Studying for an MBA in the charity sector

Clare Tarling, business development manager at Dorset Advocacy, writes about her experience of undertaking a Business Administration MBA and shares some advice on how to cope with academic work while working.

I had a lightbulb moment after working in small, local charities for 15 years. Charities are businesses. Businesses are collections of people who get things done. So, a qualification in Business Administration made perfect sense, to learn more about how organisations are, well … organised.

I approached the first five-day “residential school” for my Open University MBA studies with trepidation. I suspected that the other students would be high-flyers, wearing sharp suits and brimming with jargon. I thought I would be quickly out of my depth and would have absolutely nothing in common with my corporate peers. Thankfully, I was completely wrong about all of this, and my initial reason for enrolling in the MBA was correct. Whether you work for yourself, for a charity or for a multinational corporation, there are many common themes around marketing, finance, innovation and the psychology of organisational life. The MBA covered all of these things and so much more.

There are parallels with my first degree; Engineering. If something is not functioning correctly in an organisation, as with a machine, you need an understanding of how all the component parts interact before you can take steps to fix it. Is it a cultural problem? What is culture anyway, and how do you investigate it? Is it to do with governance, power relationships or structure? What if the service is underused? Is the marketing up to scratch, or does the strategy need an overhaul? Business knowledge gives you the tools to think through these questions in a methodical and evidence-based way. Of course, organisations are messy and unpredictable places, and this is why both the “art” and the “science” of management must work in harmony. 

The Open University MBA is a workplace-based, online, vocational course, providing ample opportunity to analyse your own work situation and take practical steps to improve it. Assignments encourage you to learn, apply and pull apart some fascinating academic models and frameworks; using your new-found knowledge in a critical and measured way. Through connections made during the Entrepreneurship course I have also started my own business and now run this alongside my work role; a very welcome and unexpected development!

I’d like to share some thoughts for anyone who works in a charity and is considering the MBA:

  1. Charities are not-for-profit businesses; don’t let the “Business Administration” title put you off.
  2. MBAs are broad. If you want to specialise, eg. in data, systems, marketing or HR, then consider choosing a more focused course instead.
  3. “Corporate Finance” is much more useful and accessible than it sounds!
  4. Make sure you have time in your week to do it justice. Throughout my 3 years of study, I worked Monday-Thursday and studied every Friday without fail
  5. The support of both your employer and your family is essential.
  6. The OU MBA is Triple-Accredited, giving employers an internationally recognised assurance of quality and academic rigour.
  7. The course is online learning but you attend three residential schools, and there are lots of face-to-face tutorials, and the opportunity to participate in online forums, so you really do feel part of a vibrant student community.

Any academic pursuit is a huge commitment, particularly when you are also working. If you can afford it (both financially and in terms of the time you will need) and want a broad overview of how to run a successful organisation, then absolutely go for it! 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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