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MBAs and the not-for-profit sector

15 June 2018
How relevant is an MBA for those in the not-for-profit sector?
An MBA program has traditionally been considered the exclusive purview of the corporate sector, but Katrina Van De Ven explains how and why it is beneficial for not-for-profit leaders too.
Katrina Van De Ven, Anstice MBA Scholarship for Community Leadership recipient

Katrina Van De Ven

Question: “What did the Arts graduate say to the Law graduate?"

Answer: “Do you want fries with that?”

Having studied international relations at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level, I'm all too familiar with these 'jokes' which some of my peers studying law, accounting and other disciplines with similarly well-worn paths to success, took great delight in sharing.

My then-fragile, 18-year-old sense of pride aside, there is, unfortunately, much truth to such remarks. International relations (and other humanities subjects) have one of the lowest graduate employment rates; just 62% as of 2017.

This is why I am deeply committed to the work of Young Australians in International Affairs and have been proud to serve as the organisation's Chief Operations Officer for the past three years. This unique, not-for-profit think tank is the missing link for students and young professionals seeking a career in foreign policy, defence and security. With a mission of building the high calibre leaders necessary to navigate Australia's future in the Indo-Pacific century, we pride ourselves on providing support and professional development opportunities for young people across the country.

Having served in a range of progressively senior not-for-profit roles over the past decade, I am honoured to be the 2018 recipient of the Anstice MBA Scholarship for Community Leadership. I feel particularly honoured as such opportunities for not-for-profit leaders are still few and far between. I personally view defined leadership training, such as MBA programs, as key to bolstering effective leadership in the not-for-profit sector. It is estimated the not-for-profit sector is worth $129 billion a year to the Australian economy (just over 10% of GDP); therefore investment in the development of not-for-profit leaders is crucial.

So what exactly is the relevance of an MBA education, which has traditionally been considered the exclusive purview of the corporate sector, for not-for-profit leaders? For me, there are two clear, immediate benefits:

Managing volunteers

Given the obvious financial constraints, much of the grunt work across the not-for-profit sector is carried out by the 19 percent of Australians who volunteer. For me, this raises a number of questions you don't encounter in a traditional workplace, such as: "What is a reasonable time commitment to ask of my volunteers?", "How can I show gratitude and reward high performance for very low cost?" and, most challenging in my experience, "How can I appropriately performance manage a volunteer?"

At Young Australians in International Affairs, I am fortunate to lead a remarkable team of 30 volunteers, who work across six states and territories. However, this introduces the tyranny of distance and begs the question: "How can I effectively manage a team on the other side of the country, many of whom I have never met in person?"

Financial management

One of the greatest misnomers I still hear is that not-for-profits aren’t set up to make money. This is patently untrue, with many of our nation’s most successful not-for-profits (eg. Cancer Council, World Vision, Salvation Army) turning over millions of dollars per year. The sole difference is that instead of being beholden to shareholders, they are beholden to those they serve; in my opinion a heavier moral burden. Noting the fiscally constrained environment in which most not-for-profits operate, an effective leader must ask: "How can I effectively leverage our available funds to generate the greatest impact for the organisation?"

One subject in, I am confident the University of Sydney MBA is the best fit to help me develop my leadership acumen for the not-for-profit sector. I'm looking forward to applying these learnings to the benefit of Young Australians in International Affairs and other organisations in the future as I continue my not-for-profit leadership journey.


Katrina Van De Ven is a current student in the University of Sydney Business School MBA and Anstice MBA Scholarship for Community Leadership recipient.

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