I want to work for an international NGO, but how?
August 13, 2013 2:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm graduating from college this spring and I'm very interested in working with an international NGO. I know there are organizations monitoring elections, promoting democracy, installing networks and computers in villages, interviewing rebels and citizens… but how can I work for one? Ideally I'd like to travel a lot, or at least be based somewhere abroad (not the US).

I have lots of smaller questions, too. What sorts of skills should I start to work on now? Which NGOs are noteworthy, infamous, etc.? What personal experience do you have with this sort of work? I'll be graduating with a BA in geography—do I need to look into getting a Master's first?
posted by reductiondesign to Work & Money (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Seems like you might want to look into Foreign Service.

Have you thought about the Peace Corps? That's a good way to get your foot in the door for later gigs with USAID, MercyCorps, etc.

There are lots of other organizations that do smaller, "mission" type trips installing solar panels and such, or providing healthcare, but those tend to be professionals in those fields taking a bit of time off to travel to a place in need of their services.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:20 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're probably going to have to intern first unless you have a specific language or other skill.
Talk to your university career services office as well.
posted by k8t at 2:21 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

First, if you really want to be based abroad, doing actual field work: languages, languages, languages. Are there parts of the world where you're already fairly well traveled, or where you know you'd like to end up? Having at least the basic language skills that you'd need to work with people there will be preferable, if not required, for the kinds of "on the ground" work to which it sounds like you aspire.

The examples that you've listed here cover a wide range of activities that are addressed by NGOs with very different cultures. They also require very different skill sets. Based on your own interests, can you narrow this list down at all? Are you the kind of tech-savvy person who already troubleshoots problems for your family and friends? Are you concerned about other kinds of issues (medical, social, environmental)? Which ones? Has your geography program included any GIS training?

You seem to be going about this backwards, to me. The idea that there is some kind of basic skill set that will make you the kind of employee that an NGO wants to employ abroad... it's just not the case. I have many friends who are working or have worked with different NGOs abroad, and all of them came to those positions with at least minimal knowledge of a certain language (or languages), an interest in the issues facing a particular corner of the world, and skills or experiences that were relevant to a particular kind of work, whether that meant that they'd been collecting ecological data, or working for advocacy groups, or volunteering at rural primary care facilities here in the U.S.

Even if you decide to start with an internship, or to apply for the Peace Corps, it sounds like your first step will be to think about what you really want to do, and what you are currently prepared to do, given your field of study and any special skills that you might have. Opportunities with NGOs - like most everything else these days - are quite competitive, and you will likely be competing against people who have these kinds of experiences, a focused narrative about who they are and what they do, and an MPH or the like for any really plum positions.

You still have college resources at your disposal, though, so if you want to pursue this, think about where you'd like to end up and start acquiring the relevant skills and the volunteer or other experiences now. On the language front, depending on which language(s) you'll need, you might consider applying for a CLS scholarship to study one abroad next summer. Many CLS alum go on to do NGO or government work, or pursue master's degrees in relevant fields.
posted by Austenite at 2:55 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, I've worked for a couple of nonprofits that are more on the "promote democracy" side of things. (Our work is so far removed from 'installing computers in villages'-type work that it's barely even similar.) For international positions, or positions involving travel, these places have hired everyone from lawyers to translators to office managers to PhDs in research methods to, well, basically everything. I myself am in fundraising, which means I never get to travel even though my coworkers often do.

Honestly, this is basically like saying "I would like to work in an office. How can I do that?" It's really not that much less broad.

That said: if you have a BA in geography, I bet there are organizations doing various types of mapping in developing countries. Do you know GIS?
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:06 PM on August 13, 2013

As said above, it definitely would be helpful to have a clearer idea of what kind of work you want to do. For elections observations, volunteering with the UN would be ideal (if you could get it), but that doesn't mean they're the right pick for doing IT work.

Peace Corps is indeed one way to get your foot in the door. I went into Peace Corps as a teacher and by the time I was done had turned it into a job with MCC working on agriculture projects that I've now been doing for three years. I was really lucky with respect to a lot of factors, though. I also already had a Master's. Still, it is a good way to see how you feel about life in the developing world. It is not necessarily a great way to learn about how development in general works - it's really its own thing - but I wish all the same more people doing development had done a Peace Corps-like program.

I've heard great things about the CLS program that Austenite mentions. I've also heard the PMF is a good way to go for eventual development work abroad.

On Preview, ooh I love showbiz_liz's idea. I recently went to a talk by Gray Tappan who works on geographic imaging to study climate change and it was incredibly interesting. Go do that and then be my contact when I want to switch fields.
posted by solotoro at 3:16 PM on August 13, 2013

You need to be really more specific on what you would like to do: very generally, most jobs that exist in other countries also exist in the USA.

With that in mind, what makes you (or any other American) more attractive as a candidate in that local country is:

Have you studied abroad ? Have you spent any time abroad ? If you have not, then you'll have a big disadvantage (compared to other Americans). Look for opportunities to go abroad or at
With the competitive nature of entry-level NGO jobs, if you don't have experience abroad, you'll at least need to have experience with other cultures.

On the positive side, once you have a job abroad or work for an international NGO, you'll find out about a lot of jobs that are aren't advertised and only exist through word of mouth. .
posted by fizzix at 3:24 PM on August 13, 2013

Response by poster: I didn't really realize how broad I was, so here's a bit more info.

I'm conversational in Japanese and French (and just starting to learn Russian and Arabic), I studied abroad in Japan for a year, I'm very familiar with web development, programming, and networking, and I know GIS.
posted by reductiondesign at 3:28 PM on August 13, 2013

Speaking a language like French or Spanish is more of a given than a leg up in these very competitive fields. (And I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that Japanese is nice enough but something of a non-starter in the development field.) On the other hand, if you are interested enough in working in a specific region that you're comfortable specializing, knowing a less-commonly-taught language like Lao, Haitian Creole, or Wolof (just for example) could be a serious qualification in combination with other solid and relevant skills.
posted by threeants at 4:02 PM on August 13, 2013

Be careful where you go. In some countries these are a sham. The local ministries have their cohorts infiltered within NGOs. There is only an outward appearance of doing good.
posted by ladoo at 4:09 PM on August 13, 2013

I think Peace Corps is a great option for you - it doesn't require you to have a lot of specific skills when you begin, and it's something that gives you credibility for pretty much any NGO you might want to work for down the line. Getting field experience early in your career is absolutely critical in this line of work.
I don't think you should be worrying about grad school yet - most of the top grad programs in this field expect you to have several years of work experience under your belt already.
As showbiz_liz points out, it's hard to say what skills you need when there are so many different sub-fields in the international NGO world, and so many different job functions that need to be filled in any organization. But that said: nthing the above that languages are hugely useful - Japanese maybe less so, but French is good, and Russian and Arabic are definitely hot commodities. I work in democracy promotion and I feel like the majority of our job openings are looking for either a Russian or Arabic speaker. Other things that are basically always worth being good at are writing, statistics, and working with budgets.
posted by naoko at 4:59 PM on August 13, 2013

"Expat Aid Worker" here. I work on the government side but I know many people who work for NGOs, the UN, and other agencies abroad.

To get in you need some sort of technical knowledge or experience that is relevant to NGOs. Having French will be helpful but it will be your solid skills in field relevant to the operations of an NGO that get your foot in the door. The Peace Corps would be one good way to get that kind of experience.

Another way would be to get a masters degree in a field like public health, agriculture, civil engineering, or business. Law would also work. There are a ton of lawyers working in development. (Including me). Most of us are not doing jobs that require a law degree like democracy & governance and grants/contract management. (This is more of a roundabout way to get in, however, due to the time it takes to get the degree—three years vs. two for most masters degrees)

I'm not sure of the value of a masters in International Development. I don't know anybody who has that degree, at least not field based people. We do have some folks with IR degrees but most of them are Washington based. If you do decide to go this route, the University of London offers several relevant (& respected) masters degrees by distance learning. These degrees can be done anywhere in the world and they cost significantly less than a US masters program.

The MBA Enterprise Corps is another way to get development experience, especially if you are interested in working on the private sector development side. You have to be an MBA graduate of one of the member schools to get in, however.

I got my job because I had several years of credible (domestic) experience in procurement and grant management and a relevant graduate degree. I also had a few years experience living and working abroad. All NGOs get grants and contracts from government agencies and corporations so there are always jobs in this field on both the government and recipient sides.

TL;DR I recommend getting a degree and/or experience in a field that is relevant to the operation of an NGO, spending some time abroad, and learning at least one foreign language (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and Russian are the most valuable).

P.S. As mentioned upthread, there are some jobs in GIS, but we tend to hire temporary advisers for that sort of thing. I wouldn't recommend GIS as a route to full time NGO work. Also, anything IT related is usually done by local staff so that route probably won't work either.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 12:03 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I forgot to mention education as a potential field of study. One caution on that though, in my agency there are currently more education officers than positions in education so some have to take jobs in unrelated fields or go back to DC for a tour.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 12:20 AM on August 14, 2013

I would recommend reading Blood and Milk's archives and then considering paying for her career advice for NGO work.

Saying you want to work for an NGO is like saying you want to work in the arts - it's a very diverse industry. You have to narrow it down to a country/area, a cause or a particular skill that you want to specialize in. Wanting to work in anti-torture legislation advocacy with governments is completely different from working in grassroots community support for torture survivors, for example.

As an American, you're going to compete with locals (big cultural advantage, local language skills and funding is shifting towards organisations with local staff) and people driven by passion who will work cheaply, free or even pay to work at an organisation.

One of the best things you can do immediately is to start volunteering for related NGOs that you'd like to work at, even if you went into private sector work, that would help. I've hired people from non-related fields because their skills could be transferred and they had a clear interest for the work shown through their volunteering at other NGOs.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:58 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Many many [idealistic, young] people want a job with the qualities you describe. They are tough to get for this reason. It is a lot of work to get one of these jobs and a BA is generally not enough to be at the stage when you are based overseas and get to travel a lot. Find a volunteer gig for an organization you like and can add value to; use a charity evaluator to get some outside opinions on the quality of the organization you're looking at. You may want to move to DC which is where many orgs have a presence and/or their HQ. A good alternative to that could potentially be volunteering with refugee organizations.

Seconding the Blood and Milk recommendation as well as the trend of hiring nationals in-country.
posted by emkelley at 7:49 PM on August 14, 2013

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