Starting in the non-profit sector: Am I doing the right things at the right time?
August 7, 2009 12:16 PM   Subscribe

NGOfilter: I think I've discovered my vocation - the question is, how do I go about achieving it? Lots of background, questions from clueless young person and more.

Long background:

After attending a UWC in Norway and having an amazing, mind-blowing, life-changing (etc. etc.) two years, I then went to the UK to study biology. In hindsight, going straight to a highly-specialised course might not've been a smart decision, and for the past year I've been rethinking my future as a lab drone and (after working in a research lab this summer) I'm pretty certain scientific research / academia is not the career for me. Instead, I hope to go into human-rights or development-related international NGOs, because I sustain a strong interest in current affairs and HR-related issues despite the science major (I'm involved in the UNA and current affairs socs), and a job working with people from other countries, advocating & being in the field appeals to me.

I'm on track to receive a degree in the biosciences but it's not what these places are looking for - frankly a bit dispiriting when all of the intern/job openings require a 'social science, econ or related' degree! Unfortunately switching courses is not an option. I researched a bit and it seems that the best way to make inroads in this whole NGO business is to volunteer. So I've decided to do so at this (vaguely related to my subject) NGO during term time next year, and hopefully learn the ropes as well as get to know people. I plan to apply for an unpaid internship (there seem to be no paid ones...) next summer in a HR monitor, perhaps in London.

I've tried to form some coherent questions from the confused and clueless ramblings above:

1) My volunteering and networking plans for next year - the right idea, or totally off?
2) How to best go about finding an iNGO internship in the UK / London or elsewhere? Are there any organisations that you recommend or which would take an unexperienced, unrelated but enthusiastic student in? Resume tips?
3) Are the job prospects in the non-profit sector poor in general? Do I have to resign myself to meagre earnings / job-hunting for many years after graduation?
4) How much would multiple languages help? I'm willing to put extra work into my spanish (was conversational, but I've been neglecting it) if it increases my chances - I also speak chinese and english (doh).
5) Sometimes an "advanced degree" is required - eg in the UN - what would be a good subject to get a postgrad degree in? I've flirted with the idea of law school in the US, but the high tuition makes it nigh impossible unless I get significant loan / scholarship help, and even then the debt might be debilitating. (Additional problem: I'm not a US citizen; Australian.) How useful would a JD be in international HR work? This question suggests not very...

Any help with the questions, other advice and info you can offer (or maybe calls to calm down / have a reality check?) would be very much appreciated :)
posted by monocot to Work & Money (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It would probably be a good idea to decide exactly why type of NGO you're looking for. If you enjoy biology, you might want to look into things like Doctors without Borders (whether or not you want to get your MD). A search for "biology" on turns up a lot of hits. You shouldn't feel like your schoolwork now will have no relation to non-profit jobs you might find-- in fact, it would probably be a good thing on your resume. Idealist might actually be a good place to turn for a job search, especially if you contact agencies directly (they often don't publicize jobs online).

Non-profits are not job-poor (although American ones, at least, are flooded with applications from the thousands of recent college grads whose plan A was put on hold by the recession, so securing a spot can be quite competitive). Pay is not great, though, so don't count on high salaries.

I would recommend, if at all possible, that you find some sort of job (even an administrative one) in an NGO you admire before deciding what to study for any advanced degree.

Knowing Chinese and English sounds like it'd be a great thing for an international NGO, for a lot of reasons. Spanish is always useful when you want to work in the world at large, so it wouldn't be a bad idea to brush up on it.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:58 PM on August 7, 2009

*"what type," sorry
posted by oinopaponton at 1:04 PM on August 7, 2009

This isn't what you asked, but have you thought about approaching this from an ecological angle? Biology to ecology is a lot closer than biology to economics. For instance, this documentary is about the world's "digital dumping ground" in Ghana and its horrendous effects on people and the planet. Other ecological and humanitarian issues are how native Amazonian tribes are losing their food and way of life due to global warming, and the environmental and humanitarian costs of China's industrialization.
posted by oceano at 4:20 PM on August 7, 2009

Best answer: I'm recently out of college and have been working at a well-known global health organization for the past 1 1/2 years (started as an intern). It's been rewarding but extremely frustrating as well. Based on my experience, I would STRONGLY recommend that you start in the private sector to build up your skills (including data analysis and self-presentation). The public sector does not have the funding & resources to train you, or even really invest in you/your career development. The public sector is also brimming with people who are passionate but incompetent, inefficient and ineffective. You won't be learning from them, and will feel stymied when you realize they hold back the success of X organization you work for. Meanwhile, a lot of talent goes to waste because it is not utilized properly.

If you can bring to the table a set of skills that are woefully scarce in the NGO world (and often these are the skills that ex-consultants and finance people have acquired on the job), people will respect you much more, and even defer to you. You can work on real projects and drive them forward instead of slaving away on menial tasks as an office monkey.

BTW - Almost everyone I know who has gotten a postgraduate degree in "international development" or a similar major regrets it. It is not terribly useful when you're out in the field. i.e. it is a bullshit degree.
posted by amillionbillion at 5:49 PM on August 7, 2009 [5 favorites]

Regarding earnings, in my opinion the best way to see NGO jobs is as a status symbol. Many people would work on saving the world if they could afford it, and those who can put in years of basically unpaid work put pressure on the salaries.
posted by dhoe at 11:44 PM on August 7, 2009

Best answer: I have somehow managed to find myself with an iNGO doing development work, which is something I dreamed about at school but never actively worked towards. I absolutely love what I do, so I can only encourage you to go for it! What got me here:

- Connections - I was offered this job because of people who knew me and my past work. I used to hate the thing about 'it's who you know' but it really is true. It was the only way anyone would know that my lateral experience would be of use.
- Project management, research and writing skills - Basically those three skills are what I use all day. amillionbillion makes a good point - PM for example, is somewhat rare in my field so it's an asset for me.
- Flexibility - I moved across the world to work with this organisation for a while last year, without my husband. It was a job I knew I could not get in my home country. I was willing to go the extra mile (literally) to work with them.
- Multiple languages - absolutely yes! My employer works in 7 languages and I only speak one of them fluently. I am actively working on improving my French right now.
- Advanced degrees - I have two masters, one research based, one coursework. The topic wasn't so important, but the research skills are essential. I am considering a PhD, which is required in some roles (eg policy). Get the additional degrees once you start working, you don't need them straight out of school.

I don't get professional development per se in my job, but I've always read, attended courses, additional degrees on my own time and money. While entry level jobs pay poorly, more senior managerial jobs pay a respectable income (I came from government anyway). You won't make corporate incomes, but you will be fine. UK pays much better than the US in this sector. EU even better. Check the Wednesday Guardian which has a section on social/dev type jobs.

You say you're Australian? Check out AusAID youth ambassadors.

Good luck!
posted by wingless_angel at 1:32 AM on August 8, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for taking the time to answer - you brought up stuff I hadn't thought or known about before, and all the answers are really helpful. I've marked the ones with new information for further reference.

Thanks again!
posted by monocot at 1:42 AM on August 11, 2009

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