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Rewards and Challenges: Working for a Small NGO

For many human rights professionals, their careers start at a small non-profit organization. Others intentionally choose to stay local, striving to impact their own cities, protecting and increasing human rights in their local communities. Regardless of how you get there, if you work for a small human rights NGO, it can come with plenty of challenges and rewards. But your time at a small NGO can ultimately shape your career and your outlook on human rights work, so it’s important to understand what your experience there could look like.

Challenge: With limited staff, everyone has to play multiple roles.

A smaller staff means less room for delegation and specialization. While everyone has their designated role and job description, everyone also ends up pitching in when work gets busy. That means that some weeks, your time for your actual job can be taken up by tasks done for other coworkers. Most small NGOs have the bare bones minimum staff to run their organization, or they may only have one or two people in each department. Even with a small staff, they still have to run like a larger organization would in order to keep up with clients, services, and funding needs. In some cases, burnout can happen quickly, especially working with human rights issues. Time management is important to make sure that you get your own work done, even when you’re trying to fill in other gaps and help out coworkers.

Reward: You quickly gain experience and can usually volunteer for areas of work that you’re skilled at.

Limited staff can also have its advantages for career and skill development. On the other side of everyone contributing to multiple areas of a small NGO, you quickly gain skills and experience in a wide range of areas. This can help expand your expertise for future jobs and understand how the organization functions together as a whole. Additionally, if you have skills like writing, social media, fundraising, or event planning, smaller organizations typically need staff to volunteer to run those areas and help out. Volunteering for these areas can help you use skills you have outside of your normal job and gain experience doing a variety of tasks. This can really help you develop your career and contribute to specific areas you’re passionate about, while potentially gaining other interest areas in the process.

Challenge: Funding can be limited, which can be hard on staff and services.

Funding is one of the most challenging areas for small human rights organizations. Most local NGOs struggle to obtain grants and donors, especially because they typically don’t have as much capacity for fundraising and outreach. However, donations and funding are absolutely essential to continuing their operations. When funding is limited or low, organizations can struggle to find flexibility within their programs and services, and they may even struggle to keep a solid team of staff. Individual donors are also difficult to obtain, as they require outreach and fundraising on behalf of the organization and commitment to the cause on behalf of the donors. Losing funding or lacking enough funding can bring an organization’s programs to a halt.

Reward: Small organizations are likely candidates for smaller, local niche grants and funding.

Small human rights organizations that pay attention to grants can often be great candidates to receive funding for specific programs. Especially for grants offered at the state and local levels, investing into an organization that benefits the local community is appealing for funders. For small NGOs that can show that they know what they’re doing, have success with their existing programs, and can use the grant money effectively, they have a greater chance of gaining funding to continue their programs and even start new ones. Many funders will be more interested in funding local organizations that can directly impact the community, especially when they know those organizations depend on funding to run their programs.

Challenge: You won’t have as much room to move up in your career.

One of the major problems with staff retention at small organizations is that they usually don’t have many upper level positions to move into. Local NGOs can be a great place for professionals to start, but they often can’t offer many promotions or higher-level, better-paying jobs to their employees. Some people will choose to stay with the organization for lengths of time, but anyone who wants to advance their career will not be able to stay long. This problem leaves a lot of shifting in staff, abilities/skills, and expertise depending on the background and experience of the new employees coming in. Small organizations offer great entry-level opportunities, but they often don’t have many opportunities to advance your career within the organization.

Reward: Small organizations typically offer great, team-centered environments.

A major advantage of working for a small human rights NGO is that the office environment and culture is usually team-centered, giving you a great chance to learn from your coworkers and participate. For entry-level positions, this can be an especially good experience because you learn how to work as a team and fill in for coworkers, and it also creates a good work environment, giving you a better experience overall. In general, small organizations that are team-based give employees an opportunity to have more of a say in what happens, use their individual skills to contribute, and understand how the whole organization operates. Especially in the field of human rights, working as a team can help the organization reach their goals and strengthen their outreach and credibility within the community. The team-based environments that local NGOs offer is a huge advantage to working with one.

Challenge: Small organizations typically have less resources, such as technology, etc.

Similar to funding, another problem that small NGOs face is a lack of resources (often due to a lack of funding). Many are faced with using outdated technology, lacking sufficient office space, and paying out-of-pocket for various expenses for fundraising, office supplies, etc. The lack of technology and office space can especially impact how well the organization can function, limiting outreach and possibly even programs. For human rights organizations working directly with clients, limited office space can become a major problem, and a lack of technology and even office supplies can impact the effectiveness and reach of the programs and services offered.

Rewards: You have a lot more chances to take and show initiative for the organization.

A small human rights organization means that everybody needs to and gets to play a part in what’s happening. In general, you can present your ideas to the staff and be heard. If you see a need in the organization, you can take the initiative to present an opportunity or idea to fill that gap. These types of opportunities can help you gain skills in problem-solving, creativity, and communication. When a coworker sends out an email about needing help, take the opportunity if you can. Because local NGOs have small teams and somewhat limited resources, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to gain experience, and you can take the initiative to point out gaps and offer solutions when you see them.

Working for small, local human rights organizations can definitely present some challenges, especially with limited funding, limited resources, and limited opportunities to advance. But for as many challenges as you might face, the rewards can far outweigh them. Every challenge presents an opportunity to gain experience, learn skills, and take initiatives to improve how the organization runs. Small organizations can offer amazing entry-level jobs, and they can also offer great opportunities for human rights professionals who want to invest locally, in their own communities. For those considering their career options in human rights, applying to and looking into small human rights organizations could be a great experience and a good starting point to launch your career.

About the author

Allison Reefer

Allison Reefer is a young professional living in Pittsburgh, PA. She works with a refugee resettlement agency to help refugees and immigrants in the city, and she volunteers with a local shelter for human trafficking victims. She obtained her Master in International Development from the University of Pittsburgh and a BA in Writing from Geneva College, focusing most of her academic work on human trafficking and migration in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In her free time, she loves to write, read, sing and play bass guitar, practice Russian, and explore her city.