What I’ve Learned Applying to International Development/Humanitarian Aid Jobs

(First, sorry for the boring title of this post. I was traveling overnight and my creative juices seem to have lapsed.)

I often get a lot of requests from people (both those I know and those I don’t) asking for advice on how to find a job with an NGO* abroad in the field of international development or humanitarian aid. I actually really enjoy talking to people about this, for several reasons: 1) I know it’s hard, because I’ve done it myself five times now, and I genuinely want to help someone else make it through the process; 2) I hate seeing people get discouraged and give up on this type of work because no one will give them a chance early on; 3) I’d like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two about applying to these kinds of jobs,** and in turn might have something useful to say.

So, after recently completing (yet) another round of applications and recruitment processes, I thought I’d compile various lessons that I’ve learned and observations that I’ve made about applying to NGO jobs abroad (mainly in the Middle East). For those of you questioning my credentials on this, well, that makes two of us. I by no means claim to have figured out the secret code to how to get a job in the NGO world, and I should re-emphasize that the below is based almost entirely on my personal experience, which, by definition, may differ from person to person. So if you have anything to add or if there’s anything you disagree with or have experienced differently, I’d love to hear about it (and I’m sure others would as well). Along the same lines, I encourage you, dear reader, to be critical about what I say below and make your own judgments about what makes sense and what may be mostly baloney.

In no particular order:

  1. Be prepared to dig in for the long haul, especially if you are trying to change specializations or step up into a more senior role. My most recent round of applying lasted six months, and involved 46 applications, 9 skype interviews, 3 in-person interviews, and 5 written tests. Also be aware of how long recruitment processes can take: NGOs may expedite the recruitment for positions in emergency contexts or for roles that are otherwise urgent, but it can easily be three or four months between the time you submit an application and the time you would begin the role.

  1. Get someone to read your cover letter; in fact, get several people to read your cover letter. This is especially true if you’ve previously been working in a different line of work and are looking to transition to the NGO world, or if it’s been awhile since you’ve revised your cover letter and applied for jobs. Don’t get frustrated when that someone(s) tear apart your cover letter – they’re only trying to help, and their suggestions probably have some basis in logic.

  1. If you have a Skype interview, always be prepared for the people on the other end to ask you to turn your video on. I was caught off guard by this a few months ago, when I had just finished exercising and was still in my workout clothes. I never heard back about that job, and while I have no idea if my wardrobe made a difference, it very well might have. Also, don’t expect to be given advance warning that the interview will include video.

  1. For the first time during this round of applications, I had two organizations get in touch initially via phone call, instead of email, and in one case, the number came up as “unknown.” My point is to answer your phone if there’s even a small chance that it’s an org you’ve recently applied to. This may seem pretty basic, but I know a lot of people who don’t answer their phone unless it’s from a number they recognize. Sure, HR*** might send you an email if you don’t answer your phone, but it’s always a good idea to come across as easy to work with from the start (if a candidate is hard to get in touch with when applying to a job, why would HR think they’d be any easier to get in touch with as an employee?).

  1. Along the same lines, never play hard to get. This includes but is certainly not limited to waiting days before answering emails, or asking to change the time/day of a written test/interview after it’s been set. Also, don’t blame the internet connection unless that’s actually the reason you’ve been unresponsive, in which case you should warn HR in advance, or as soon as you can. Most places in the world are sufficiently well-connected nowadays that it’s quite rare for one to legitimately be without email access for more than 24 hours, and most HR staff know that.

  1. Do some research about what a reasonable salary expectation is for the job you’re applying to before giving this information to the potential employer. I’ve seen a few cases where a candidate isn’t considered solely because their salary expectations are too high. On the other hand, you don’t want to sell yourself short by low-balling the salary expectations.

  1. One piece of advice that I’ve been given is to think of interviews as more of a mutual conversation than a one-way interrogation – the employer is trying to figure out if you’re a good fit for them, but you also want to know if the job and the employer are a good fit for you. I think this makes a lot of sense, but I also think this is more relevant for mid-level or senior-level positions, and less so for entry-level positions, where one is less likely to have the good fortune of being given multiple job offers to choose from (and thus less likely to be in a position to be able to consider how good of a fit the job may be, rather than just taking it because it’s the only option on the table). Also, some interviews just aren’t structured in a way to allow for a more “conversation” feel.

  1. You can tell a lot about an org by the way they handle the recruitment process, and especially interviews. Are you given clear guidance about next steps in the process? Are they on time for the interview? Do they give you enough time to ask questions? What kind of skills or qualities do they ask about? All of these things can say a lot about the type of org it is, and how you’d be treated as an employee. Again, unless you’re lucky enough to have more than one job offer, you probably won’t turn down a position just because the recruitment process was frustrating, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind for more senior positions.

  1. I’m sure you’ve been told that the best way to get an entry-level job in an NGO (and anywhere else, for that matter) is to network. I’d say this is probably true. However, for those of you who, like me, may be allergic to networking (I happen to be an introvert and find it rather uncomfortable to have those kinds of self-promoting conversations, but I’m working on it), don’t despair. Yes, networking helps, but it’s not the only way. For example, for three of my five jobs, and for eight of the 11 orgs/companies with whom I interviewed this time around, I didn’t have any connections, and just blindly sent in my application. Also, networking may help you get a foot in the door, but at some point, you’ll still be judged on your own credentials. This also happened to me a few months ago: a friend who works in HR for an org where I was applying recommended me to the HR staff managing the recruitment, but in the end I was told flat out by the latter HR staff that I didn’t have enough experience for the position, and they didn’t even bother interviewing me.

  1. If you have in-person interviews, bring something to take notes with, and water, if you want it. Don’t assume they will provide these things (they should offer you water, but you never know). During one in-person interview I had recently, they asked a question that required doing some math – and I was glad I had brought my own pad of paper. I know it seems simple, but these small things can say a lot about the type of person you are, and if the HR person on the other end of things is good, they should pick up on that (for better or worse).

  1. Similarly, your overall behavior and communication throughout the recruitment process can make a big difference. As mentioned above, always answer emails in a timely manner, spell and grammar check your emails (and of course cover letters and CVs), make sure you give them all the information they ask for the first time around, and make sure you include all the required information in the initial application (references and a writing sample can be easily forgotten). I’ve been on the other end of the recruitment process a few times, and did in fact exclude a few candidates based on these sorts of things.

  1. If you haven’t heard anything back from an org, don’t call or email; this will likely only bother them. If they haven’t contacted you in a month (yes, I usually give it a month before crossing a job off my list, so to speak), they probably proceeded with other candidates. If you’re already in a recruitment process and haven’t heard anything in awhile (at least a week), it’s probably okay to follow-up with an email, but don’t pester them. No HR process ever went faster because a candidate asked for it to. Also, no HR process ever goes as quickly as the employer wants, and frequently it also doesn’t go as quickly as they tell you it will. Also keep in mind time differences, different weekend days, and public holidays.

  1. Cast your net very, very widely, and don’t apply only to jobs that are a perfect (or even “good”) fit. You never know what’s going through the minds of HR on the other side. Example 1: Two years ago I applied to a Project Manager position in Amman, and ended up with a Jr. Project Development Officer job in Kabul (this usually don’t happen). Example 2: My previous job was initially advertised as an internship position with a stipend; however, they decided to hire me with a full salary (this also usually doesn’t happen). Example 3: I recently had an interview for a position that I hadn’t applied to – similar to example 1, I had applied to another position with the same organization, though in this case (for various reasons) I actually think HR screwed up and put my CV in the wrong pile and interviewed me by mistake (again, this usually doesn’t/shouldn’t happen). While none of these examples “usually” happen, I’ve found that “usual” isn’t a thing when it comes to NGO jobs. You never know what’s going on behind the scenes at an NGO, so it never hurts to apply. In addition, it’s very possible that the advertised job description isn’t accurate, or the organization is different from what you think, which are just more reasons to consider and apply to a lot of different options.

  1. Regarding the stated requirements in job descriptions, feel free to take a lot of these with a grain of salt, especially language requirements (unless it’s clear that the job requires regular interaction with people who only speak that language, e.g. a Case Worker in a refugee camp in Kurdistan; or, unless the job is in a country where French or Spanish is a main language, as these are spoken commonly enough that orgs will likely get a lot of applications from people with fluency in those languages), and educational requirements (unless they say PhD, which means they probably want a certain level of technical and/or research experience). Remember, the job advertisement describes the idealcandidate that the org wants. But who ever gets exactly what they want? Certainly not NGOs hiring for urgent positions in conflict zones with high turnover! One time, I was sitting in on an interview process, and the hiring manager said something along the lines of “Well, I don’t really like this candidate at all, but we don’t have anyone else, and I really need to fill this position.” They hired the candidate. Of course, you want to be a good fit, but sometimes “right place right time” will work well enough (especially for entry level positions). The longer you’re in this line of work, the more nuanced understanding you’ll develop about what job requirements can be ignored. For example, a vacancy for Education Project Manager with Save the Children in Amman will probably attract some pretty well-qualified candidates, and if you don’t meet most of the requirements it probably isn’t worth applying. On the other hand, if the same position is advertised with a no-name NGO in a random and/or very dangerous location, you may have a better shot even if you only partially meet half of the requirements.

  1. For those of you who haven’t yet worked in the NGO sector, please believe me when I say that it may be a harder job market than you realize. NGO workers do a lot more than hand out blankets and packages of food all day; this is a professional field and jobs often require technical knowledge. If you’re trying to find an entry-level job, it may be more productive to apply to vacancies in (at the time of this writing) Iraq/Syria/Yemen/Bangladesh/Afghanistan/DRC, than vacancies in Amman/Beirut/Istanbul/Nairobi. In the former group of places, it may be easier to get a job because it can be harder to hire for conflict/natural disaster zones due to poorer living conditions, higher turnover, and more urgency to fill positions. Also, if you’re having trouble getting a job with an NGO, I’d suggest applying to a few private companies doing similar work and see what happens. Based on my recent but limited experience, for-profit companies were more willing to give me a shot at positions for which I wasn’t perfectly qualified for, whereas NGOs really wanted to see very similar and relevant experience already on my CV.

  1. Nationality requirements and/or the lack of residency/work permit can in fact be a reason why you don’t get a job, and why you don’t even get an interview. (Then again, you never know! See point 12). In my general experience, if a job advertisement explicitly says “Open to X nationals only” and you do not have that X nationality, it’s probably not worth applying. The reasons for this are not just simply that the employer prefers one nationality over the other – it usually has to do what’s been budgeted for (expats can be more expensive because they often need/expect housing, a work permit, international flights, and a higher salary), which is probably not easy to change, and what the donor will allow. This may also have to do with the specific tasks and/or skill set required for the position, including knowledge of language, culture, and ability to blend in (expats may attract more attention in some communities, which can be a security concern in certain places, such as Afghanistan). You might think that if an employer finds a really good candidate who is the “wrong” nationality, they would make it work, but more often than not I’d say that doesn’t happen. In one recent instance, an HR officer called me and said I was a very good fit for the position and they really liked my cover letter, but when she asked about my nationality and I said I was American, she promptly said the position was only open to Jordanians, and that was that. For another related discussion on why expats are often not a good fit for some NGO positions, see point 15 on my previous post.

  1. Don’t get discouraged! Sometimes months go by with little response from employers, and then suddenly your luck flips (this was my experience over the past six months). That’s just how it goes sometimes. Be patient, keep applying, and remember that your success applying to jobs is entirely unrelated to your value as a human being. I’ve been down that rabbit hole myself many times before, and as tempting as it may be to wallow in self-pity at the time, it’s not a useful (or healthy) place to be mentally or emotionally.

  1. Lastly, a few months ago I came across this resourcefor applying for jobs in the international development realm, and found it to be not only quite spot-on in terms of reflecting my own experience, but also very comprehensive. I’d also recommend signing up for emails – the author sends out additional guidance every few weeks, and it’s actually very useful (e.g. instead of just telling people to network, she gives you sample emails of what to write). The author also seems very open to providing one-on-one advice to job-seekers, and while I haven’t reached out myself, my bet is that she’s an excellent resource.

* Throughout, I use the term NGO to refer to entities working in the field of international development and/or humanitarian aid, which in many cases are non-profit organizations, but some of this also likely applies to for-profit companies doing similar work (I was recently involved in recruitment processes for two for-profit consultancy firms, so this post reflects my experience with that as well).

** For those of you whom I don’t know personally, and by way of briefly summarizing my experience on this topic of applying to NGO jobs, over the past three years I’ve had four jobs in the realm of international development/humanitarian aid, with four different organizations in three countries, and I’ll be starting job number five with employer number five in a few weeks.

*** I use the term “HR” (Human Resources) to refer generally to the staff managing recruitment processes; in reality, these people may not actually be HR staff, but all the above should still apply (though it may be interesting to ask in your interview why they don’t have HR).

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