Working in development is an attractive option for people around the world. The sector has grown significantly over the past two decades as organisations have become larger, more sophisticated and increasingly professionalised. Working for an NGO provides an opportunity to make a difference, support others in need and create positive change in communities the world over.
How to actually secure a job with an NGO is a question that is frequently asked by people considering breaking into the industry. Do I need a degree? Do I need to speak different languages? Do I need to volunteer first? What experience do I need? The truth is that there is no single route of entry into the sector with people from a diverse range of backgrounds, employment history and experience finding employment in not-for-profit organisations.
NGOs operate just like any other business, they have people working in accounting, management, fundraising and operations. Whilst the larger international development organisations, such as UNICEF, OXFAM and Save the Children, maintain whole departments for marketing, logistics, public relations, business development, human relations, product development, legal and more.
There are tens of thousands of opportunities advertised in NGOs every year, but the first thing you need to do is decide exactly what it is you want to do. What do you want to achieve? What drives you? What change do you want to see in the world? Take time to understand what motivates you and what will give you job satisfaction.
This will help you to significantly narrow down the type of work you want to do and what types of organisations you want to work for. Whether you want to work with refugees, animals, children, disabled people, victims of war, the elderly or any other cause that you can think of, there will be an NGO providing solutions and opportunities.
Securing a job in an NGO is competitive and just like any other it is your personal qualities, skills, knowledge and experience that will determine whether you can get your foot on that first step of the ladder. Invest in yourself and develop skills that are valuable to the role you want to do and the organisation you want to work for.
Look for jobs you might be interested and note what skills or experience they are looking for. You can look at entry level jobs to get an understanding of the basic requirements but look too at more senior positions to establish an appreciation of what experience and qualities you may need in the future.
For work in the field on in emergencies there is really no substitute for getting out there in any way that they can. If you can get even basic support work experience in an NGO in a developing country your prospects for securing a job in similar work will be significantly increased. If you’re unable to travel and want to gain experience in your own country you should investigate if you can volunteer within an organisation that supports projects in the developing world. You will still be able to learn a great amount and develop knowledge that will set you apart from your rivals.
Invest in your future by developing professional skills that are relevant and in demand for the role and organisation you want to work for. Some of the most valuable skills that can enhance your NGO career prospects are outlined below:
Speak another language: Depending on your role and choice of organisation, developing additional language skills could be a significant advantage when applying for jobs at an International NGO. The ability to speak and understand other languages is especially valued, and sometimes demanded, in some development organisations. Knowledge of foreign languages will enable you to communicate with different client groups, government officials, media and personnel that will allow you to work far more effectively.
Being able to speak a second language is not always critical depending on your role and organisation. For example, if you plan as working in accounting within a domestic NGO it may not be especially beneficial at all. But if you want to work for an NGO in the Middle East you are likely going to need at least a good understanding of Arabic. Whilst development organisations that work with grassroots communities often seek individuals to work in the field who are able to converse in indigenous dialects.
Cultural Understanding: Language skills alone would be insufficient for someone keen to take on a career working directly with beneficiaries in an NGO, especially in a foreign country. For this type of career, or any where you are working with different groups of people, it is vital that professionals are able to demonstrate that they are adaptable, able to manage difficult situations and capable of effective conflict resolution. NGO professionals in the field need to be sensitive and able to adapt to different cultural demands and expectations that demand changes in their behaviour.
Respect for other cultures and ways of life are expected by almost every NGO but these skills are critical for certain types of development work including emergency relief, rural development, women’s empowerment and others. For some people these qualities come fairly naturally, for others they are a skill that can be developed with the right training, knowledge and experience.
Work experience: Not only does a work experience arrangement provide you with valuable experience that can help you land a job in development, it can also provide valuable insight into what type of work you would like to do within an NGO. Some larger NGOs offer internship opportunities that often pay some costs and enable you to learn the ropes from the inside, work alongside experienced professionals and align yourself with a reputable organisation. You can find internship opportunities on most NGOs websites otherwise you can always make contact with them by phone or email to discuss how you might be able to support them.
Volunteering: By far the most common method of gaining suitable experience for work in an NGO is simply by volunteering for one. Even just a few hours a week can make a big impact on you over a short term, helping you to understand your skills and enhance your CV. Volunteers contributes millions of hours a week in work in every country in the world. Many NGOs simply couldn’t survive without the dedicated time and support of a network of volunteers that enable NGOs to do certain work for less and therefore enable more money to be spent on their development work.
NGOs are always looking for volunteers eager to learn and who are committed to their work. Many NGO professionals have gotten their first experience and taste for working within an NGO by volunteering. Most organisation’s will be able to offer you a choice of different roles and opportunities meaning it is important that you select the opportunity that is going to benefit you the most and is closely related to your future career.