Presenting Nonprofit Experience in a B-School Application

I’ve seen some version of the following question come up again and again on MBA admissions boards recently: “Will having nonprofit work experience on my résumé hurt my chances of being admitted to business school?”
That question catches my eye every time I see it because it expresses two misconceptions about business school. One is a misconception about what an MBA education is for. The other is a misconception about what ‘work experience’ means.
I assume that some of the people asking this question worry that an MBA admissions officer will look at their résumé and think, “Here’s a woolly-headed, fuzzy-hearted do-gooder who would be eaten alive by the other students the first day of class.” The question suggests a fear that being affiliated with a nonprofit enterprise is enough to keep someone out of business school – unless, of course, the applicant can otherwise show a bottom-line outlook and a for-profit mindset.
But an MBA education isn’t about money. It’s about management.
Sure, most MBA students are motivated at least in part by profit. And most MBA graduates take the skills they learn to business ventures, where they create 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 nonprofits and in public service as they are in business.
Management Skills Are in Demand among Nonprofits
There’s no question that management skills are in demand in the nonprofit sector. Business school admissions consultant Kent Harrill recently drew my attention to a US News & World Report item in which Bill Drayton of Ashoka, a foundation that promotes social entrepreneurship, noted that over 70 per cent of nonprofits are young in organizational terms (less than thirty years old), and that only a few benefit from having staff with management training. "More and more people want to do this kind of work," Drayton told USN&WR. "We are creating the jobs; the salaries are going up. We are desperate for managers."
A number of top b-schools have financial aid programs that make it easier for MBA grads to pursue nonprofit and public service job opportunities. Wharton, Cornell, Stanford, Haas, Columbia, and Fuqua are just some of the business schools that have loan forgiveness or fellowship programs for MBA grads who accept public sector and nonprofit employment. The schools would not have those programs if they didn’t think nonprofit work was valuable.
So you don’t need to worry that nonprofit work experience would cause you to be blackballed from MBA programs. What you do need to worry about is how you present that experience – but that’s not a disadvantage. Applicants with business work experience have the exact same problem.
Experience Means What You Did
This brings me to the second misunderstanding about MBA admissions raised by the nonprofit work experience question.
When business schools ask about your work experience, they want to know about what you’ve done, not where you’ve done it.
Admissions committees don’t accept or reject applicants on the basis of what companies they’ve worked for. They accept or reject applicants on the basis of how much promise each person shows as a graduate 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 who has nothing insightful or intelligent to say about the experience, is not.
Nonprofit Experience Could Be Your 'Wow' Factor
So here’s my advice to anyone out there who has posted (or who could have posted) the nonprofit work experience question to an MBA discussion board: Don’t let your lack of business work experience keep you from applying to business school. In your essays and interview, focus on what you did for your employer rather than on who your employer was. If you did gain some specific insights to how nonprofit organizations work (for example, if you learned something about securing funding, or about managing and motivating volunteers) by all means mention it. And if you have ideas about how you would use an MBA to make a career transition to the business world, or about how you would use an MBA to improve the performance of a nonprofit organization, by all means mention that, too.
But you should also take the time to be honest with yourself about your nonprofit work. Did you genuinely want that nonprofit job, or was it just a way of marking time between finishing college and figuring out what you really wanted to do with your life? If that’s the case, you could have a problem in demonstrating focus and motivation. You might be a stronger b-school candidate if you took the time to get some more relevant work experience under your belt.
If you went to work for a specific nonprofit because you truly believe in its cause, you might want to re-examine your interest in business school. If your true interest lies in understanding social or policy questions rather than the day-to-day realities of how organizations work, you might be happier in a master of public administration (MPA) program. MPA programs teach many of the same analytical methods and tools that MBA programs do, but they focus on policy issues and analysis rather than on organizations.
But if you can explain your nonprofit work history to yourself and to others as a valuable professional development, and if you know that the next logical step in your professional development is to get an MBA, then go ahead and start working on your school selection and applications. Don’t worry about your employment history putting you at a disadvantage. It won’t. If anything, your nonprofit experience just may prove to be the "wow" factor that gets you accepted at your targeted schools!