International NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) are typically charities that are headquartered in one country but work in other countries. They usually pursue a specific mission that revolves around solving a (major world) issue- be it environmental, humanitarian, health or development related.
NGOs operate just like any other business, they have people working in accounting, management, fundraising and operations. The larger international development organizations, such as UNICEF, OXFAM and Save the Children, maintain whole departments for marketing, logistics, public relations, business development, human relations, product development, legal and more. Usually they have a headquarter where all the support functions are centralized, and a number of country offices where the specific projects that advance the NGO’s mission are implemented.
A career in an international NGO entails spending at least a few years in a developing country, perhaps far away from main cities and possibly spending extended periods of time in rough conditions. Work hours vary depending on the kind of projects and roles- they can be very long for operatives in emergency relief projects, or more relaxed shifts in HQ support functions. Salaries are usually lower than for equivalent roles in the private sector.
People choose to work for nonprofits because they like working for mission-based organizations, rather than profit-based organizations. They like to work towards a specific goal that somehow helps people or the environment. When working for international NGOs they also enjoy the excitement of having international assignments usually in developing countries, getting involved in hands-on projects “in the field”, where their impact is tangible.
Working for a (higher) purpose
International travel and exposure
Tangible impact (especially for emergency relief organizations)
Often an entry point for UN jobs
The personality of someone suited to work in an international NGO has the following character traits:
The Not for profit career path attracts people who are:
Strongly motivated by their ideals and want to have a positive impact on (major world) issues.
Excited at the prospect of working in foreign countries and frequently in challenging conditions.
Keen to work with a wide range of people.
Staff at international NGOs work to advance its mission. This is usually done through a sequence of projects for which donors provide funding.
There are 3 main staff groups: local staff (people coming from and working in the country where the project is implemented, usually with operative roles and some management roles), international staff (people working at HQ in office/ management roles, or in the field, in a country different from their own, usually as technical experts or in management roles), and volunteers (professionals devoting a year/ a few weeks/ a few hours per week to support the NGO, usually foreigners for projects based in developing countries, locals for projects based in western countries).
International staff focuses on three main areas of work: Fundraising, project planning, project execution.
Fundraisers liaise with large donors, and organize/run all fundraising activities.
Within project planning, program managers identify needs and liaise with donors and stakeholders to determine the most suitable solutions, and collect all required/relevant information to report results back to donors. This phase often entails writing long, detailed reports to fulfill donors’ funding requirements and it is often coordinated by program officers in HQ.
In the execution phase, project managers in the field organize and supervise the daily activities of the projects, usually involving a significant amount of logistics, procurement and distribution for emergency relief projects, and, for development projects, organizing and running a large amount of capacity building activities such as trainings, developing and testing new ways of working (e.g. for rural farmers).
Operative roles are usually covered by volunteers (usually international) and/ or local staff and entail delivering services to beneficiaries- e.g. trainings, food distributions, doctors’ visits, vaccinations, …
Desk job in HQ. Assigned to a region, provides remote support to the region. Paperwork for proposals/ donors reports, collects and coordinates contributions, checks formatting and content, admin support with payments, hiring consultants. In a short period if time you get to learn a lot about field work on projects
Responsible for preparing documentation (proposals, project reports, financial reports, Monitoring and evaluation reports) for final submission, HQ based
Technical expert on topics that are relevant to core projects of the organization- eg. Gender issues, conflict experts, business development (fundraising), support for admin chores such as report writing, hiring consultants. Field based.
Design project activities related to their area of expertise, supervise correct implementation and collection of relevant data. Write the technical aspects of reports/ proposals, support country office with fundraising.
Main interface for senior client roles: overall project management, present to client.
Team leader role, working on 2-3 projects at a time, rarely more, leading teams of consultants and associates, reporting to Partner, focusing on specific functions, businesses and/or industries, developing relationship with clients and sales skills
Supervise program design, implementation and fundraising, supervise the work of the country office support functions, liaise with donors & local government on operational aspects. The role is similar to a COO.
Responsible for all project operations in the country and for managing the country office
Coordinate and supervise regional activities, and country operations. Represent organization in the region.
Set strategy for the organization and oversee its execution. Represent the organization with donors, beneficiaries, media and other stakeholders. Manage the board.
Responsible for leading the organization
Salaries are below private sector’s market rates
Job insecurity is common- short term contracts tied to projects are the norm in many organizations
Limited options for reconversion to other careers in private sector
Might be difficult to return to Western countries after long stints in developing countries
To work in an international NGO you need to be excellent at cross cultural communications, to be very stuctured and organized, have a high level of accuracy, excellent writing skills, patience, tenacity, persuasion, and be able to lead by influencing.