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Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership Evolves with the Field

The Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership, offered by the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) and the Gabelli School of Business, has undergone a major revision in both program structure and curriculum.

The one-year program, which recently received New York State approval, has been redesigned to be more manageable and relevant for both leaders and aspiring leaders serving in today’s challenging nonprofit sector, said Debra McPhee, Ph.D., dean of GSS.

 “Nonprofit leaders today are facing unprecedented challenges, and that’s saying a lot given the challenges that the nonprofit sector has always faced,” said McPhee. “Current challenges are not only fiscal, they’re technological, structural, and ideological. More than ever, leaders need the preparation and support to initiate change not only within their organizations but within the larger political arena.”

Brigitt Keller is the new director of the Fordham Center for Nonprofit Leaders and the Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership program. She comes to Fordham having worked most of her life in the nonprofit sector.

Where Business Meets Activism

Brigitt Keller is the new director of the Fordham Center for Nonprofit Leaders.

“More and more, governments are pushing responsibility onto nonprofit organizations without the funding to go with it,” said Keller. “Nonprofit leaders are finding they need additional knowledge and new skills to adequately assess this new context and help their organizations find sustainable solutions.”

Because activists now hold important leadership roles, Keller said the new program will build on their experience and enhance the business acumen needed to run large organizations.

“I’ve seen leaders who were wonderful activists and wonderful advocates, but they wanted a deeper understanding of the business side of the organization,” she said.

On the flip side, she said there are technocrats who get things done but want to give better voice to the nonprofit mission. McPhee noted that, over the past 10 years, a significant number of agencies have installed business people and lawyers in leadership roles. Many have left the private sector wanting to do nonprofit work, but they often lack experience working with vulnerable people and communities.

“A significant portion of nonprofit organizations are human service organizations serving vulnerable individuals and communities, which differ in significant ways from for-profit organizations,” said McPhee. “There are, of course, leadership skills and organizational skills that cut across the nonprofit and for-profit sector, but the importance of mission and a commitment to social justice is the fundamental difference.”

The new program is geared toward both audiences, she said.

“If you’re a a business trained leader who’s already doing well in the business side, you may want to sharpen how you work at mission oriented agencies ,” said Keller. “And if you’re a passionate advocate, this will give you the business tools to make sure your foundation is on solid footing.”

Responding to Change by Teaching Change

The program consists of a 30-credit master’s degree, divided into three semesters over the course of one year. It will allow students to keep up with and improve on the important work they do at their day jobs.

Students will be required to have three-to-five-years’ experience working in the nonprofit sector; this creates an environment where students learn almost as much from their classmates as from their professors, said Keller.

“Almost all of our students will continue working while they do the program,” she said. “They will be required to do a ‘change project’ that examines the organization they’re working for, uncovers weaknesses, and defines areas for improvement.”

The change project is intentionally designed to go beyond the classroom and effect change at the students’ various organizations.

“It’s one reason why we require our future students to be embedded in an organization,” said Keller. “Throughout the three semesters, all the assignments are very practical and designed to help students apply what they are learning to real-world organizations.

The new curriculum features a leadership course each semester, which serves as the backbone of the program and is accompanied by a leadership lab. Keller calls the labs “a unique feature” essential to the program because they reinforce what’s taught in the leadership courses, with mentors translating theory into a skills-based approach.

Finally, there will be three business-savvy components delivered fully online each semester, the topics of which were initiated by student feedback. Each is worth three credits. The first is on ethics, compliance, and fiscal management. The second deals with fundraising and resource development. And the third is on executive board relations.

Essential Ephemeral Aspects

“Nonprofits need leaders who bring out the best qualities in their coworkers, while skillfully moving large organizations forward in today’s nonprofit world,” said Keller.

The program will blend the hard business skills alongside mission awareness.

“It’s certainly about communication with your employees, your board of directors, and the public at-large, but it’s also about awakening the whole person,” said Keller. “It’s not just intellectual, it’s also about self-awareness.”

“For some people, this may sound very esoteric, but I think it’s really important in today’s nonprofit world to reflect on yourself and know who you are, so you can be a leader that inspires others and brings out their best.”


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