Education: MBA - Doing the business for charity

More voluntary sector staff are signing up for MBAs
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The Independent Online
MOST PEOPLE signing up for MBAs are in the private sector. They want to hone their management skills, get more out of their jobs and improve their prospects.

Increasingly, the same considerations apply to those working in the charity/voluntary sector. Business schools receive only a handful of applications from managers in these fields but they are confident the numbers will grow. That is because they think an MBA is useful for anyone in management, particularly at a time when "partnerships" are in vogue and the Government is persuading local authorities to collaborate with voluntary organisations.

"If an MBA is anything, it ought to be teaching people how to manage and allocate resources efficiently," says Anthony Birts, director of the MBA programme at Bath management school. "Whether you are in a for-profit or not-for-profit organisation, that must be your aim. Charities must maximise the amount of money or equipment they can get to people who need it. The more they can raise by marketing and the less they waste on the way through the pipeline, the better for the recipients."

Or as Dr Sue Miller, of Durham University Business School, puts it: "All organisations need some sort of strategy. They need to know what they're doing and they need to differentiate themselves. Strategy is as much about co-operation as competition. And it is crucial for charities with a large number of stakeholders which need to focus different interests and form a direction for the future."

One of the great benefits that an MBA confers is the ability to see an organisation as a whole, to see how the different parts fit together and how the whole organisation relates to other organisations outside. Graduates of MBA programmes often mention this. Ray Wild, principal of Henley Management College, believes that the need to broaden perspective is just as important for people working in charities and voluntary organisations.

Charities nowadays face formidable competitive pressures. Not only do they have to raise money in a competitive environment but they have to provide quality services in areas of the country and fields of work where they may have a number of rivals. They need to be clear about what their mission is and where they are going.

"The MBA is a very good course for giving people a clear framework of analysis and assessment of any organisation they're looking at," explains Richard Kerley, director of the full-time MBA at the University of Edinburgh management school.

"It enables them to ask what challenges they're facing and how they can operate in a different way."

The major problem for those working in the non-profit-making sector is how to pay for an MBA. Henley's part-time programme costs pounds 16-17,000; Bath's pounds 14,000 over two years; Edinburgh's pounds 9,500 over two-and-a-half years. These are large sums of money for people to find in their twenties and thirties and they are often large sums for small charities. Business schools often offer bursaries to those who have difficulties in paying but these do not usually amount to more than a few thousand pounds.

Randall Zindler, 34, a full-time MBA student at Lancaster management school, says charitable donors object to their money going on funding MBAs rather than on the people the charity is supposed to be helping. A former international aid worker in Rwanda, Zindler is funding himself at Lancaster with money he has saved and hopes to move to Geneva to work for an international organisation.

Another Lancaster MBA, Jon Seeley, who works for Operation Mobilisation, a Christian missionary organisation engaged in international relief and development, raised the money from a charitable donor specifically to fund his way through the programme. In addition, Lancaster gave him a fee reduction. Like Zindler, he has found the MBA "incredibly useful" in his job as international finance officer of the charity he works for.

Lancaster has developed strong links with the Red Cross in Geneva, one reason why it is attracting students who work in international aid. Another business school - Aston - has just hired a new professor, Margaret Harris from the London School of Economics, who specialises in the voluntary sector.

"Business schools have not made much of this in the past," says Mark Oakley, director of MBA programmes at Aston. "It's not been seen as a very profitable source of business."

Rosie Connor, 29, is one of the new education managers who have been parachuted in by Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, to help inner-city schools in Leicester pull up their socks and hit tough new GCSE targets. The chief executive of Leicester's new education action zone, she is managing a budget of pounds 3m and setting up partnerships between inner city schools, local businesses and voluntary groups.

Having an MBA definitely helped her to get the new job, she thinks. After leaving Cambridge University, she worked as director of Focus, a national charity which offers team-building and personal-development programmes to a range of people, from schoolchildren to adults, including business people. At 24, she decided to study for a four-year distance-learning MBA with Henley.

"I wanted to get much broader training in all the different aspects of managing an organisation," she says. "Running a charity is not fundamentally different from running a business. The mission is different but you still have to run it efficiently, effectively and professionally, so the skills in managing quality services, managing people and strategic management are all totally transferable."

After Focus she moved to Papworth Trust, one of the big UK disability charities, as director of marketing, continuing with her MBA. After a couple of years the organisation restructured, at which point Mrs Connor became director of housing and care with a staff of 200 and much wider management responsibility.

"Business skills are really important in the voluntary sector now. You have to know all about how to manage an organisation," she says.

Rosie Connor can be contacted at Rowley Fields Community College, Lyncote Road, Leicester LE3 2EL