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Nonprofit to MBA? How to Prepare Your Recommenders

Saundra Quinlan

Recommendations From Nonprofit Leaders

Admit.me has terrific advice about preparing your recommenders to write their letters of recommendation. Those same tips apply to nonprofit applicants, but you’ll need additional messaging to your recommenders.

Your recommenders are probably accustomed to writing letters to law school or other graduate programs where past experience and demonstrated passion for the graduate program is clear. An MBA recommendation may be new for them. They will likely be thrilled you’re considering grad school, but is scratching their heads that it’s an MBA.

Commitment to Using Your MBA Education

Make sure your recommender truly understands what an MBA can do for your career and ultimately the nonprofit sector. Talk about why professional management matters to your cause: It matters because the sector is full of subject matter experts–public interest attorneys, social workers, organizers–who don’t want to be bothered with cash flow projections, fundraising or managing internal processes for efficiency.

But these same experts want to benefit from a well-managed nonprofit that has money to pay for computers, office supplies, and implements smooth processes to maximize their impact. Learning how effective organizations function, practicing inspired leadership, and understanding how to identify and solve problems with a process (and that the Toyota Production Model is the gold standard of all teams!) will help you achieve your organization’s mission – and golly, someone has to do it! Better you who has passion for your work.

Avoid talking about the amazing travel, the networking, and making more money. Even if you want to transition into the private sector, be careful to focus on how you see your professional career leading to impact. Can you influence supply chains to be more responsible? Can you become a board member of a cause like yours? Can you start a business that would support your cause? Be careful/tactful. If you talk about wanting to make more money so you can support a family one day, your recommender may be offended because they are doing a great job supporting their family now. Or they may think you’re “selling out” – that could lead to a less-than-stellar recommendation.

Peer Cohort

One of the hardest points to convey to nonprofit recommenders is the concept of a peer cohort. Chances are you are the only person in your organization with your job title and responsibilities. Your supervisor probably leads a diverse team of people with varying skills, education levels, and functions.

Your recommender must figure out a cohort of workers to which you belong (and, ideally rank you at the top of that cohort!). Help your recommender define that cohort – especially if the range of experience/skills is broad. A cohort can be organizers in your industry network or in your recommender’s entire career.

Specific Skills v. Passion

Your recommender must articulate your hard and soft skills. You can’t simply be the most dedicated person to the cause. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been personally affected by the cause. “Identity-politics” is almost completely irrelevant to business schools.

Business schools want to know you’re the best organizer because you get the most referrals of new clients and that you only need to do one long intake because you know how to ask the questions that elicit information you and your team needs to take action. They’re not as interested if this is because you or your parent was a survivor of domestic violence or that you’re a third-generation union member. They want to know you’re the best organizer or social worker because of X skill. So outline the skills you want your recommender to focus on.

Specific Examples

Your recommender must be able to back up your skills with specific examples. Help out your recommender by reminding them of specific grants you secured or a particularly challenging client you engaged. Use these stories to demonstrate your skills.

Sharing/reminding your recommender of these stories will solidify your skills. Your recommender probably thinks you walk on water because they can throw any problem at you and you solve it. While that’s valuable, it doesn’t make for a compelling business school recommendation letter. The best letters highlight the one time you successfully solved a particularly vexing problem and how you did it uniquely and better than anyone else.

Relax and Know Your Recommendation is in Good Hands!

Nonprofit executives won’t pour their hearts and souls into a letter to help you achieve your goals outside their organization if they don’t believe in you. Their admiration for you and your work will shine through and distinguish you in the pile of applications. With these tips, you should be able to make sure your recommendation stands out and is bolstered by the standards that the Admissions Committee is accustomed.

Letters of Rec Letters of Recommendation Nonprofit MBA Recommendations

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