How do you earn a master’s degree in philanthropic studies?
There’s the obvious. You learn about the school, you apply, you’re accepted, you enroll, you take classes and an internship, you graduate. Simple enough, right?
Maybe. But what do you really learn?
Well, I can show you my journey as an example. It will hopefully give you an idea of what this school offers. However, my journey is my journey. I lived in Indianapolis, so I could decide whether I took in-person, executive, or fully online courses. I took classes at my own pace. The semester I got married, I took one. Most times, I’ve taken two, which has worked well with my full-time work schedule.
I’ve taken the electives that are interesting to me (there are so many other fascinating ones as well!). I’ve completed internships (one for credit, one for interest) that were tailored to my interests. So this will vary for you, but I hope to show you the value of the degree and what I’ve learned.
My first semester was a nerve-wracking one. It was that feeling of “I haven’t been in school in a while and I’m not sure I can do this well.” Don’t worry, that feeling will pass, and you’ll learn and apply more than you ever anticipated.
Principles and Practices of Fundraising – In-person. I do not intend on being a fundraiser (although some academic and non-academic coursework suggests otherwise, and who knows where life takes you). However, I found this class interesting, useful, and engaging. I worked with a local nonprofit to discuss their fundraising plan, and compared my analyses of their work with best practices in the field.
Civil Society in Comparative Perspective – Online. What is civil society, and how does it relate to philanthropy? How do other countries’ civil societies inform our work of philanthropy in the U.S.? For someone interested in different countries, international issues, civil society, and philanthropy, this was right up my alley.
Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector – Executive. I took this course mostly online, but with a week at the school in July. It was exhausting, but well worth it. We went on site visits, had people from different nonprofits come and speak to us, and talked broadly about the role of nonprofits in society. I really enjoyed this week with classmates and learned about some amazing nonprofits in Indianapolis.
Applying Ethics in Philanthropy – Online. Ethics sounds boring, right? It’s not. What stands out to me were the simple and practical ways that ethics impact philanthropy. We also read two amazing books, which highlighted course concepts that I continue to recommend to people working inside and outside of philanthropy.
Internship (not for credit) – Johnson County Community Foundation. I did an extra internship. You only need one (I promise!) but I wanted other experiences. I’m really glad I did. Community foundations are fascinating engines, and I got to step in at the end and see the execution of this foundation’s first 24-hour giving day. Community philanthropy is an empowering, collaborative experience, and can really help build community. Cliché, but true.
Law of Nonprofit Organization – In-person. Law honestly takes everything you know, twists that up, and dumps it on its head. However, it also offers an important history and understanding of how law shapes philanthropy and nonprofit organizations. If you had told me before this class that knowing about cy pres and deviation, as well as the duties of care and loyalty would be important, I would have laughed. Yet, they’ve informed my knowledge of philanthropy ever since.
Grantmaking and the Role of Foundations – In-person. This class looks at (*shockingly*) the role of foundations, specifically private foundations (i.e. not community nor operating ones). Foundations are fascinating, yet controversial, engines. You most likely have your own opinion now, but this class gives you the opportunity to explore, both in theory and in practice, why foundations exist and how they affect nonprofits and public policy today.
Institutional Fundraising – Online. My first elective! Again, I don’t foresee myself being a fundraiser (at least at this point) but I do believe it’s important to understand as many aspects of nonprofit work as I can. So, since I had to take a class about the role of foundations and grantmaking, I wanted to learn about the flip; how to fundraise and write grants from foundations (as well as corporations, government entities, and other organizations). For this class, I learned about institutional fundraising, and had to write a standard grant proposal. In three words? It’s not easy. I have a new level of respect for grant writers.
Philanthropy in a Comparative European Perspective – In-person (mostly). Another elective. I love learning about other countries and their politics, cultures, history, and society, so I knew I had to take a course about philanthropy in Germany and the Netherlands. Not only did I learn about how philanthropy differs in those countries compared to the U.S., and why we should care about philanthropy in other countries, but I also was able to visit those countries and talk to academics and practitioners working in the field. Amazing experience.
Internship (for credit) – The West Foundation. I learned about local, place-based, community philanthropy in one internship, and then went to learn about philanthropy in a small, private foundation that gives grants internationally. The foundation has really emphasized giving operating support and flexible, multi-year grants to its partners, which is something I’ve grown to really admire and respect during my learning experience.
Economics of Philanthropy – Online. I won’t lie and say that understanding economics is never a struggle. However, it’s one of those courses that again, helps you understand the sector and why taxes, the stock market, and the three failures theory matter. I dreaded this course when I started the master’s. If you try to learn and engage with the material, I promise you’ll learn something worthwhile.
Community Foundations – Online and in-person. My final elective! I had the thrill of taking most of this course online, and then attending the Growing Community Foundations conference in Wichita, Kansas, where hundreds of community foundation leaders and practitioners gathered to discuss research and trends in community philanthropy. Community foundations can bring out the best in philanthropy, and the attendees at this conference showed that they and the organizations they represented were no exception.
History of Philanthropy – Kind of in-person. My last course, which ended up being half in-person and half online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. History is one of those subjects that helps you learn why things are the way they are today. This course taught me, or emphasized again that 1) philanthropy has been around in the U.S. before the country existed as a country, 2) philanthropy has marginalized at best and terrorized at worst minorities in this country. To learn from the past, we must do better in the future, and 3) you’ll see themes running through philanthropy now that existed before. In other words, trends aren’t always new.
So as you can see, the degree is 1) personalized, 2) useful, and 3) manageable and flexible. I worked full-time, got married, ran a half marathon, started a move across the country, traveled nationally and internationally, and still had time to relax.
Is the degree rigorous? Of course. Will you spend countless evenings and weekends completing assignments, projects, and papers? Yes. But to me, it’s been 1,000 percent worth it.