In our WorkDev series, Maia Gedde, author of Working in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance: A Career Guide, is sharing some of the book’s most important lessons on working in aid. This is the second post in the series–don’t miss the first one, on her motivation for writing the book.
When people think of development and humanitarian work, big non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like CARE or Save the Children are often the first thing that comes to mind, followed by some of the large multilateral organisations, most notably the UN. But the range of potential employers you could work for is broad, encompassing governments, consultancy firms, foundations, universities, think tanks, social enterprises, private businesses and of course NGOs of all shapes and sizes.
When it comes to employers, it’s useful to think as broadly as possible to expand your options and find the most suitable match.
Do spend time on this, and look beyond the size and reputation of the organisation to explore how they work and what they value from employees. This will help you make sure you join an organisation and environment that allows you to thrive, rather than struggle to get your “dream job” only to find that you’re unhappy in it.
Finding the right employer for you requires research, exploration and thinking. Within your main area of expertise (e.g., project management, education, early childhood development, public health, etc.), a useful starting point is to develop a shortlist of potential employers–specific organisations (or types of organisations) you would like to work for.
To do this, here are some things you might want to think about:
1. What are your values?
All organisations have their own cultures and values, and you’ll be a better match to the organisation if these are in line with your own. Values can be particularly evident in faith-based organisations: Christian NGO Tearfund, for example, specifies that employees must be “Christian-centred.” But then, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development and Islamic Aid have no such requirements. Some organisations might be focused on building on the evidence base at a slower and steadier pace, while others prefer to react quickly to put out the fire in a crisis.
As one HR professional told me, “Know your Myers-Briggs type, and find an organisation that matches it.” For example, if you’re the type of person who likes reflection and order before action, you may not do well in the fast-paced and quick-to-react environments of some humanitarian organisations. If you like action, do well in problem solving and are entrepreneurial, you may find some larger organisations too bureaucratic and slow.
2. Do you want to work for a donor or an implementer?
Organisations can broadly be divided into these two categories, with the donors setting the priorities and funding the implementers. Are more interested in the big-picture work, attending large conferences and analysing the effectiveness of development strategies and policy advice? Approving contracts and working on and overseeing grants? Or do you prefer working on the ground with local communities? Note, though, that these lines are increasingly blurred, as larger international NGOs and consultancy firms act as middlemen, receiving funding from donors but then overseeing local NGOs or sub-contractors who implement the work, building their capacity in the process.
Donors typically include bilateral organisations (government agencies such as USAID, DfID and KOICA), some multilateral organisations (the World Bank and UN agencies), foundations (such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and in some cases, the private sector. Implementers include NGOs (both tiny organisations you’ve never heard of, and major household names like the Red Cross), development consultancy firms (like DAI and Abt Associates), think tanks (such as the Center for Global Development) and universities, as well as some multilateral aid agencies.
3. Do you prefer large or small organisations?
While larger organisations tend to be followed by a reputation and offer more structure and potential training opportunities, smaller organisations can offer more flexibility and enable you to work more independently across a broad area of work. Think about whether you thrive in an environment that offers more structure, or a more creative and flexible environment that enables you to take and explore opportunities.
4. Other questions to consider:
Do you want to work in your home country or abroad? A headquarters office or a field-based position? Do you want a job that requires frequent travel? Would you prefer an organisation that works only in one particular region or one particular sector?
It’s likely that you will develop and adapt your organisation shortlist at various stages of your career. But once you have a list, what next?
- Closely follow these organisations and the vacancies they advertise.
- Check the profile of people on their staff to see if you’re a close match and what skills/ expertise you may need to develop.
- Try to meet to discuss opportunities with any connections or contacts you have within these organisations.
The bottom line, though, when it comes to thinking about potential employers in development is to think beyond the best-known agencies and consider all the possibilities.
This post is adapted from Chapter 3 of Working in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance: A Career Guide. Stay tuned for future posts in Maia’s series. Up next: climbing the career ladder. Want more? Get 20% off Maia’s book using the code FLR40.
Featured image shows UNICEF staff (including Elhadj As Sy, now the Secretary General of the IFRC) during a visit to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Photo from Giro555.