Is an MBA Right for You?

By: Liz Maw | November 19, 2014

Note: This post originally ran on IdealistCareers.

You’re thinking about grad school, and the options are overwhelming. If you’re like me, you might have registered for the LSAT, GRE, and GMAT all at once, and buried your bookshelf with test prep books.

While there are many routes to changing the world, I have a special spot in my heart for the MBA (Masters in Business Administration), which I received from Columbia Business School in 2001, and where the majority of Net Impact’s 300 chapters lie. But why an MBA if, like me, you’re a passionate idealist committed to the nonprofit sector?

Here are the top reasons I think an MBA is a good next step for aspiring social sector leaders.

  1. It gives you a versatile skill-set. In one of my first jobs, a nonprofit with 300 employees, the only person who had an MBA was the sarcastic, chain-smoking CFO. Today, 15 years later, there are MBAs in all kinds of positions in nonprofits outside of the finance department, from executive directors to strategy directors to program chiefs and more. An MBA is designed to equip you with the basics to run any part of a nonprofit organization, leaving your options wide open in a way that other degrees may not.
  2. It helps you stand out from the crowd. While MBAs are indeed more common in the nonprofit sector today than 15 years ago (in many cases, thanks to unique loan forgiveness or salary supplements from schools) they still are less common than other degrees. This leaves you with a more unique story to share. As Chesca Colloredo-Mansfeld, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Miraclefeet, told me, “I am consistently able to draw on my MBA skills to run my nonprofit with the efficiency and focus of a business, along with the network to support it.”
  3. It gives you insight into the “other” side. Companies can be powerful partners in creating social change when engaged substantively with nonprofits on local or global issues. For example, Accenture is working with 21 nonprofits across the globe this year to support them in skill-building programs for low-income workers. By going to business school, you learn more what makes corporations tick. This enables you to better build cross-sector partnerships and deepen your corporate network.

Even after you’re convinced that the MBA is the right degree for you, how do you select from the 950+ MBA programs out there if a social impact career is your top priority?

The good news is that there are many options for MBA students who want to change the world. Courses like “Conscious Capitalism,” “Strategic Philanthropy,” and “Social Enterprise” are common, and an increasing number of schools are integrating social and environmental themes across their programs. Not to mention, there are a wealth of extracurricular options dotting the landscape, including major global competitions like the Hult Prize and Global Social Venture Competition.

What are the top questions to ask during the admissions process to decide if a program is the best fit for you?

  1. What are alumni doing? Are there numerous success stories of alumni landing in world-changing jobs that might be appealing to you? That shows both that the school sent people on real impact paths, and that there is an alumni network that might be helpful for your own job search.
  2. How active and innovative are student impact-related clubs? Are there a range of ways you can engage with fellow students on social / environmental issues and projects, or is it fairly limited? Are many students involved, or just a token handful? How active is the Net Impact Chapter or other social and environmental impact-oriented groups on campus?
  3. How does the core curriculum integrate social and environmental themes? While you should always look at the list of electives, a true test of a business program’s integration of social and environmental themes is how they have shifted the core, or required curriculum, to be more expansive than “shareholder returns.” For example, Kellogg’s core curriculum uses a mix of social and environmental organizations to illustrate course concepts, and all students begin their second year with a course on values and crisis decision making.

In addition to speaking to students and staff at universities, you can check out our Business as Unusual (BAU) to answer these questions. BAU is our comprehensive student guide to social and environmental themes in business schools, including rankings and student assessments of their program. The guide will help answer the questions above and more so you can find the right impact MBA “fit” for you.

While there is no wrong way to build your skill-set to change the world, the MBA is a great option for many. If the cost of a full-time degree seems daunting, part-time or executive programs can be a smart choice as well.

And let me end with my personal top reason an MBA can be the right choice!: More free beer and pizza than any other degree program (based on very unscientific survey). That’s a reason all of us nonprofit folks can appreciate. 

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