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Not Everyone With An MBA Follows A Corporate Career Path

By Claudia Feldman

After the opening of Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts, Alison Weaver was so hoarse she could only whisper, and she had a chest-rattling cough. But perched in her office at the new, $30 million arts center, Weaver, the Moody’s executive director, looked thrilled, as if she had just finished a long-distance race.

Truth was, she had.

Weaver orchestrated the four-day launch of the nonprofit, multi-disciplinary project she helped build from nothing to newsworthy on the Rice campus.

She spoke movingly of the national and international artists who made the opening a success, and the confluence of art, science and current events that makes the Moody Center a beautiful and thought-provoking place to visit.

“It’s just like a startup,” Weaver said, recalling the blank slate she had to work with back in 2015. “We launched new programs and a new building, hired a team and set strategic directions.”

If that sounds like business speak, it is.

Weaver represents a relatively small group of nonprofit leaders from the worlds of art, social service, government, philanthropy and religion who have enhanced their skills with an advanced business degree, a Master of Business Administration.

“The MBA helps me every day, and it’s also very fulfilling,” says Weaver, who also has a Ph.D. in art history. “Having managerial skills and business skills helps me do what I do well.”

The value of the degree is obvious to John Byrne, editor-in-chief of Poets and Quants, a website that covers graduate business education. “The essentials of an MBA experience — accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, operations — are all central to the tool kit for a nonprofit founder, CEO or manager,” he says.

As proof that the business degree is increasingly versatile, Byrne ticks off a list of half a dozen nonprofits led and championed by MBAs, including Habitat for Humanity International and the Alzheimer’s Association. Just last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked the top 11 business schools in nonprofit management, a sign that these types of programs are here to stay. In a story about the ranking, Byrne paraphrased sculptor Henry Moore’s theory of a productive life: “Throw yourself into something big that you believe in. Obsessively dedicate your life’s work to it. And make damn sure it’s ambitious enough to stretch you to the limits.”


The idea that business schools should train not only business leaders but civic leaders first emerged in the 1970s at Stanford and Yale. Today, several dozen business schools offer courses that allow students to experiment with their own notions of social responsibility and free enterprise.

Peter Rodriguez, dean of the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice, likes to say it’s not a question of whether his students will become entrepreneurs, but when. “Challenge yourselves to be bold,” he advises. “Care to change the world.”

Rodriguez, the first Hispanic to lead a top-10 business school in the United States, believes that the stereotypical image of a white, male MBA student enrolled in courses only to enrich himself is simplistic and untrue.

However, fewer than five percent of newly minted business graduates — one in 20 — take jobs with nonprofits or hybrid firms with an explicit social mission.

“It’s complicated,” says Patty Oertel, president and founder of a consulting group specializing in nonprofit management. “I don’t know of any solid research, but I think students who get master’s degrees in nonprofit administration, public health and arts management have a higher percentage of participation.”

Oertel, who has an MBA, has taught MBA students, and has served as executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Management in Southern California, understands the dilemma facing well-intentioned graduate business students today. Some of them will invest more than $100,000 for their degree.

“When I got my MBA from UCLA in 1980, I paid $1,500,” Oertel says. “That was a cost I could recoup. Today, students might study nonprofits with the best of intentions, but they have to pay back their student loans. They see a majority of their classmates going into business jobs with top salaries, and they think, ‘Wow, I have these costs, I’m capable, I want a family. Maybe I need to put my dreams on hold and get a salary commensurate with my education.’”

Even those who opt out of the nonprofit path, Oertel says, still find ways to give back by serving as board members, donors and mentors.

Education expenses notwithstanding, Byrne hopes business students attracted to nonprofits will stay the course.

Many of the best schools, he says, “are quite generous with scholarship aid, especially for people who will pursue nontraditional career paths with their MBAs. In fact, a number of schools, including Harvard and Stanford, help to subsidize students who take nonprofit internships between their first and second years. So don’t let the sticker price scare you away. In many cases, you’ll find some significant — if not deep — discounts given for an explicit desire to work in the nonprofit world.”

Mary Ittelson, once a professional dancer and choreographer, agrees with Byrne that the degree is invaluable. Today she holds an MBA, leads a consulting business with an emphasis on arts nonprofits, and co-teaches a Stanford MBA course titled “Leadership in the Arts and Creative Industries”—and she, too, embraces students willing to make the sacrifice to pursue the degree.

But however encouraging she hopes to be, she also offers students what she describes as “a jolt of reality.”

Ittelson ticks off a few of the business challenges that nonprofit arts leaders must be prepared to face: rising costs, stiff competition for audiences, even an aging fan base. Inevitably, the seniors will have to be replaced by younger, more diverse patrons who are new to the arts scene.

She adds, “What these groups can earn does not keep pace with expenses. So the demand or need for philanthropic dollars explodes, but there are so many worthy causes and only so many donors.”

Ultimately, Ittelson says, arts groups have to grow, adjust, innovate, and push the boundaries of excellence if they are going to survive.

For better or worse, it’s a lesson the students have had hammered home in their more conventional business classes.