public sector. A Master’s in Non-Profit Leadership can help students explore these differences and retrain themselves with an eye toward non-profit work.

Writing for Thrive Global, Leila Toplic notes that “skills like business development, sales, finance, and marketing are highly valuable in the non-profit sector.” This is good news for leaders who already have a strong background in these areas, although they will need to “adapt [their] skills to this new context of social good.” Those who do not have much experience with business administration will need to sharpen their skills. Earning a Master’s in Non-Profit Leadership can help students develop a comprehensive understanding of the complex issues involved in non-profit administration.

Unique, Cutting-Edge Skill Sets

Students may find some overlap between topics covered in various management and administration degrees, but non-profit leadership requires unique skill sets students may not gain in non-specialized master’s programs. Because non-profit organizations rely heavily on donations and fundraising campaigns, their leaders face challenges that a typical CEO, CFO, or COO would not. Writing for Chron, David Ingram notes that non-profit executive directors are expected to “fulfill vital roles outside the office and after normal business hours.” They are the public face of their organization, and their personal lives are subject to more scrutiny than private-sector executives.

To keep their organizations well-funded and operating smoothly, non-profit leaders must be proficient in fundraising, marketing, event organization, ethics, budgeting, and project management. They must be able to manage both volunteers and paid employees. They must also have a thorough understanding of the legal issues related to non-profit governance. The Master’s in Non-Profit Leadership program at New England College is designed to help students learn these and other skill sets that are vital to non-profit work.

Similarities between public and non-profit administration do exist. Organizations in both the non-profit and public sectors are designed to serve the population and often operate on limited budgets. However, legal requirements differ, as do job responsibilities. An MPA may not fully prepare graduates for a successful non-profit career.

Familiarity with Non-Profit Cultures

The workplace culture in non-profits also differs from that of other organizations. As Leila Toplic writes, employees in the non-profit sector are “resourceful, used to doing more with less, and many are doing multiple jobs.” They can and do use many of the same tools and methods that others use, but their fundamental goals and motivations are different.

Writing for The Balance Small Business, Joanne Fritz notes that “while mission statements do exist for businesses, they are likely to be taken much more seriously by nonprofits.” Non-profit employees are passionate about what they do, and non-profit leaders will be expected to share that passion.

Non-profit leaders, in particular, are often called upon to fill multiple roles within their organization. David Ingram notes that the size of an organization determines which responsibilities fall to its executive director. “The smaller a nonprofit organization is, the more directly involved the director is likely to be in each departmental function,” he writes. Rather than hiring separate individuals to oversee different aspects of the organization, a small non-profit might expect its director to handle not only the normal executive duties but also all accounting and fundraising activities.

Non-profit employees must also be able to work well with others, as collaboration and consensus are often key. In an article for Forbes, Kelly Hannon suggests that this type of culture may be frustrating “if you’re a take-charge type who thrives on making things happen quickly.” The transition may also be difficult, she writes, “if telling people what to do and having the financial incentives to get them to do the work is what you’re used to.” The coursework for a Master’s in Non-Profit Leadership helps prepare students for the unique culture found at non-profit organizations.

Resume Tailored for Non-Profit Positions

When applying to a non-profit organization, any advanced degree in management, administration or leadership can help a candidate’s resume stand out. However, a Master’s in Non-Profit Leadership tailors your resume perfectly for non-profit positions.

MPA graduates often go on to work as city managers, policy researchers, budget analysts, and legislative aides. Graduates of the Master of Science in Management – Non-Profit Leadership program at New England College, on the other hand, will be better prepared for non-profit work. Potential job titles include chief executive officer, director of human resources and volunteer management, and director of strategy and development. These positions could be at local, national, or even global non-profits.

Graduates without relevant work experience can use their resume to emphasize their master’s coursework. Writing for The Balance Careers, Alison Doyle suggests creating a resume section titled “Relevant Coursework.” In it, graduates can highlight “courses directly related to the position [they] are applying for.” Providing an overview of their non-profit leadership coursework at New England College can help graduates demonstrate to potential non-profit employers that they are well-prepared to step into a leadership role.

Valuable Networking Opportunities

Pursuing a Master’s of Non-Profit Leadership offers benefits beyond resume enhancement. All New England College students are automatically enrolled in the school’s alumni association, which features robust career development programs. Past graduates — including many who work in the non-profit sector — are happy to share their stories and offer advice. They often participate in career panels on campus and conduct mock interviews to help current students prepare. Some alumni are able to offer internships to current students or post jobs for new graduates. These networking opportunities are invaluable both before and after starting a non-profit career.

Take the next step toward a career in non-profit leadership today. Visit the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at New England College to learn more about our online Master of Science in Management – Non-Profit Leadership program.



New England College

Thrive Global Chron


The Balance Small Business

The Balance Careers

New England College Alumni Online