Jane McIntyre recalls the blank stares, the bored faces. In that classroom in the mid-1990s, some of her fellow students were unenthusiastic about the organizational behavior class at Queens' School of Business.
But for McIntyre, then a business planner with Carolinas HealthCare System who was pursuing an MBA in her spare time, the course lit a fire beneath her. She realized she loved trying to understand what makes people tick. She was fascinated by behavioral assessment tests, which show how people work together. And she was heartened by instructor Karen Geiger's advice that those who loved the topic belonged in a leadership role.
Today, as executive director of United Way of Central Carolinas, McIntyre keeps a binder on a shelf above her desk with the personality profiles of her leadership team. Shortly after starting there in 2009, she gave personality tests to her top executives, to learn how they communicate and make decisions. Like a lot of private businesses, the United Way now gives the test to potential hires to help gauge their suitability for the organization.
McIntyre's experience at the United Way is just one of many examples of McColl School MBA graduates who are applying the business principles they learned to local nonprofit agencies. While some see an MBA as a way to speed their ascent on the corporate ladder, a growing number of business-school alumni are helping charities run more like businesses.
And indeed, they are businesses, with big budgets, lofty fundraising goals, limited resources and high expectations from board members and the public.
"There are a lot of people in nonprofits working with their hearts, caring about people. But when you move into nonprofit leadership, it's a business."
- Jane McIntyre, executive director of United Way of Central Carolinas
The McColl School does not keep statistics on how many of its graduates wind up in nonprofit organizations. But school officials say the percentage seems in line with national figures. A survey released in 2013 by the Graduate Management Admission Council, an organization of business schools that administers admissions tests, showed that roughly 11 percent of recent graduates were employed in nonprofit or government work-a slight uptick from five years earlier.
When MBA programs started becoming popular in the 1950s, they were mainly a way for liberal arts graduates to receive a general understanding of business, explains Ron Shiffler, dean of the McColl School. Today, though, graduate business schools are just as likely to have students with business backgrounds as those with non-business backgrounds, and there is great diversity in the topics business schools emphasize. Some are renowned for marketing, for example, or for finance.
The McColl School emphasizes leadership. The school has nearly 300 graduate students enrolled in its four degree programs: two MBA programs, plus master's degrees in organization development and executive coaching. With 80 students, the master in organization development is the largest such program in the country.
The focus on leadership makes sense in Charlotte, which has a long and proud history of business leaders playing leading roles in civic life. Teaching about leadership reaps dividends not just for business leaders, but for leaders in nonprofits as well.
One of those looking to learn about leadership was Shirley Fulton. As Mecklenburg County's Senior Resident Superior Court judge in the late 1990s, she had the task of managing the local court system, which she says was "like an octopus."
"I thought the coursework and the degree would help me better manage a totally unmanageable court system," she says. "It helped me build consensus to get people in key positions in the system to work together."
She earned her degree in 1998, and since leaving the bench in 2003 has been active in a number of nonprofits, including the Law and Community Foundation, which provides law school scholarships and legal clinics, as well as a nonprofit that supports Charlotte's Wesley Heights neighborhood.
Others say they decided to pursue MBAs to help advance their careers, but then wound up in the nonprofit world.
When he started his MBA at Queens in 1998, Michael Giang was working as a controller at a plumbing and heating company in Charlotte. He fondly recalls working on case studies, a popular business-school learning method in which groups of students work together to devise solutions to real-life situations.
"It blends together all that you learn and gives you the ability to make things happen that you have not been able to do before," he says. "You learn quickly how to work with each other and decide on the best approach."
He started using that approach at work, then soon found a new job as chief financial officer with Holy Angels, an organization in Belmont, NC, that works with special-needs children and adults. Critical thinking and problem-solving came in handy as he soon started taking on the broader responsibilities of information technology, purchasing and fundraising. "In nonprofits, you wear a lot of hats," he says.
In recent decades, the emphases of both business schools and nonprofit organizations have shifted. In a way, they are drawing closer to each other: business schools are seeking closer community ties, while nonprofits are trying to become more businesslike.
After Enron and other financial scandals, and a deep recession, business schools are under renewed pressure to increase the emphasis on ethics and civic involvement. At the same time, in the last quarter century or so, boards of nonprofit organizations-which are typically composed of business leaders-have increasingly become interested in hiring executives who are comfortable not only implementing programs, but who are proficient in finance, human resources, management and quantitative measures of success.
Most nonprofits today rely less on informal decision making than they did in the past. Andy Calhoun, CEO of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, illustrates this point. He says that in the late 1970s, when the YMCA sought a site for a new south Charlotte branch, it leaned heavily on the instinct and experience of civic leader Jimmy Harris, whose family owned much of the SouthPark area and donated a prime parcel to the Y. The branch, on the corner of Quail Hollow and Sharon roads, is now known as the Harris YMCA and is used by about 25,000 members.
Today, planning for branches is typically more methodical. In exploring the possibility of a new branch in Union County, for example, the Y performed detailed market studies of three or four sites, examining factors such as location, visibility and potential costs.
"If you do not have an understanding of how to lead a nonprofit in a businesslike manner, you cannot succeed and you cannot thrive," says Calhoun, a 40-year veteran of the Y who earned his MBA from Queens in 1991. He credits his MBA with changing his "wiring and thinking" and with helping him move up more quickly in the organization. Today, the Y has 150,000 members, 35 locations and a budget of more than $75 million.
"With an MBA from Queens, you're not going to just use your instinct," he says. "You're going to use a pragmatic approach."
At the Levine Museum of the New South, chief executive Emily Zimmern drew on her McColl School MBA to help guide the museum through two tough economic times: the recent recession, and the previous one, after the 9-11 attacks.
As a history major who had worked in human resources, she sought an MBA to hone her financial skills and to develop as a leader. After becoming involved in many local civic organizations, she signed on with the museum in 1995, and just a few years later, those financial skills were put to the test.
The 2001 terrorist attacks presented a host of problems for the museum: charitable giving to the arts dried up, people became wary of holding holiday parties uptown, the stock market fell and potential visitors stayed away.
To Zimmern, the lesson was that nonprofits need strong financial management to survive such jolts.
"The MBA is so incredibly useful in so many ways, because in order to operate efficiently, it is critical to understand the finances," she says. "You can't serve the community responsibly without sound fiscal management."