NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are organizations that work on social and/or political issues like poverty, humanitarian aid, and human rights advocacy. They often work closely with governments and institutions (like the United Nations) and may even accept some funds from them, but the vast majority of NGOs are non-profit, independent organizations. Today, there are likely millions of NGOs of various sizes operating today. Why should you consider working for an NGO? Here are fifteen reasons:
#1. There are many types of NGOs to choose from
Name any social or political issue facing the world and you’ll find several NGOs working in that area. You’ll likely have at least a few choices about where to apply no matter what issue you’re most passionate about. You’ll also have choices about what kind of workplace you prefer. Do you like a smaller, tighter-knit office? Or are you looking for something bigger with a lot of room for promotion? You can find NGOs of all sizes. Factors like your level of education, your past work experience, and where you live affect your options, but the NGO world is rich with opportunities.
#2. NGOs offer a variety of career paths
You can find NGOs in just about every social or political area, allowing potential employees to work in fields like medicine, development, human rights law, and more. Within individual NGOs, there are many job options, as well. According to Sriram V’s blog post on the Harvard Business Review, the roles at an NGO can be divided into “on-the-ground implementation roles” (like field officer and trainer) and “enabler roles” (like researcher and fundraiser). No matter where your skills and interests lie, you are likely to find a role within an NGO that fits.
#3. Working at NGOs lets you develop a lot of skills
When you get hired at an NGO, it’s not unusual to move around within the organization, especially if the NGO is small and needs employees to fill more than one role. When you’re early in your career and not yet focused on a specialization, you get the flexibility to develop new skills, try different roles, and build on your strengths. Many NGOs also provide training and educational opportunities, so you should be sure to take advantage of those when they come your way.
#4. Working at NGOs can give you travel opportunities
There are many NGO jobs where travel is necessary. Medical professionals, emergency response managers, field directors, consultants, and more often travel frequently both nationally and internationally. You will likely need specific language skills to travel internationally, but there are still opportunities for conferences and other work-related trips even if you only speak one language. Working at an NGO can also open up opportunities for living in a different country.
#5. Working at an NGO can help you build great networks
It’s no secret that strong networks are part of a successful career. When you network within your field, you’ll meet a huge variety of interesting people from all over the world. You’ll hear about interesting job or project opportunities and have people happy to connect you with work. There will still be competition (not all of it healthy), but NGO work tends to attract people more interested in improving society than stepping on others to advance their careers. This helps you build a network committed to helping one another and helping the world.
#6. Working at an NGO may make you eligible for student loan forgiveness
Countries like the United States offer student loan forgiveness programs for eligible candidates. If you work at an NGO, you may be included in that group. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is a popular option. Under this program, if you’ve been employed full-time through a qualified 501(c)(3) organization for 10 years and made a total of 120 monthly payments, you may qualify. You must also have loans through the Federal Direct Loan Program. Best of all, forgiveness is tax-exempt. This isn’t the only program of its kind, so if you have a lot of loans and aren’t sure if NGO work is right for you, remember that an NGO job may help you get out of debt.
#7. NGO work looks good on your resume
You should only go into NGO work if you believe in the mission and are committed, but an added benefit is that NGO work looks good on your resume. It gives hiring managers an idea of what you’re passionate about, the variety of skills you built, and your worldview. Any work for an NGO looks good if you’re continuing to apply for jobs in the NGO sector, but even if you leave that world, your experience at an NGO may give you an advantage over other applicants.
#8. Many NGOs can offer good pay
People don’t go to work at NGOs to get rich, but many NGOs offer salaries equivalent to work in the private sector. The best paying jobs can be found higher up in an organization, like NGO directors who make an average of $71,991 in the United States. Factors like seniority, responsibilities, your past job experience, the NGO’s size, and where you live all affect pay.
#9. Many NGOs can offer good benefits
In a 2019 article on The Balance, Joanne Fritz examined a report on the best nonprofits to work for and compiled what made these organizations popular with their employees. She found that while many nonprofits can’t pay as much as private organizations, the best ones offer benefits like dental plans, tuition reimbursement, life insurance, flexible scheduling, good vacation time, and bonuses. If the NGO jobs you’re considering don’t pay as much as you would like, check out their benefits and see if they’re making up for it that way.
#10. Working at an NGO can help you get into post-graduate programs
If you want to advance in the NGO world, you will likely need more than a bachelor’s degree. If you get a degree in human rights, development, humanitarian aid, or a similar field, you can often continue to graduate school. However, if you’ve ended up in the NGO sector without a relevant degree, you’ll find many post-grad programs asking for relevant work experience in place of a relevant degree. Sometimes, degree programs want both a relevant degree and a few years of work experience. Many programs are designed for working professionals, so you can continue at your job while you complete a program.
#11. Meaningfulness is important to on-the-job happiness
According to a 2019 CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness poll, 35% of workers ranked “meaningfulness” as the top contributor to their on-the-job happiness. That puts it above salary, which 20% said was the most important. Other research supports this, such as a study that found more than 9 out of 10 employees were willing to give up a percentage of their lifetime earnings in exchange for greater meaning at their jobs. What makes a job “meaningful” likely varies from person to person, but work that improves society, protects human rights, and helps the most vulnerable is undoubtedly meaningful for most people.
#12. NGO work saves lives
If you want to make a difference in the world, working at an NGO is one of the most effective ways to do that. Many NGOs focus on life-saving humanitarian aid like medical care, food, clean water, shelter, and more. Let’s look at the International Rescue Committee as an example. In 2021, the NGO and its partners reached over 31.5 million people. IRC supported 3,607 health facilities, treated 155,528 children under 5 for severe malnutrition, built (or rehabilitated) water supplies for 2,700,629 people, and much more. If your passion is saving lives, an NGO like IRC is a great place to work.
13. To fix the system’s flaws, NGOs need motivated, innovative people
NGOs have a positive impact on the world, but there are serious problems. It’s not unusual to hear stories about systemic discrimination, abuse, financial misconduct, and more. Even the most revered NGOs are not immune. Despite this, trust in NGOs remains strong. According to the 2022 Edleman Trust Barometer, trust in NGOs rose in 16 of 27 surveyed countries, though it fell in the Netherlands, the US, Germany, and South Korea. Overall, NGOs are still more trusted than the government and media, but less trusted than business. Want to change that and raise the public’s trust in NGOs? Consider working for one and advocating for progress.
14. By working for an NGO, you can help hold the powerful accountable
There’s a lot of injustice in the world. It can feel like the wealthiest people and the most powerful institutions in the world get away with anything. If you’ve ever felt powerless, consider working for an NGO that tracks, monitors, and exposes injustices and abuse. The Center for Countering Digital Hate is a great example. Based in London, the NGO tackles online hate and dis/misinformation with the help of academics and practitioners in fields like political science, behavioral psychology, and law. Its work exposes how powerful entities like social media platforms enable and reward hateful or harmful behavior like the spread of misogyny and antisemitism.
15. You can help protect the rights of the most marginalized groups in society
At its core, all NGO work is about the protection and promotion of human rights, especially the rights of those most endangered by discrimination, poverty, climate change, and more. Whether you’re working at an NGO focused on deploying humanitarian aid, establishing sustainable development programs, or tracking extremism, you are part of a system striving to make the world better and safer for the most marginalized people. That makes the world better for everyone.