How To Develop A Sustainable Career In Nonprofit Work

It wasn’t long ago that nonprofit management degree programs were far less common than they are today, according to Amy Buehler, director of the nonprofit management program at Washington University in St. Louis’ University College. “Nonprofits began realizing that they need to become more mature, mission-based businesses,” she says of the evolution. “They don’t need to run like a corporation, because nonprofits are inherently different. But there are certain things we can take from the for-profit industry and apply to nonprofit to be successful,” she says.

While the students she works with today at University College are entering the world of nonprofit work as a strategic, intentional career move, Buehler fell into it somewhat by accident and acquired most of her expertise on the fly. With a background in political science, Buehler was working towards a master’s degree and working part time at Forsyth School in Clayton, in the school’s development office. “I really enjoyed working alongside the parents, our typical donors, and the staff in carrying out development for the school. It really hit a nerve with me.”

Since then, Buehler has worked in development and management for a handful of St. Louis-based nonprofits, including Girls Inc. of St. Louis, the Gateway Foundation, Peter & Paul Community Services, and the Women’s Safe House. Keep reading to learn more about the inspirational story about how Buehler created a sustainable career in the nonprofit sector. She also discusses how her students—who often work full time and have families—achieve their career goals in the nonprofit field.

What is one of your most beloved nonprofit missions?
I love animals, so one of my favorites was a nonprofit that focused on the therapeutic properties of horsemanship, called TREE House of Greater St. Louis. I grew up here in St. Louis and started riding when I was about seven. Then I went on to own horses and rode have ridden throughout my entire life. It was an opportunity to marry my personal passion with a mission organization.

What are some examples of specific student projects you’ve seen flourish?
One student actually developed a language immersion school. She was fluent in several languages, and that idea hadn’t really developed in St. Louis. Her vision was very strong, and she took it to that next level. I see that a lot here. I’m working with some students right now who are working to put together a home for homeless veterans. It’s unbelievable, but there really aren’t very many. They’re not creating transitional housing, or an environment where in which case management is trying to move them along. It’s a place where they can really create a home. Also, when you think of homeless veterans, people tend to think of old people. That’s not the case anymore. Tons of young people join the military, come back and have a really, really tough time. They can be 24, 25 years old. Two former students are ramping this up and working in that general direction.

5.16.2014--153rd WUSTL Commencement. Photo by Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos

I also have a current student who is developing a foster and shelter program for animals, which sounds common, but in the area where she’s doing this, it is not. She’s specifically working on a nonprofit that will take in animals that are difficult to place, and not just dogs and cats. These are examples of completely different things, but our students all learned how to make these ideas viable through our nonprofit management program.

Every single one of the aforementioned students has children, and two are single parents. They see something missing in their surrounding environment, they’re concerned about their communities and want to make a change. Passion can take someone a long way. But given the right tools, it can take them even further.

Tell us more about the program and how it empowers your students.
Our program is designed to offer prospective students the skills and resources needed to be successful in the nonprofit sector. That’s not just in one space. You can decide if that means management, volunteerism, fund development, program management, etc. We have a holistic program that provides theoretical and practical experience. For management, obviously you need to know how to manage an organization, which often means learning how to work with boards and executive directors to deliver on a mission. You also have to be able to read audits and understand a complex budget. We talk about how to manage volunteers, how to approach fund development, marketing, communications and more. We also discuss the technological piece of the puzzle, which has changed the industry as a whole.

It’s an amazing thing that we have a school like University College at Washington University, where adults can come and feel like they can actually do this. People who teach in the program, our staff and faculty—we’re all just like them. We have the same issues and concerns that they’re dealing with. That really helps adult students feel very grounded.

How do master’s programs like this nonprofit management benefit students, especially those who are already working full time and/or have families?
I’ve had a number of students who had been in the nonprofit sector but recognized they needed a different set of skills to move up. I’ve had many students who began at an organization in one position and then moved into management upon completing the program. They start to really see themselves in those positions. Many students also want to start their own nonprofits, an idea that often grows from out of conversations around wanting to affect position change in people’s communities. Nonprofit organizational ideas are constant. Too many nonprofits fail because people haven’t recognized that there are already organizations executing on that same idea. They haven’t done their research. Our students have the time and space to really think through what their ideas look like.

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