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Presenting Nonprofit Experience in a B-School Application

It's time to dismiss a fallacy about nonprofit job experience being detrimental to your MBA admissions. In fact, notes Cindy Sullivan, a senior MBA admissions adviser, nonprofit experience might provide an applicant with points for diversity.

"I think that an applicant with nonprofit experience can make admissions committees look closer at the applicant to see if this person can add some diversity to the incoming class," she says. "It can actually provide an edge, if applicants use it to their advantage. For example, an applicant can draw the committee in by having this nontraditional work experience, but then the applicant really needs to articulate how their unique experience is relevant to their future goals combined with an MBA education."



 

Admissions committees, says Sullivan, a former Associate Director of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, like to have a class full of students who bring many different perspectives and solutions to all kinds of business problems.

That's because graduate business education isn't all about the money. It's all about management.

Sure, most MBA students are motivated at least in part by profit and creating value for themselves and others in forms that are measured in dollars and cents. But the fundamental skills that business schools teach are not about money they're about management. Those skills are just as valuable in nonprofit and public service as they are in business.

Management Skills in Demand at Nonprofits

Management skills are in heavy demand in the nonprofit sector. Fundraising, marketing, budgeting, technology, resource allocation, and even business development are as much of nonprofit organizations' milieu as they are in the business world. Beyond that, many entrepreneurs know that business savvy is key to eliminating the many global social ills rooted in poverty. Business leaders, whether it's Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, have never before been so focused on eradicating disease, boosting education, and creating mechanisms for even the world's poorest people to gain a foothold in business. And the need for MBA-educated professionals in nonprofit organizations or working within the for-profit sector, where there are decisions to be made about philanthropy, has never been stronger.

As b-school admissions consultant Kent Harrill, MBA, recently noted, a US News & World Report article pointed out that over 70 percent of nonprofits are young organizations, less than 30 years old, and few have staff with management training.

Some b-schools even have financial aid programs for MBA grads to pursue nonprofit and public service job opportunities. Wharton, Cornell, Stanford, Haas, Columbia, Fuqua, and others, have loan forgiveness or fellowship programs for MBA grads headed toward public sector and nonprofit leadership. These programs stand as testament to the value b-schools place on improving nonprofit management.

Best Positioning of Your Nonprofit Experience

When business schools ask about your work experience, their focus is on what you've done, not where you've done it. Acceptance or rejection won't hinge on which companies or organizations you worked for. Your strength as an applicant will be measured by how much potential you show in becoming a successful graduate-business student and future leader. An applicant whose only work history is with a small nonprofit, but who writes and speaks intelligently about what they learned from that experience, is a feasible b-school candidate. An applicant who worked at a bulge-bracket investment bank, but can't articulate the value of his experience, is not.

Nonprofit Experience Could Be Your 'Wow' Factor

So here's our advice to anyone out there who has wondered about their nonprofit work experience: Don't let your lack of for-profit work experience keep you from applying to business school. In your essays and interview, focus more on what you did for your employer than who your employer was. If you did gain some specific insights, such as securing funding or about managing and motivating volunteers, by all means, share it. Also, include your ideas about how you would use an MBA to make a career transition to the business world or to improve the performance of a nonprofit organization.

There's one caveat we'd like to include here for MBA applicants flush with nonprofit vigor. That's to take time to identify about what spurs your interest in nonprofit work. If you are a tireless advocate for a certain cause, are you certain you will want a career dedicated to the management aspect of it? Or might you be more interested in changing laws and policy? You will need to reflect deeply on this and consult with those in the field. Law school, public administration, health administration, and other graduate programs might be the more appropriate path for you if your heart is set on becoming a frontline change agent.

But if you view your nonprofit work history as a valuable part of your professional development into a master manager, whether for profit or the common good, then your nonprofit experience just may prove to be the 'wow' factor that gets you accepted at your targeted schools!

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