The Research Focus

Social, political, and economic forces have resulted in a new administrative reality in which governments funnel the majority of their spending through third-party organizations, which in turn increases pressure on nonprofits to professionalize (Salamon, 2002; Suarez, 2010; Wilson & Larson, 2002). As a result, the type and number of nonprofit management education programs continue to grow. In addition, research suggests that while utilization of nonprofits for public policy implementation is growing, the retirement of baby-boomers in executive positions will result in a leadership deficient in the sector (Bell, Moyers, & Wolfred, 2006; Tierney, 2006). This trend may add additional pressure on education programs to train and develop new leaders and managers for the sector.
However, it is unclear whether these programs provide students with necessary skills for organizational success and/or result in a nonprofit leadership position post-degree. Within the extant literature, there are very few studies that focus solely on nonprofit management education. Further, findings suggest that traditional, in-classroom education plays only a small role in leadership and management development, yielding mixed empirical evidence on its own (Bass & Vaughn, 1966; Dotlich & Noel, 1998; Seidle, Fernandez, & Perry, 2016). In one of the few studies that focuses on nonprofits specifically, Suarez (2010) found that that field experience and sector dedication constitutes the primary pathway to leadership in organizations instead of management credentials. Therefore, it is unclear whether nonprofit management degrees are legitimate pathways to nonprofit careers.
Finally, while there have been a handful of studies that investigate leadership training and development in the mainstream literature, they do not link training and development to leadership or organizational outcomes (Seidle, et al., 2016). Similarly, no studies to date have linked the training and development of nonprofit management students to their personal or organizational outcomes. This represents a notable gap between training and practice that needs to be addressed.
The lacuna in scholarly research on this topic, the increased use of nonprofits as implementation agents, and the impending leadership deficit informs a series of questions regarding nonprofit management education. These include:
• Who is getting nonprofit management certificates and why?
• What is the value of a nonprofit management degree to an individual, organizations, and to a local nonprofit sector?
• What is the return on investment for a nonprofit management degree?


Bass, B.M. & Vaughn, J.A. (1966). Training in industry: The management of learning. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Bell, J., Moyers, E., & Wolfred, T. (2006). Daring to lead 2006: A national study of nonprofit executive leadership. San Francisco, CA: Compasspoint Nonprofit Services and Meyer Foundation.

Dotlich, D. L., & Noel, J. L. (1998). Action learning: How the world’s top companies are re-creating their leaders and themselves. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Salamon, L. (Ed.). (2002). The state of nonprofit America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Seidle, B., Fernandez, S., & Perry, J. L. (2016). Do leadership training and development make a difference in the public sector? A panel study. Public Administration Review, 76(4), 603-613.

Suarez, D.F. (2010). Street Credentials and Management Backgrounds: Careers of Nonprofit Executives in an Evolving Sector. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 39(4), 696 – 716.

Tierney, T. J. (2006). The nonprofit sector’s leadership deficit. The Bridgespan Group.

Wilson, M. I., & Larson, R. S. (2002). Nonprofit management students: Who they are and why they enroll. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 31(2), 259–270.