Book Post #2: Nonprofit Masters Management vs. Leadership

In my conversations with folks who teach and direct nonprofit masters programs, something very interesting came up.

“A good leader has to know something about management but a good manager does not have to lead.

Knowing how to manage and lead is critical — you have to know both.”

I had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Richard Male of Regis University and University of Denver.  He teaches fundraising courses in the nonprofit management and leadership masters programs. I interviewed him about how masters programs have helped the fundraising professional. And we ended up having a really interesting conversation about leadership vs. management. He pointed out that while masters programs for nonprofit professionals are extremely helpful, there is a problem at the core:

“Masters program are focused around teaching the skills and techniques of operating nonprofits instead of leading and motivating. Unfortunately, most of the programs are geared towards management and not leadership. We are teaching students how to write a strategic plan not how to think strategically.”

Students in his fundraising courses learn the basics of fundraising: how to write a proposal, how to plan an event, how to write a direct mail piece. Fundraisers need to learn:

–       How to engage Board as partners in raising funds with staff.

–       How to weave their fundraising initiatives into a strategic plan.

Students have learned the fundraising pieces, but not how they are strategically woven together.  And Male feels that it is leadership that weaves it together.

Despite his strong opinions about masters program turning out great managers instead of leaders, Male feels that nonprofits masters programs are important because nonprofit professionals need to learn these skills.  Nonprofit masters programs professionalize and institutionalize the profession and the sector.  If you’re lawyer, nurse, doctor, architect you go to school to get certified. The same should be true for nonprofit professionals.

I asked Pat Libby, Director of USD’s Masters in Nonprofit Leadership and Management program, about how the program creates leaders.  Male expressed that “leadership is learned when you’re forced into a leadership role” and Libby demonstrated to me how the USD masters program classes engage students in roles of leadership.  Required courses for the masters program include leadership theory as well as applied learning classes.

Libby feels that it is important for students to have at least four years of nonprofit work experience before entering the masters program so they understand how a nonprofit operates.   It is important for students to understand the organizational and political dynamics that are inherent in any nonprofit in order for the masters program to be beneficial.

“Students won’t understand theoretical leadership if they haven’t experienced leadership firsthand at their jobs, like working with a Board of Directors. Students won’t understand how to build a new program if they haven’t operated an existing program.”

Through the applied learning classes, students learn how to be leaders. Students participate in class discussions and assignments where they are required to utilize their critical thinking and analytical skills. Students are then given an opportunity to put their critical thinking skills into action through a hands-on group project where they are placed in the role as the “expert”. Students are asked to think and look critically at the organization in order to make strategic decisions. Through building a Board development plan, students develop strategy for engaging specific community members in the community to sit on the Board – bringing with them skills, talents, affluence and influence needed by the organization.  Developing these strategic skills in students is the foundation to building leaders.

Libby also pointed to the leadership theory courses as training for leaders.  In these classes, students are forced to examine themselves to realize:

–       How they are perceived by others

–       How they perceive themselves

–       How they perceive others

I remember this class — although not fondly — because for more than half the semester I didn’t know what was going on.  I just knew I was a young, white female — therefore, what I said in class was often disregarded in comparison to the comments made by older, white, males in the class.  It was a strange in-class experiment by Dr. Terri Monroe, but eventually I understood (three leadership theory classes later). We all have prejudices, we all have pre-conceived ideas about people based on their age, background, ethnicity, education, etc.  And once we understand our perceptions and other’s perceptions, we learn how to utilize these perceptions in order to lead.

Although I understand Male’s concern about masters programs churning out managers by the dozen, I know that I walked away not only with my nonprofit masters degree – but with an ability to lead nonprofit organizations and to develop the strategy necessary for successful operations.


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