Master’s in Nonprofit Management vs. Public Administration

Industry Advice Management Public Health & Public Policy

There are roughly 1.8 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, according to the Urban Institute. Of those surveyed by Nonprofit HR, 60 percent rated talent acquisition as a top priority in 2020, including recruiting and hiring diverse talent.

The nonprofit sector’s growth has created a need for professionals with strong leadership, managerial, and interpersonal skills. But finding the talent to meet that demand is one of the biggest problems facing nonprofits today.

Northeastern offers two master’s degree programs designed to create the next generation of nonprofit leaders: Master of Public Administration (MPA) and Master of Science in Nonprofit Management. How do you know which degree is the right fit, or what questions you should ask before applying? Lori Ashline, assistant teaching professor in the nonprofit management program, and Thomas Vicino, associate dean and former director of the MPA program, share their advice.

Advance Your Career in Nonprofit Management

Become a mission-driven leader with the skills to make a meaningful impact.


What is Nonprofit Management?

Nonprofit management is a field that focuses on the day-to-day operations and long-term development of nonprofit and not-for-profit organizations. 

Organizations within the nonprofit sector, such as not-for-profit universities, hospitals, charities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and religious organizations, need skilled leaders to help them fulfill their missions. While key business and managerial skills are essential in such roles, professionals in this field must also be keenly aware of the nonprofit sector’s unique challenges and regulations. 

What can you do with a master’s in nonprofit management?

If you’re passionate about making a difference by taking on a leadership role at a nonprofit organization, earning a master’s degree in nonprofit management could be the right path for you.

Students who enroll in a nonprofit management program often begin by taking courses covering the various marketing, legal and governance, and fundraising and development issues facing the nonprofit sector. At Northeastern, students then zero in on a particular area by choosing from one of seven concentrations: Global Studies; Human Services; Leadership; Organizational Communication; Project Management; Social Media and Online Communities; and Sports and Social Change.

The program’s alumni work in various departments within nonprofit organizations, including marketing, fundraising, finance, grant writing, and program delivery. Some of the most common job titles for those with a master’s in nonprofit management include:

  • Executive Director
  • Chief Executive Officer
  • Financial Manager
  • Program Director

“Many of my students work in the nonprofit field and want to advance their careers to leadership and managerial positions,” Ashline says. “Some students are career changers, not familiar with the restrictions, accountability, and legal issues in the nonprofit field, and others who want to run their own nonprofits.”

What is Public Administration?

While nonprofit management is focused on overseeing nonprofit organizations, public administration is more closely aligned with the implementation of government policies. For this reason, professionals working in the field of public administration often hold positions in state and local governments.

Since public administration work is often focused on serving the public good and affecting social change, it is also possible for professionals in this field to work in the nonprofit sector.

What can you do with a master’s in public administration?

An MPA program will help prepare you for roles in both the government or nonprofit sectors. Students typically complete core courses spanning various public policy and management topics, as well as specialized electives to hone in on their area of interest. Students enrolled in the MPA program at Northeastern also choose from four concentrations—Nonprofit Sector, Urban Informatics, Urban Studies, or Public Policy Analysis. Graduates of the program go on to hold job titles such as:

  • City Manager
  • Budget Analyst
  • Policy Researcher
  • Legislative Aide
  • Executive Director

“Historically, we’ve placed most alumni in state and local government positions in Boston,” Vicino says, “including quite a number of deputy commissioners and directors of major agencies.”

Nonprofit Management vs. Public Administration: Which Degree is Right For You?

Before applying to either program, both Vicino and Ashline suggest focusing on what motivates you.

“One question people should ask themselves is, ‘Do I have a passion about making a difference or a social cause?’” Ashline says. “Operating a nonprofit with unpredictable resources can be a challenge, so passion is going to be what drives them and motivates them to wake up in the morning.”

Vicino notes the MPA program is looking for candidates with a public service set of values, who want “to advocate on behalf of the public interest, have an appreciation for diversity and inclusion, and value effective management and leadership.”

Nonprofit professionals are accountable to the general public and need to maintain ethical and legal compliance while delivering quality programming with limited resources. Nonprofits operate by a different set of governance rules and, according to Ashline, are increasingly getting more creative at how they generate revenue. Being able to pair that creativity with keen business and managerial skills is key to success.

No matter the program you choose, you’ll learn from industry experts, such as former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who teaches a leadership course in the MPA program, or Rick Arrowood, associate professor in the NPM program and a widely recognized industry leader. You will also participate in hands-on, real-world work through a variety of experiential learning opportunities, including capstone projects and internships.

“The time is always right to enter nonprofits,” Ashline says. “Right now is right. The sector continues to grow, even during a recession. It’s always a viable career option.”

Learn more about Northeastern's MS in NPM

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September 2016. It has since been updated for recency, accuracy, and thoroughness.