How to get a job with an NGO

Lately, I seem to be getting a lot of questions from people about how they can get a job with an NGO. Or how I got my job(s) with an NGO. I therefore decided to write it all down in a blog post.

So, how to get a job with an NGO?

Well, to start with, perhaps a good background would come in handy. But what constitutes a good background? I always thought law would be perfect, especially human rights law. And while this is very helpful in understanding rights and justice, it is not as relevant when you are working abroad. Law and legal systems are still mainly connected to one particular jurisdiction. This is the Netherlands in my case. My legal degree provides me a good basis for legal work in the Netherlands, but if I would want to work in another country, I would have to complete another degree in order to do legal work in that country. Therefore, while strictly speaking I am a human rights lawyer, my work in other countries often involved other aspects of work: programme/project management, policy analysis, research, advocacy.
I would actually say that there are plenty of degrees that would be relevant for work in a human rights NGO, for example communications, IT or social work. It all depends on the type of NGO. So if you already know what kind of NGO you would love to work for, I suggest you check out their vacancy websites to see what kind of profile they are asking for.

Then comes your experience. As a student, I worked as an assistant at the research centres for human rights or other legal research. I believe this helped already. And before getting my first real job, I have done my fair share of internships: at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and NGOs in different countries. The problem with internships is that they are still largely unpaid. But how to survive when you have no income? I don’t come from a rich background, my parents couldn’t afford to help me out here – nor did I want them to. I couldn’t find a paid internship in the Netherlands, so I started looking abroad. Good resources are http://www.idealist.org and Dutch-based http://www.oneworld.nl, http://www.fondsen.org and http://www.goededoelennederland.nl. Here, you can browse internships and jobs and sign up for vacancy newsletters. It took me forever to get a first positive response to all my applications, but you could be luckier. Just keep trying and apply to vacancies that match with your profile. And stay true to yourself – if the job doesn’t suit you but you want it anyways and therefore adapt yourself or your profile to match it, you may find out soon that the job doesn’t suit you for a reason and you don’t want it after all. That would be a waste of time for both parties.

Connections. Often people get jobs through connections, or so it seems. Is that true? I don’t know. My first internship with the Ministry happened because my professor recommended me. My first job was sent to me via a friend I went to university with. It was for a human rights NGO in India. After a phone interview, I was hired. However, I never managed to get the work visa from the Indian Embassy since they followed a different procedure due to my Chinese ethnicity (not my Dutch nationality) and I never got the visa. As a social justice person, I tried to fight this, but against an Embassy with immunity and since it was such a ‘small’ case that the Dutch government also didn’t want to get involved in this, there was nothing I could do but to look further.
But other than these two situations, all internships and jobs I got were because I applied through vacancies or proactive writing. Luck and timing is another factor and there is no control over this. When I left my job at EDC, I had nothing else lined up. I was therefore at a crossroads. I had saved up a little money, so I had some flexibility on what to do. But what was next? Become a dive master in Indonesia? Volunteer with Friends-International in Cambodia? Travel to Burma/Myanmar and spend some time there? I had sent various communications out and let ‘fate’ decide what would be next. My first response was from Friends-International, I could come volunteer with them. I later found out that the dive centre in Indonesia had written me earlier, but their email had ended up in my spam filter. Life could have been a bit different if I had gone on that path, who knows? Anyways, I went to Cambodia and I soon discovered they had more work to be done. I said I could do it all, but I could not work for free for longer than three months. And then, they offered me a job. It was fantastic. And five months into this job, the UN called. I had applied to them before I went to Cambodia and my first thought when I got their offer was “But… I don’t want to leave Cambodia…” and then I told myself not to be silly and embrace what I had always worked towards. The UN was my dream organisation to work for, after all, and I had been working towards getting a job at the UN for ten years. You can read about how all of that went in my earlier blog posts. Anyways, I’m drifting. What I want to say is that not all jobs depend on the connections you have. It may of course help when you are recommended by someone. However, it’s not everything and some of my best experiences happened because I liked an organisation and wrote them proactively asking them if they need anyone with my experience. Like anything with life, it has to be a match and that depends on who they are, who you are, timing and luck. And luck, luck is something really tricky. I know of people who have the perfect background and experience and still don’t manage to get a job they want. And it’s not like they ‘only’ searched for a year… You need to have perseverence to get what you want, but sometimes even that doesn’t help.

And honestly, the non-profit sector is not the greatest sector to be working for in terms of job security. They’re non-profit, meaning there is not always a lot of funding. Most work is project-based, meaning they hire staff on temporary contracts. The turnover at most NGOs is extremely high. This may help to get a job, but to keep a job is another story. It all depends on your priorities and for some, this is not a problem in order to do something valuable. For others, the job insecurity drives them mad and they decide to work for another sector instead. It’s all up to you, what you want and what you find most important.

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I hope this blog helped answer some questions you may have. If you have more questions or questions, feel free to comment below or send me a message.

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