Many young graduates interested in human rights, humanitarian action or international development initially think that all of these fields are composed of either the UN, international organizations or non-governmental organizations. However, there are actually a lot more actors involved, from social enterprises to consulting firms, government bodies, and more. Working for an NGO will be different from working for any of these other entities and it is important to keep that mind when choosing your career path.
Breaking into the NGO world is very competitive. But there are things that you should know (and can start doing now!) to help you successfully enter this arena. I’ve highlighted 3 key elements to know about the field here:
If you want to work for an NGO, you have to be versatile. NGOs usually have limited resources, so even if you are the Communications Officer, you might find yourself doing a lot of administrative and clerical work just because, well, there are limited resources to hire every position full time. Some knowledge of project management principles, event planning, communications, technology, etc., will always be valuable because you may find yourself having to rely on those skills to, for example, organize and promote a seminar. From personal experience, it is very rare to find NGO workers who are only responsible for a specific kind of work. Usually, we all have to share tasks to keep things going.
There are hundreds of thousands of NGOs all over the world. Some of them have very broad missions, but most work on particular issues. Knowing that you want to work for “human rights” is not enough – you have to decide which issues matter to you the most. Is it holding perpetrators of torture and inhumane treatment accountable? Is it fighting for the freedom of the press? Eradicating poverty? There are a handful of important NGOs working specifically on each one of these issues knowing about their work and how they differ from each other is critical. Understanding the kind of influence they have on international human rights bodies and the history of developments and key references about a particular issue (Conventions, UN Resolutions, Action Plans, etc.) will help you stand out from young applicants who cannot accurately distinguish the work of Doctors Without Borders from Doctors of the World.
It is also important to decide whether your goal is to work on a global, regional, national or local level. Maybe you feel drawn to a global organization, but then you discover – as I did – that in your country or region they are not quite as influential as other organizations that are actually doing all the lobbying and work on the ground.
A lot of NGO positions are never advertised. NGOs usually have small teams and an extended network of contacts in the field, so once there is a job opening, many prefer not to advertise it and instead rely on their contacts to find the right person. This means you, as a young graduate, need to become a part of their network.
There are a few ways to accomplish this. The easiest one is probably volunteering, which allows you to have a trusted and long-term relationship with the NGO. You can reach out to professionals you admire and sincerely ask for their advice or even mentorship – however, you have to make sure you can distinguish a Campaigns Officer from a Policy Officer and evaluate your skillset and education to see which position, and therefore mentor, is right for you.
Attending niche conferences, interacting on social media and having excuses for contacts (e.g. writing an article for your student magazine about the NGO or interviewing them for an assignment) are all strategies you can use, to familiarize yourself with the NGO landscape.
Working for NGOs is a rewarding and exciting experience. Although it is tough to break in, once you do, it’s completely worth it!
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.