IR Careers Political Science Careers

NGO Internships: How to Set Yourself Apart


When you are looking for your first internship at a non-governmental organization (NGO), it can be stressful to search for hours, send dozens of CVs and get no replies. Especially when fellow classmates seem to be getting coveted opportunities in international and national NGOs and you cannot quite figure out what distinguishes your skillset from everybody else. Still, do not despair – there are thousands of NGOs in the world and at least one of them must be looking for an intern with your profile. 

Here are some tips that can help you make the best first impression during your internship search and alleviate job search stress:

NGO workers keep busy – keep it short, goal-oriented and do not be afraid of reminders

Unless you are applying for a large organization with decent funding, there is probably no one in charge of human resources. At many NGOs, whoever checks the general email account will see your CV and maybe forward it to a superior. If it is a particularly busy week, your email might be forgotten. Especially if it’s long and messy and if it takes time to go through. Although it can be tempting to expand on your dreams and aspirations because NGO work can be so inspiring, remember that whoever is reading your cover letter is more interested in knowing how to transmit your skills and background to the rest of the team and how it connects to their ongoing work, so they can make a decision about whether or not to take you in. In short: be clear and succinct.

Also, do not be afraid to insist a few times before moving on – I’d say after two or three polite reminders, you can be sure you will not get a response, but one email alone might not be enough to get the attention of the NGO. If you feel your first email was not well-drafted, try to summarize (2-3 sentences!) your skills and background in your reminder emails. 

Conferences, seminars, and talks = Networking

Unlike other sectors where people usually have to pay exorbitant rates to attend professional conferences, NGO conferences are usually for practitioners and the public alike, to raise awareness of their work and the issues they care about. So, they are mostly all free. Most NGO projects require public events at some point or another, so there is no shortage of conferences, seminars, talks, campaign launches, etc. 

Once you are at such an event, it can still seem daunting to approach the speakers or organizers. But remember – it is always nice to hear a compliment and many speakers at NGO conferences are not necessarily comfortable or even trained to speak in public, so positive feedback and insightful observations are always welcome. When I started speaking in public, these kinds of short conversations after my presentations were helpful for me to understand what parts of my talk were more impactful; I remember almost all of them and connected with many outside of the event.

After these short conversations, you can always ask for a business card and then follow-up by email. 

Do not underestimate the power of social media

Many NGOs run social media campaigns. If you follow the ones which work on causes you care about, you can help amplify their work: tag them on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, and make sure to add your thoughts about the issue. Later on, you can ask through direct message whether they accept interns, mention how you have been following their work and really relate to it, and let them know once you have sent your CV.

Following organizations on social media also gives you a better idea of other similar NGOs out there. NGOs collaborate with one another to push for a new policy and to hold joint rallies and events. You’ll quickly learn which organizations are working on what issues right now, and can use this information to network at events and find projects to volunteer within the short term. 

Are you looking to break into the NGO space? Our Ilkmade Experts are here to help. From networking to application review and interview prep, we’ve got you covered. Book a free 15-minute consultation here to see how we can support you through the tough decisions.

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