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How Can I Start a Career in an NGO?

Most young professionals enter a NGO career through studying a degree, volunteering or joining an internship program. Networking often plays an important role as well. Here are five steps that will increase your chances to start a career in an NGO:

#1 Get a master’s degree

Do you really need a degree to start a career in an NGO? The short answer is: yes. Most NGO jobs require a master’s degree in a relevant subject. Some NGO job descriptions outline that they accept a bachelor’s degree with several years working experience in lieu. However, most NGO careers are highly competitive and several hundred applications per job are not unusual for larger organizations. With this fierce competition and automated systems ranking the applications in some instances, it can be difficult to reach the recruiters if you don’t entirely fulfill or exceed the requirements. Without a master’s degree, it might also be more difficult for you to advance in your career later. Mid-career and senior-level positions very frequently require a master’s degree. While your marks really don’t matter to most employers, one very important task during your studies is to make friends. A good network of supporters can significantly increase your chances of success later in life.

  • If you are a young professional: Study a master’s degree
  • If you are a mid-career professional with several years of experience: Consider a part-time master program or a short master’s program

#2 Complete relevant trainings

Many international organizations and NGOs offer trainings that are relevant to start a career in an NGO. The easiest way is to take an online course in a relevant subject area such as Human Rights, Health or Social Justice. Trainings and online courses will equip you with the relevant terminology and a basic understanding of how NGOs work and what they do. This will help you during your job applications and interviews. Beyond that, online courses, workshops and trainings can help you explore and discover your own interests. It’s essential for a purpose-driven career, that you actually care about the cause. Other options to complete relevant trainings include taking part in events, workshops or summer/winter academies.

  • Take part in online courses to improve your skills and knowledge
  • Take part in events, workshops and summer/winter academies

#3 Get a paid internship

Ironically, many internships in the NGO sector are still unpaid. But if you aim for a proper career in the NGO sector or don’t have the financial means to work for free, unpaid internships aren’t an option. It also won’t impress any recruiters if you did one unpaid internship after the other. Therefore, we have listed a variety of organizations offering paid internships on our website to save you time exploring your options. To get the best out of your internship, be humble, supportive and openly communicate to others about what your career goals are. You want them to think of you and let you know, when an opportunity comes up. Support your working colleagues and contribute to solving challenges and issues they face. This way you build trust with them and they will advocate for you when new jobs are available. Don’t be afraid to take on responsibility. You are here to learn and its okay to make mistakes. If you can put in some extra hours to learn faster, explore innovative ideas and excel in your tasks, do it. One thing organizations hope to gain from paid interns is indeed fresh ideas and new (outside) perspectives.

  • If you are an early career professional: Apply for paid internships
  • If you are a mid-career professional: Apply for paid internships or consider slightly more advanced options such as traineeships and fellowships
  • If you are a senior-level professional: You might want to skip this step and instead aim to develop transferable skills in your current job that you can later put emphasis on when you apply for NGO jobs.

#4 Tailor your application materials

With hundreds of people applying for one NGO job, your application materials need to be excellent. Spelling mistakes are a reason to be screened out quickly. Beyond that, you need to tailor each application to the job you are applying for. Clearly outline how you meet the requirements. Demonstrate how you were able to perform the required tasks in the past. The recruiters will more likely consider you, if they can see that you can easily grow into the role from your previous internships or experience. Most importantly, spend time exploring the organization’s website, mission, language, goals, mandate, structure, team, programmes and language. Using the same terminology as the organization will literary convey that “you speak the same language”.

It can also be useful to break down your application materials in different content elements that you can re-use and adjust for future applications. You can use the different elements to highlight skills or experiences that are particularly relevant for the job you apply for. Developing excellent application materials is normally a long-term task. Don’t hesitate to contact your friends, family, colleagues, fellow students or previous lecturer to ask for input.

NGO recruiters rarely have much time. They often aren’t only recruiting but have dozens of other tasks such as conducting trainings, managing the well-being of staff, organizing events and more. Scanning applications might be a small percentage of their daily work. For this reasons, recruiters normally don’t read the entire application at first and only skim-read the application initially to reduce the number of candidates they have to choose from. A good structure is paramount to leave a good first impression and increase your chances to get shortlisted. Also avoid any extraordinary visual features. Recruiters prefer simple, plain formats that are immediately clear.

#5 Apply for NGO jobs

All NGOs have in common that they work for social change and the community. There are many websites where you can search for NGO jobs. The largest NGO job boards are reliefweb and idealist. However, you might also want to consider niche job boards such as Human Rights Careers or AidBoard. Below is a more extensive list of job boards that could be useful for you.

We have published more articles that can help you launch your NGO Career. Check them out below:

About the author

Human Rights Careers

Human Rights Careers (HRC) provides information about online courses, jobs, paid internships, masters degrees, scholarships and other opportunities in the human rights sector and related areas.