For teams looking to expand their skill sets an MBA offers a different dimension and perspective, despite the course often being overlooked as a qualification for those pursuing a career in the third sector, says Alexandra Cairns
I joined the MBA at Alliance Manchester Business School after seven years working with charitable organisations that are dedicated to providing quality, specialist healthcare and systems strengthening programmes in Tanzania. While an MBA may not traditionally be associated with working in the third sector, I realised long ago that people working in these industries seriously need the skills that an MBA provides.
The international nature of MBAs – and both the hard and soft skills developed at business school – can truly prepare MBA students for a successful career focused on impact: whether that’s in the charity and international development sectors, or in private sector organisations with a commitment to community impact.
The perception that the third sector is drastically different to the commercial sector is a misconception that we really must address first. Just because many organisations in the third sector are ‘not-for-profit’, doesn’t mean to say that they are ‘for-loss’. These organisations need to think just as strategically as any other corporation would.
They have to strike a delicate balance between achieving their social goals as well as maintaining their financial health. While profit isn’t a primary driver, it’s essential for the success of a non-profit, especially to support hiring and long-term growth. These organisations are also often faced with a complex set of very demanding stakeholders whose interests are often at odds with one another. This is where MBA modules that focus on strategy, competition and leadership and help to build key skills and strong business acumen become so useful.
I have worked alongside and as part of non-profit leadership teams in the global health sector since I graduated from university at the age of 21. They are brimming with talent, and I owe a lot of my personal and professional development to them. There are a wealth of leaders in this space with an incredible depth of knowledge in their specific sector or issue area, who often bring valuable clinical or public policy expertise in bucket loads too. An increasing number of these organisations have started to diversify their leadership teams by either recruiting new leaders who hold an MBA or sponsoring their existing leaders to pursue management education. Some of the most inspiring and effective leaders I know have invested in a business education both for themselves and their high potential employees. This enhances the cumulative knowledge of such organisations and helps to seal their chances of success in an increasingly fragile climate.
For teams looking to expand their skill sets an MBA really does offer a different dimension and perspective, despite the course often being overlooked as a qualification for those pursuing a career in the third sector.
Ultimately, non-profits – regardless of the sector they sit within – are still businesses. Yes, employees will need to possess specific technical expertise, whether that’s within medicine, policy or disaster relief. However, demand for the services of NGOs and charitable organisations is increasing and the resources to support their vital work are scarce. In times of crisis, like the current coronavirus pandemic, it’s this sector that’s often called upon to help. Therefore, leadership teams must ask themselves how they can maximise both their impact and efficiency. Those with an MBA background – in collaboration with technical experts – can certainly help to provide the answers.
Those entering roles in the third sector could find that having an MBA will put them above the competition. Third sector organisations are very discerning in their recruitment, and while they are rarely able to offer salaries that compete with the private sector, there is no shortage of competition for job vacancies. Yet more and more applicants are looking for work with a purpose, and MBAs entering the sector are not just competing with their fellow business school graduates, but with postgraduates from a variety of disciplines.
Skills such as problem-solving, negotiating and decision-making that are fostered during an MBA programme will enable candidates fighting for a position within the sector to differentiate themselves from other applicants, as will the fresh perspective that a more ‘commercial’ training gives you. As a practical person, I found the Manchester MBA particularly suited me, with consultancy projects that kept me engaged with the real world. I built on my talent to tell stories and pitch new ideas and combined it with new skills in commercial strategy and finance. More specifically, I got to grips with the likes of mergers and acquisitions, venture capital investing, and private equity. I also learnt how to better breakdown problems, and to lead and manage with influence, even when you don’t have authority. After all, people must not forget the value of soft skills to any organisation.
The line between the commercial and not-for-profit sectors is blurring as companies across all industries recognise the impact that we all have on communities in such a connected world, and as every organisation fights to keep afloat amid political and economic uncertainty. It’s a situation only intensified by crises like the current coronavirus outbreak. The third sector will need – now more than ever – the right skillsets and business acumen to keep their organisations on the right trajectory. Current leaders should be looking to MBA graduates now, and in the future, to build their numbers and ensure the right teams and the most effective strategies are in place for them to thrive.
Alexandra Cairns is a full-time MBA alumna from Alliance Manchester Business School