The days of just getting together with friends to put on a show or sell a few burgers for charity are on their way out. In these tough financial times, nonprofits have to become increasingly professional to survive.
The capital city is leading the way, with new programs at both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Madison College.
"People taking positions in community leadership are more important than ever, because they're having to step in to work in areas that government had traditionally supported," says Cynthia Jasper, chair of interdisciplinary studies at the UW's School of Human Ecology, which oversees the new nonprofit bachelor's degree program. It has enrollment of around 100, and recently graduated its first students.
Meanwhile, Madison College this semester is launching the first course in its new nonprofit management certification program, part of a more comprehensive business degree.
But why the need? Many who have worked in nonprofits came up through the ranks the traditional way, by first volunteering and then learning on the job.
"Because a passion for the cause is only half the equation," says Boris Frank, Madison College's lead instructor. "The other half is running a good business. When you have a not-for-profit, that does not mean you shouldn't be running a business in the best of senses."
Nonprofits are more properly termed "not-for-profits." That's their legal description, and it's a form of incorporation overseen at the state level. They have no shareholders. Tax-exempt status is granted at the federal level, and receiving it is far from automatic. In fact, for two years the Internal Revenue Service has been aggressively reviewing many organizations' tax-exempt status. States can similarly dissolve nonprofits that do not file annual reports.
Even in good times, nonprofits have to deal with unique corporation paperwork that other businesses never have to think about. And these have been far from good times. Nonprofits nationwide were already struggling after 9/11. The recession made things much worse; there are just fewer public and private dollars.
That means that new and veteran nonprofit leaders have to learn more, learn it better, and continue to learn.
"Most of us who work in the nonprofit world, in management and in operations, really have very little background in the business affairs end of it. Most of us came up through our profession," says Frank, until recently executive director of the Henry Vilas Zoological Society, and now executive director of Madison Youth Choirs. He started out as a director and camera operator at WHA-TV.
"In my case, I was a communicator," he says. "I've thought for a long time that a comprehensive course of this type was needed: how to start a not-for-profit, all the way through human relations and fundraising, creating a board, working with a board, and on and on."
Turina Bakken, Madison College associate vice president for learner success, was instrumental in organizing the certification program. She has nonprofit experience herself, as director of communications for five years at the Madison Area Quality Improvement Network.
Speaking of the industry as a whole, she says, "My experience with nonprofits has been that often they're led by people who have incredible passion and experience with what the nonprofit does, but don't necessarily come to that leadership or management role equipped with management background or strategic thinking background. They do the best they can."
She adds, "We also know that a lot of people who work in nonprofits wear multiple hats. You could be dealing with human resources, sales and designing a website. You don't need a degree in each of those fields, but you need access to some really practical information."
Frank puts it a simpler way: "They need to know what they don't know."
Jasper agrees. Traditional business skills don't always translate. "Just even supervising volunteers in a way is a pretty difficult job," she says. "It's different if you're getting paid. A lot of times the nature of volunteer relations is not as structured, and it does take a lot of time and effort and expertise to do a good job."
Another reason for the new professionalism is that the field has changed so much. "I think the nonprofit area is getting more sophisticated all the time," says Jasper. "A lot of times we think of the nonprofit with the small budget, and sometimes that is the case, but a lot of times it really is getting to be a sophisticated business.
Both schools created their programs after being asked to by students. In the case of Madison College, Bakken sketched it all out on a cocktail napkin during dinner with friends. "I still have the napkin somewhere," she says. The UW began admitting students to its own program in 2009.
Both schools are seeing professionals who already work in the field come back for additional learning. Both hope their programs grow. The UW, for example, would like to someday soon offer a graduate-level degree.
Both schools' programs emphasize internships, and make extensive use of cross-listing offerings with other departments, so that classes in other disciplines count toward the nonprofit degree or certification.
Frank calls Madison College's initial class introductory, but with a proviso. "When I say introductory, even though I've been in it 30, 40 years, some of the issues are still introductory to me," he says. Accordingly, he's bringing in guest experts representing fields such as law, insurance and event planning.
The UW and Madison College have compared notes, and there's obviously a certain amount of overlap - not only with each other, but also with the UW's Bolz Center, the first in the nation to offer a graduate degree in arts administration, a specialized type of management that tends to be centered in the nonprofit sector.
"Aspects of nonprofit management and leadership have found a home at UW for more than four decades," says Andrew Taylor, Bolz Center director, referring to his own School of Business' degree program. "But the scope, scale and accessibility of these [other] programs is a great step forward."
One final parallel between both programs: Administrators are amazed at the commitment of their students.
"This passionate Gen Y crowd," says Bakken, "is really interested in work that is meaningful and contributes to the community."