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Learning That Changes Lives: Local Leader Shares Journey to Nonprofit Success

Photo of Erin McKenney, a white woman with long brown hair wearing a black dress, overlaid with an orange background and the words: Learning that changes lives: Erin's Story
Nonprofit Leadership Center

Empowering. Collaborative. Transformative. These are the first words that come to mind for Erin McKenney, Esq., when she thinks about the Certificate in Nonprofit Management graduate program at the University of Tampa. Now the capital campaign director at the University of Tampa where she spent 18 months earning this prestigious certificate, you might add the word ‘remarkable’ to Erin’s list when you understand her story.

It’s Never Too Late to Make a Change (or Be the Change)

“I took a very untraditional path to get into the nonprofit sector,” Erin says.

After studying finance in college and then receiving her law degree from Florida State University, Erin practiced law for 13 years — first as in-house counsel for a multi-family housing company, then in private practice at a law firm, and finally as a prosecutor at the state attorney’s office. Through each varied experience, there was something Erin simply couldn’t ignore.

“I continued to see need in our community for business professionals who were willing to dedicate their careers to the nonprofit sector. While I was practicing law, I volunteered in many different capacities and served on several nonprofit boards. I felt like I was being called into the nonprofit sector.”

Erin says she did a lot of soul searching to determine whether she wanted to continue serving her nonprofit passion through volunteer and board involvement or pursue a complete career transition.

Erin took some time off from practicing law to travel. She went to Uganda where she lived and worked with an NGO on strategic planning and board governance. She also worked with a theology school in Poland for several months. 

But would this experience translate to a nonprofit career?

“Two mentors at the Nonprofit Leadership Center recommended the Certificate in Nonprofit Management,” Erin recalls. “I decided to go all-in.”

A Life-Changing Learning Experience

The Certificate in Nonprofit Management at the University of Tampa immerses current and aspiring nonprofit leaders in an 18-month educational experience that many graduates describe as life-changing. Working on real-world nonprofit challenges and networking alongside their peers and subject matter experts, students increase their nonprofit sector knowledge and leave prepared to strengthen organizations and their communities.

Erin describes the program as a business track for nonprofits.

“The program consists of four semesters, with one week spent in person at the University of Tampa each semester learning about a different topic within the nonprofit industry,” Erin explains. “You are in class five days — from Wednesday through Friday, then you have the weekend off, and then you’re back on Monday and Tuesday.”

The four focus areas in the Certificate in Nonprofit Management include:

  • Thinking Strategically: Creating and communicating a powerful mission, effective board governance and the strategic planning process
  • Marketing, Research & Communication: How to conduct market research with a customer focus, audience segmentation and targeting, organizational positioning and promotions
  • Accounting & Financial Management: Fundamentals of accounting, financial performance, analyzing costs and internal controls, budget development
  • Leadership and Innovation: Personal leadership evaluation and implementation planning

Erin says she learned the most from the marketing course.

“So many of us came into that week thinking it was about emails and social media content. But we walked away understanding the behavioral science behind marketing. Research, strategic planning and market segmentation all go into marketing. It’s such an integral part of a nonprofit’s success.”

While she learned the most in marketing, her favorite semester focus was the first on strategic planning. “It empowered us to think outside the box and avoid getting siloed into our own organization or job so we could really take into account the external and environmental factors and how they impact the ability to achieve your mission.”

But perhaps what Erin gained the most from her coursework was courage and confidence.

“I learned not to be afraid of concepts that would have typically been foreign to me, like marketing, and am now willing to jump in and tackle things that may have previously felt uncomfortable,” Erin shares. “Now, I know how to get the resources, how to make the connections and how to learn. That was a big win for me through this program.”

Real Lessons for the Real World

In addition to the classroom learning led by University of Tampa professors and practicing subject matter experts, every student in the Certificate in Nonprofit Management program is assigned to a nonprofit project during the first week to work on throughout the entire program.

“I was assigned to Starting Right Now for my project,” Erin says, “which is an organization that exists to solve generational poverty by ending homelessness for students. Throughout the program, my group and I worked to build a business plan for the nonprofit, including everything from the marketing plan to the budget.”

The program culminates with students presenting their nonprofit business plan to local leaders and experts.

Erin believes the collaborative nature of the program and working in groups like one would in the real world is what stood out to her most. “We had 20 individuals in our cohort — that’s 20 people we could learn from and develop relationships within the nonprofit sector.”

Know Before You Apply

For nonprofit professionals interested in C-suite-level leadership and pursuing their Certificate in Nonprofit Management at the University of Tampa, Erin advises to make sure you’re going in understanding the expectations on your time and having the support and understanding of your current organization to take on the work required.

“One of the reasons I was able to succeed in the program is because my employer was very supportive of me,” Erin says. “During the four in-person weeks, you’re in class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and not available for meetings, calls or email. I was able to put on my out-of-office message and focus on school during those weeks.”

Lifelong Learners are Leaders for Life

Erin credits much of what she learned from the Certificate in Nonprofit Management program to helping her create and implement her first development and stewardship plan. She was able to lead an integrated team that surpassed their stretch revenue goal for the campaign. “The management skills I learned are a huge part of what made that possible,” Erin says.

“If you look at some of the different job descriptions out there for advanced nonprofit positions, most of them require the skills learned in this program,” Erin says. “If you don’t have a background in finance, marketing or strategic planning, and if your job doesn’t necessarily expose you to that, then those are skills you can’t gain through experience. UT’s nonprofit management program is probably the most efficient way to gain those skills to take that information and really advance your career. The return on investment you receive is immediate, but it will continue for years to come.”

Earn Your Certificate in Nonprofit Management

Interested in pursuing a graduate-level nonprofit management program? Learn more about our Certificate in Nonprofit Management at the University of Tampa, and explore upcoming info sessions.

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The Certificate in Nonprofit Management at the University of Tampa is a graduate-level educational opportunity to enhance the knowledge and skills of current and emerging nonprofit executives. This high-quality academic program is taught by Ph.D. faculty in partnership with leading nonprofit practitioners. The courses are delivered as four intensive one-week seminars over 15 months, representing 12 credit hours of graduate-level instruction.

Start your certificate today!

The Certificate in Nonprofit Management at the University of Tampa is a graduate-level educational opportunity to enhance the knowledge and skills of current and emerging nonprofit executives. This high-quality academic program is taught by Ph.D. faculty in partnership with leading nonprofit practitioners. The courses are delivered as four intensive one-week seminars over 15 months, representing 12 credit hours of graduate-level instruction.

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