What It Takes to Work for an NGO

Tips and advice to help you land an NGO job.

by Juliette Wyss, January 4, 2018

Nowadays, more and more people want to use their careers to have a positive influence on the planet and society. Many people decide to take the path towards working for an NGO. Across the world, the number of internationally operating NGOs is around 40,000. The number of national NGOs in countries is even higher, with around 1-2 million NGOs in India and 277,000 NGOs in Russia alone.

At first, this doesn’t seem too difficult, knowing that there are more than just a bunch of NGOs and surely they need top talent. 

In reality, things look a little different. So how to make yourself stand out from the crowd and ensure that your application appeals to an NGO? 

  1. Know what you want and where you want to be
  2. Don't be afraid to be different
  3. Develop cultural understanding
  4. Cultivate relevant work experience and diverse skills
  5. Grow your network and volunteer
  6. Embrace challenges and stay flexible 
What It Takes to Work for an NGO  

Landing a job at an NGO can be a very competitive process. First of all, you need to keep in mind that even a non-governmental organization works more or less like every other organization. They have departments that each require different skills and tasks, therefore they need diverse profiles in order to fill a wide-range of postions. The first step is to define what kind of work you want to do and what type of NGO you want to work for. 

  • Knowing What You Want

The most important thing when applying to an NGO is knowing what you are looking for. What specific part of the world do you want to make better? It is nearly impossible to survive in a world with so many NGOs with only the phrase “I want to change the world”. So try to figure out what is most important to you and focus on the organisations that actually work for that cause. 

  • Being Different

You have to stand out from the crowd. We don’t mean you have to be a superstar or a professional juggler, but have a skill that could be beneficial for the organisation. In this sector, language skills are particularly important. You’re more likely to get the job when you speak more than just English or German and can therefore open up new networks through your language skills. Also, when working in an NGO that focusses on a specific region they will probably require the language of that region, like Arabic for an NGO working in the middle east.

NGOs value self-starters. Success in an NGO requires the ability to hit the ground running. NGO’s are often understaffed but expectations, and the workload, remain high. Traits such as commitment and drive are highly welcome.

  • Cultural Understanding

Most NGOs focus on an area that has a complete different lifestyle than you might be used to. To be able to make the work you’re doing effective in those countries, you must have understood their way of living and adapted your projects to that way of living. There’s no sense behind establishing a project in India where people need to slaughter cows, as this goes totally against their culture. Therefore, you need to be able to take into account their way of living and also accept it. This can be emotionally challenging - make sure you’re prepared, and willing, 

  • Work Experience

Yeah, sure, you were expecting this one. It’s not that much about work experience in the sector actually, but about having worked as an intern or a volunteer and having seen a part of an NGO, having an idea of what it actually means to work for an NGO and therefore knowing that this is really what you want. Many NGOs also want to make sure that you already know a lot about the work they are performing and what better way to know that than to actually have worked on the spot.

  • Networking

More than in any other sector, creating your network in the NGO sector is super important. It is also rather easy, as NGOs tend to be constantly in contact with other organisations that work for the same cause, so it’s fairly easy to interact with other people from other organisations and build up your personal network. Obviously, a good network may also save you from being again one of those thousand applicants and offers you the possibility to send your CV directly to the man or woman in charge. Moreover, it can open up amazing collaboration possibilities that might just make your project a real life changer.

Volunteering could be a good way to gain experience working in a specific field or cause, while also building relationships with the people and organisations active in the sector. Not to mention, this is a perfect way to “test run” whether a cause or mission is right for you. If you realize it’s not quite for you after all, you still have free room to pivot. 

  • Embracing Challenges

When working for a good cause, you should definitely not take the job with the expectation of easily changing the world. If it were easy, we would have already done it.

The life of a world changer is full of daily challenges and unsolved problems that have actually caused the situation you want to change. Thus you have to be ready to stay committed (in when the going gets rough) and, in the best case, like a good old challenge from time to time. Or always. 

It’s not a check list, but it’s something like that. It’s not a guarantee either, but it might just get you one step closer to changing the world.

Originally published August 10, 2016