How do you get a job in a development NGO (starting with one in my team)?

July 6, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

I’m prompted to post this partly because there’s a job coming up in my team at Oxfam. We’re looking for a research methods adviser to build the skills of our staff around the world who commission and/or conduct smart research to inform Oxfam’s programmes and advocacy. If you’re interested, read more here, and you need to get a move on – the deadline is this weekend.

Otherwise, promoting From Poverty to Power over the last year has involved a lot of talks to bright young things in universities, and in almost every Q&A, the question comes up ‘how do I get a job at an NGO?’ (or more alarmingly, ‘how do I get your job?’). Firstly it’s not easy right now, as the crisis in the UK has hit NGOs’ funding and jobs are more infrequent. The official answer is that people should have a look at our website, but here are some unofficial (and anglocentric – this is about Oxfam GB) tips.

First, decide what kind of work are you interested in. Programme work on the ground? Emergencies (conflict refugees, disaster reconstruction etc)? Advocacy and lobbying? Campaigning?

Next think what kinds of experience will help – experience often marks you out more than gaining another post graduate qualification, but you have to find some way to get over the inevitable first-rung problem of ‘how can I get experience when I haven’t got enough experience to land a job’ – it’s not easy, but it can be done.

For emergencies and programme work, try and get out there and get some experience in developing countries – it’s very hard to arrange that from this end, unless you have a particular network (eg a Church) that you can call on, so many people just try and sort something out on the spot. For campaigners, a record of activism at university or afterwards is always helpful.

For advocacy work, NGOs are often impressed by people who have worked in other sectors, especially the institutions we are keen to influence – governments north or south, multinational companies. Many of them are much larger than Oxfam, and have good graduate entry schemes – a further advantage if you’re trying to get your foot on the ladder. Many are highly competitive, but check out the schemes for DFID, the World Bank, or the Overseas Development Institute.

And remember that research, advocacy and campaigning jobs are often the most sought after and competitive. It may be advisable to try to get a foothold by applying for more ‘corporate’ areas such as marketing, HR and finance, and then start from there.

Finally, show your face. Putting in a spell as an intern may add to your student debt, but it enables you to make your mark and prove your commitment. It also enables you to apply for jobs that are only advertised internally, including short term jobs that help you get on the paid employment ladder. But be choosy who you intern for, and what jobs you accept – even if there is no pay involved, you are offering skills and time to an organization, and should demand things in return.

By way of illustration, our research team includes one ex ODI fellows, one ex UK government number cruncher, one ex intern and one recruit from an environmental thinktank. Plus one mystery appointment (me).

Good luck! (P.S. there are other ways to get a start, like driving a cab). See some more advice (on the UN) from the indefatigable Chris Blattman who also quizzed some MSF colleagues. And check out the Working World blog. Any other good links and ideas welcome.

July 6, 2009
Duncan Green