Changing Course

March 15, 2010       Kate Rogers      

Colorado native Amanda Gee, 32, migrated to the Big Apple nine years ago to pursue her dream of being a professional dancer and choreographer. She freelanced here and there and put on performances with friends in the business, while holding down a lucrative career as a sales representative for pharmaceutical giant Schering-Plough. While the money and benefits were good, something was missing. Her heart just wasn’t in it.

“I was 30 years old, and I realized that if I was going to make it as a choreographer, it would have happened by now,” Gee said. “I didn’t believe in my products like I believed in the art of dance. I knew I had a skills set I could transfer to something I was passionate about.” She took a grande jetŽ. Gee left her career and enrolled in the Master’s Program of Fundraising and Grantmaking at the NYU Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising in New York City. Today, she works as a fundraiser at the Brooklyn, N.Y., nonprofit Young Dancers in Repertory. Gee is finishing her last semester in the program and will receive her degree this spring.

“It was scary,” she said of leaving her work in sales. “I had a wonderful job that paid me well and a great team of people to work with.  As much as I loved doing what I did there, I can’t tell you how happy I am to be supporting the arts right now. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.” In the wake of a deep recession, with cultural anxiety at its peak, like many others employed in the nonprofit sector as well as those in career transition, Gee turned to school. Continuing education and graduate degree programs across the country have seen an increased interest, in some cases because of the lackluster economy.

Who’s Going Back To School

Enrollment at Georgetown University’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership in Washington, D.C., has increased during the past year, particularly for this spring’s incoming class, which added five students from last year, according to Kathy Kretman, center director and research professor for the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. More students are from larger nonprofits than in previous years, while others are seeking to transition into the nonprofit field. Kretman said half or more of each class typically has master’s degrees and the median age is 40. All students are seeking to enhance their leadership and fundraising abilities.

“They are looking for resources, tools and best practices, as well as networking opportunities,” she said. “They are not looking for the heavy-duty theory you get in masters’ classes.” Georgetown’s certificate program runs for nine courses, which students go through together. One option is a three-month course each spring, and the other is an eight-day summer intensive. The program has been running for eight years.

Applications for the Philanthropy Certificate program at the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies in Evanston and Chicago, Ill., have also increased, said Paige Kennedy, academic program coordinator. In fact, the program cohort has doubled compared to last year, from 15 students to 30. Students are seeking a greater understanding of the field in general, Kennedy said. “I think that everybody goes into nonprofits with their heart in the right place,” she said. “But, they find they are not effective if they don’t have the skills they need.”

Marian Stern, adjunct professor at the NYU Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, which is part of the NYU School of Continuing and Professional studies, said the demographics for returning students in the certificate program for fundraising and philanthropy are all over the map. Some students are just out of college and are participating as a part of their own career exploration, while others range from entry to senior level players at nonprofits of all sizes. Many of the students go into the program with the same goal, augmenting their skill set to advance in the sector.

“We are seeing an increase in people who are coming back to school for very specific skills and to improve their expertise,” Stern said. “People are coming because the job market is tight and they need to show prospective and current employers that they have, at their fingertips, all the skills they need to be the most effective fundraisers they can be.” The Heyman Center offers both traditional certificate programs for philanthropy and fundraising, as well as an intensive certificate program in the summer and an accelerated program in the winter, where students can attain their certificates at a faster pace. Stern said enrollment in the center’s M.S. in Fundraising and Grantmaking increased by 21 percent from fall 2000 to fall 2009.

This spring the center will introduce its Executive Certificate of Fundraising and Philanthropy program, where senior-level applicants will be selected to participate, Stern said. Course titles include “The Art of the Ask” and “How to ÔReally’ Get Your Board to Fundraise.” The demographic of students in the Northwestern program ranges from young professionals in the nonprofit field, to 70-year-old retirees seeking an encore career, according to Tim Gordon, associate dean for Student Services at Northwestern’s School of Continuing Studies.

“Nonprofits are not an industry where you can fake the work,” Gordon said. “They are not high-paying, glamorous jobs, but they are worth the while.” In her classes at the Heyman Center, Gee said working with professionals has helped to broaden her range of expertise. “Being in the fundraising world in this economy, it’s time to sharpen up your skills and find out where you stand,” she said. “Evaluate your skills so that when the economy does improve you can hit the ground running.”

Elise Krikau, a 32-year-old student in the Graduate Certificate Program at the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management at North Park University in Chicago, Ill., is employed as a manager of development at the Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. Krikau decided to return to school this year to better grasp the roots of nonprofit management. Learning from professors who work in the sector makes the education she is receiving more relevant, she said. “People are staying in school right now because the jobs aren’t there. If there are jobs, the resumŽs flood in. Education enhances your resumŽ because you took the time out, as a working individual, to pursue this,” she said.

Lucas Rubin, academic director for Columbia University’s Master of Science in Fundraising Management program, said society has placed a greater emphasis on advanced education during the past 10 years. Although Columbia’s program numbers have remained steady throughout the recession, with 14 students each fall and 12 each spring, Rubin said he believes the pressure is on to continue to progress in a competitive field. “I think there’s more anxiety about (job) reassurance,” he said. “Today, people are holding positions that 15 to 20 years ago, they might not have had based on age and experience alone. With education we can turn around younger people so they can fill the roles they are already being asked to fill, in a more comprehensive and suitable fashion.”

Due to the downturn in the economy, Kretman said she fears nonprofits might not be as willing to send employees back to school for continuing education. “When organizations cut back, it is one of the first things to go,” she said. “That concerns me because how can we ensure that both current and emerging nonprofit leaders have the kind of professional development they need, and who pays for it?” Being mindful of the economy, schools such as North Park University’s Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management have adapted their programs. Pier Rogers, center director, said because interest in the center’s workshops have increased, the school has decided to offer some free workshops in addition to its standard workshop courses this spring.

Registration for the “Miracle Major Gifts” workshop has increased by 50 percent from last year, and currently 18 students are registered for North Park’s workshops for the spring semester. This is the greatest number of students pre-registered for workshops, Rogers said, which proves people are thinking ahead and committing professional development funds into their budgets. The noncredit professional certificate program at North Park is designed so students can create their own roster of classes and focus on the areas of most interest. To earn a certificate, a student must complete a series of seven workshops during the course of one year.

Charities have recruited the Axelson Center to prepare workshops catered to their particular organizations. Instead of sending workers to school for continuing education, organizations such as the Chicago Foundation for Women have brought the workshops to their employees. Due to economic hardships and increased anxiety about job security, Rogers said some nonprofits are being forced to look at their surrounding environment and how it affects their work.

“They’ve (nonprofits) got their nose to the grindstone to deliver their services, because so many services are in demand, and some of them have not been able to look at what’s going on around them,” she said. “They’ve been the ones caught by surprise.” No nonprofit is able to simply float along and focus solely on service delivery anymore, Rogers said, and because of that education and professional development are more in demand.

What They Are Studying

The recession is not only a driving force in students returning to school, but it is also dictating areas of study in continuing education certificate programs and even graduate degree courses.

In spite of the chilly economic climate, students at NYU’s Heyman Center are keying in on fundraising, Stern said. Even those who are successful and experienced fundraisers want to raise their confidence levels when soliciting donations and sealing the deal with major donors. Studying fundraising also prepares nonprofit employees for planned giving in better economic times, Stern said. “Planned giving seems counterintuitive today, but this is the time to put together the programs so you are prepared for when people are more comfortable economically,” she said.

Another area of study nonprofit employees are interested is the legal aspects and ethics of fundraising, she said. “In this post-Madoff era, ethics and transparency are more important than ever. There are ethics to how you fundraise and what you can and cannot except as a gift,” Stern said. “The people who have trust in the agency, and donate to you because they believe in your mission, they have rights as well.” Students attending NYU for continuing education are also studying marketing, advertising and public relations — areas of instruction Stern said will help them to advance in the field and broadcast their organization’s message loud and clear.

Likewise at Northwestern, students are targeting fundraising as a major area of study, said Marc Hilton, a Chicago-based consultant and Northwestern faculty member. “Some people think that just anybody can do fundraising, and that’s not the case,” Hilton said. “In the past 20 years, the field of philanthropy has matured considerably, not only on what motivates people to give, but also the skills required to manage and be successful at fundraising.” Volunteerism is also included in the Northwestern program because it is so vital to a nonprofit’s success, Hilton said. Other areas of study include major gift fundraising and donor motivation, he said.

Students at North Park are concentrating on strategic planning and financial management to better handle the assets they have, Rogers said. Although fundraising is always important, board management techniques cannot be overlooked. “It’s not just coming into it and being passionate about the work,” she said. “If you want to go into social work, and be a great social worker, you need to learn how to create a budget, plan, deal with the board of directors and manage a staff, especially in an economic crisis. Those skills are just as important as delivering the meal or counseling the individual.”

North Park students are also concentrating on relationship building with larger donors and the dimensions of a nonprofit organization itself, Rogers said. While education cannot take the place of actual work experience, Rubin said it certainly accelerates the advancement process for junior-level nonprofit workers, as well as those in career transition. “We work in tandem with experience and expand the possibilities,” he said. “Students get access to resources, networking, and we make them more suitable. Having that extra skill set will get you the job over someone who doesn’t have the degree.”

Rubin teaches foundations in fundraising to his cohort which is designed to convey the different techniques, strategies and board planning involved in soliciting major gifts. Columbia students also study planned giving, grant writing and business, which boost overall understanding of what it means to be a nonprofit organization, he said. Young Dancers’ Gee said she is able to apply the tools she is learning from her master’s classes to her fundraising job. Going back to school has enabled her to keep up in a fast-paced industry. “I’m hoping in a few years I can implement all of the things I am learning. The nonprofit sector is under-resourced, so anything you can do to better educate yourself, the better off you will be.”

Returning to school for her graduate certificate will help Krikau combine her own strengths with formal education, she said. “I’ve been able to learn as I’ve gone along in my career,” she said, “but I want some education to back it up. This will give me the foundation of information to enhance my abilities and give me more confidence.”

360¡ view

Understanding the bigger picture is key to good management. Enrollment in continuing education helps to link skills not just to one particular aspect of charity work, but also to the field as a whole, said Kretman. “Continuing education is absolutely critical because very few people come into the sector with an understanding of what the role of civil society is, and the scope of what it means to be a nonprofit,” she said. “It gives them a better understanding of where they and their organization fit in society.

“Being in classes with other people in a diverse range of organizations and positions from local to international gives students the opportunity to be a community of learners.” Younger nonprofit workers will have a chance to advance themselves as Baby Boomers begin to retire, Gordon said, and continuing education will give them the push they need to attain success.

“They need the opportunity to refocus the skills they have, and understand the sector even more,” he said. “They are preparing for the needs that nonprofits have and providing a great amount of talent to fill the void.” Although anxiety and fear are not necessarily positives in regard to the workforce, Rubin said nonprofit employees should turn their apprehension into motivation.

“In general, challenges are opportunities,” he said. “The poor economy and fear from the industry has advantaged those who are already working in nonprofit and looking for a degree.” For Stern, the more experienced individuals working in the nonprofit sector, the better. “It’s not just more experience, it’s more professionalism, better understanding of legal implications of soliciting and accepting gifts” she said. “Fundraising is a profession like law or business or any other, where the professional should have the proper credentials, and nonprofits that are hiring feel the same way.”

Industry advancement in combination with increased education can only bring positive results, agreed Rogers. “Individuals are learning more about ways to develop their efficiencies and effectiveness which is better for organizations across the board,” she said. “With an increase of nonprofit management across the country, people are bringing a higher level of skill to their organizations.”

On the other side of the education spectrum, Gee said pursuing an education in fundraising has turned her passion of dance into a meaningful career in nonprofit. “I couldn’t be where I am without it,” she said.