Nonprofit Management Certificate vs. Degree [How to Choose]

6 min read
Nonprofit Management Certificate vs. Degree [How to Choose]

Aspiring nonprofit leaders have several options for professional preparation, including various educational tracks and certifications. But what credentials will help you stand out from the crowd and provide the best foundation for successful nonprofit leadership?

Here, we discuss the differences between a nonprofit management certificate and an advanced degree and explain how each can help professionals reach the next stage of their nonprofit careers.

What Is a Nonprofit Management Certificate?

In general, a professional certificate indicates that someone has completed the necessary training and earned the appropriate credentials to work in their field. Depending on the position or industry, a certificate may be sufficient enough preparation that the individual does not require a relevant undergraduate or advanced degree, though a strong educational foundation is invaluable and often necessary in leadership roles.

Many nonprofit leaders and managers choose to earn their Certified Nonprofit Professional (CNP) credential from the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, signifying that they have sufficient knowledge and expertise to advance to a higher level of leadership in the sector. The CNP is the only nationally recognized credential that qualifies undergraduates, graduates and working professionals for careers in nonprofit management.

Certification programs tend to cover a wide range of topics within nonprofit leadership and management without a specific focus on any one area. The CNP program helps aspiring leaders develop competency in ten core areas:

  • Marketing, Communications and Public Relations
  • Cultural Competency and Diversity
  • Financial Resource Development and Management
  • Foundations and Management of the Nonprofit Sector
  • Governance, Leadership and Advocacy
  • Legal and Ethical Decision Making
  • Personal and Professional Development
  • Program Development
  • Volunteer and Human Resource Management
  • Future of the Nonprofit Sector

Certification programs can be completed in less time than a degree program at a fraction of the cost. Programs can last anywhere from several weeks to six months or more and cost between several hundred and several thousand dollars. Though some programs are held in a traditional academic setting (often on college campuses), many are available in a virtual format, making them accessible to those who require a flexible course schedule.

Despite this flexibility, courses can be fairly time-intensive, requiring learners to complete certain modules in just a few days. A certificate program typically culminates in an exam, after which successful participants will receive a physical or digital certification and can include the credential on their CV.

Though certification courses provide a comprehensive understanding of nonprofit leadership and management practices, participants may not be able to focus on or build specific skills in their area of interest. Specialized courses and workshops are available at an additional cost and can be completed at any point in one’s career.

What Can You Do With a Certificate in Nonprofit Management?

The nonprofit world is flexible by nature, meaning that many nonprofit professionals take unconventional routes to management or leadership positions.

As such, a certificate in nonprofit management may be sufficient preparation for someone to advance within their existing organization or identify new areas of interest in the sector. A CNP credential, however, is not equivalent to an advanced degree, a qualification that is increasingly preferred in nonprofit leaders.

Benefits of Obtaining a Nonprofit Management Certificate

Earning a CNP credential or similar certification can help nonprofit professionals:

  • Gain a general understanding of nonprofit leadership and what it entails
  • Increase their advancement or hiring potential
  • Enhance their resume
  • Expand their professional network
  • Gain access to professional resources

If they know one of their employees wants to earn a professional credential, some nonprofit employers will cover part or all of the program fee.

Who Should Pursue a Nonprofit Management Certificate?

While anyone working in the nonprofit sector is encouraged to enhance their professional skill set, a certificate program is most appropriate for:

  • Current nonprofit employees who aspire to a management position
  • Nonprofit employees who have a relevant bachelor’s degree, aren’t ready for a master’s degree yet desire some additional professional development

What Is a Nonprofit Management Degree?

Nonprofit management degrees are available at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels. Earning a degree in nonprofit leadership and management from an accredited university indicates that someone has completed the required coursework to understand and execute the professional responsibilities of a nonprofit leader. Degree options include a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Arts or a Master of Science.

Like most master’s degrees, an MA or MS in Nonprofit Leadership and Management takes two years to complete on a full-time course schedule. Though a relevant undergraduate degree is not always a requirement for entering a master’s program, MA or MS degree candidates benefit from an existing understanding of or experience in the nonprofit sector.

A nonprofit management master’s program builds upon foundational knowledge to help students hone their skills in areas such as:

  • Executive leadership
  • Advanced management practices
  • Governance
  • Program development
  • Evaluation
  • Fundraising
  • Philanthropy

Nonprofit management master’s degree programs take an in-depth approach to topics including, but not limited to:

  • Leadership theory
  • Management ethics
  • Equity and social justice
  • Research
  • Finance
  • Board development
  • Policy creation
  • Philanthropy
  • Resource management

Degree candidates hone their skills in specific areas, such as:

  • Conducting, identifying and evaluating research that supports nonprofit program development
  • Applying leadership and management theories to real-world scenarios
  • Understanding the fundamentals of nonprofit finance
  • Planning strategically for future growth
  • Developing and leading high-performing teams
  • Securing resources from a variety of sources
  • Forging community partnerships and inspiring civic engagement
  • Developing and managing a board of directors

Tuition and fees vary between institutions and areas of study, but the average cost of a master’s degree is between $30,000 and $120,000.

What Can You Do With a Degree in Nonprofit Management?

As in many other industries, master’s degrees are becoming increasingly desirable credentials for aspiring nonprofit leaders. In general, graduate degrees are either required or preferred for a growing number of positions across many industries.

Professionals with a master’s degree in nonprofit management are ideally positioned to pursue leadership roles including:

  • Chief Executive Officer
  • Executive Director
  • Assistant Director
  • Chief Financial Officer
  • Chief Development / Fundraising Officer
  • Lead Grant Writer
  • Foundation Program Officer
  • Director of Operations
  • Program Director or Manager
  • Administrative and Operations Manager

Benefits of Earning a Nonprofit Management Degree

Data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that, in 2021, individuals with master’s degrees earned around $500 (15%) more per week than the average American worker. Besides a higher earning potential, professionals with a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership and management benefit from:

  • Enhanced skill sets in specific areas
  • Greater hiring potential
  • Deeper understanding of the current nonprofit sector
  • An expanded professional network, including faculty and fellow degree candidates

Who Should Pursue a Nonprofit Management Degree?

Current nonprofit employees looking to move into leadership, management or development roles are ideal candidates for a master’s degree, especially if they would like to focus on a specific aspect of leading a nonprofit.

As with any graduate degree, when applying for a master’s program, it helps to have a foundation in a relevant academic or professional field. Nonprofit management degrees are not always available at the undergraduate level, but those with an undergraduate degree, background and/or relevant experience in the following areas will have the most suitable preparation:

  • Nonprofit Management
  • Business Administration, Sales and Marketing
  • Sociology
  • Public Administration
  • International Relations
  • Communications
  • Political Science
  • Public Health
  • Fundraising
  • Philanthropy
  • Community Organizing

Nonprofit Management Certificate vs. Degree

Nonprofit Management CertificateNonprofit Management Degree
Program LengthUp to 6 months2 years
Weekly Time Commitment3–5 hours15–20 hours
Ideal CandidatesCurrent nonprofit employees on a management track Nonprofit employees who have a relevant bachelor’s degree, aren’t ready for a master’s degree yet desire some additional professional developmentCurrent nonprofit employees looking to move into leadership, management or development roles Those with a relevant undergraduate degree, background and/or professional experience Current nonprofit leaders looking to enhance their skill set and earning potential
Available FormatsVirtual, in-person, hybridVirtual, in-person, hybrid

Which is Best for Your Career Goals?

The choice between a nonprofit management certificate and a master’s degree is entirely dependent upon your goals, experience level and availability. Ask yourself the following questions as you weigh your options:

  • Do you have prior experience or education in the nonprofit sector?
  • What do you want to learn about nonprofit management or leadership?
  • Why are you considering a certification or degree?
  • What are your career goals?
  • What is your schedule or timeline like?
  • What is your budget?

Regarding finances, don’t automatically assume that a higher program cost indicates the greatest value, especially when weighed against your specific goals. The best way to understand the outcome of a given program is to speak with individuals who have completed it — they will be able to give you honest feedback, tell you if and how the credential enhanced their careers and answer any questions you have.

Build Effective Nonprofit Leadership Skills at USD

The U.S. nonprofit sector is growing by the year; currently, one out of every 10 working adults works for a nonprofit, and the sector is the third largest employer in the country. With growing employment incentives like public service student loan forgiveness, there’s never been a better time to strengthen your skill set and advance your nonprofit career with a graduate degree.

The University of San Diego’s Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership and Management (MSNP) is a timely, practical degree designed by experienced nonprofit professionals. This 100% online program focuses on the real-world application of advanced management theory so that degree candidates can immediately apply what they’ve learned to real scenarios. Graduates of the flagship on-campus program (Master of Arts) have gone on to leadership positions at organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association, Feeding America, The San Diego Foundation, Voices for Children and more.

If you’re ready to take action and enter the next stage of your nonprofit career, explore the MSNP curriculum or reach out to an enrollment advisor today for more information.


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