I’ve been working in the United Nations NGO (non-governmental organization) universe for more than ten years. Over that time I have run into many, many eager young people wanting to find a way to break into the NGO business. Many of them have come to me after fruitless searches for any available openings in their chosen field, wanting some nibble of advice on where to look.
Here’s a quick summary of what I tell them:
1. Be willing to start at the bottom. And when I say bottom, I mean answering the phone and filing.
Lots of NGOs don’t have the finances to support a receptionist or a clerk. So they rely on volunteers
and interns and program assistants to do these tasks.
Doing the “scut work” helps accomplish a number of things for you. Answering the phone and the general email can help you learn about the NGO’s network and stay abreast of what’s the latest news. You learn how to answer basic questions about the organization and how to represent them to various constituencies.
Filing is important work. No seriously. Filing helps you to learn about the work of the organization, what their main program areas are. As you are filing, you can read up on subjects that are interesting to you. Ask to borrow reports and books and read up on them at home.
I guarantee that no one else in the organization has the time to read up on all the material they receive on a daily basis. You can make yourself fairly quickly the most informed person in the organization on a particular subject just by doing the background reading, researching online, and attending a few meetings.
Which leads me to my next point…
2. Attend a lot of Meetings. Much of what happens at the UN involves a seemingly constant stream of meetings. Offer to attend meetings for your NGO, perhaps indicating your preferences. But don’t be surprised if they send you to meetings that seem like the last thing you’d be interested in. Go anyway. You might think you know what your interests are, but you might find out that rainforest preservation or indigenous people’s rights are really fascinating areas of public policy.
Most of the time you will just be sitting there taking notes at the meeting, whether its a UN briefing, an NGO strategy session or a major world conference. Most meetings follow a standard panel discussion followed by open Q&A format. If you can think of an intelligent, cogent question, by all means ask it.
In the end, for your own selfish reasons, the main reason to go to these meetings is to, well, meet people. To network.
3. Network. The United Nations and NGO worlds are not that big. If you specialize in biotechnology or child soldiers as they relate to the UN, there are maybe 20-30 key players who are worth knowing. The same goes for any program/project.
Your goal is not to become the best friend of any of those people. Your goal is to become the best friend of those people’s assistants and interns.
The dirty little secret at the UN (and at the NGOs that work there) is that much of its grunt work is accomplished through the unpaid labor of its sizable intern population. This constantly shifting group of volunteers, fellows, “junior program officers” and interns do everything from make the photocopies to write up the daily reports that get faxed back to capitals around the world.
The network is a great way to stay informed of any opportunities that might come down the pike.
4. Diversify Your Skill Set. If you are at the beginning of what you hope will be a long career working in the NGO world, you need to think about what skills you might need in the long run to get the ideal job that you want in the future.
Learn how to write a press release. Teach yourself HTML and CSS. Become a database master. Practice public speaking. Become proficient in at least one other UN language (ideally French, or Chinese since these are in high demand, but any of them will do.)
Most of all, you need to write good. Most of what you will be doing will involve conveying complex issues to a variety of audiences. That means that you need to be able to write a newsletter article or a briefing paper with no spelling errors, perfect grammar, and the proper tone for the kind of piece you are drafting.
5. Learn how to Fund raise. All but the most well-established NGOs live from year-to-year under the constant pressure of raising funds to support the work that they are doing.
Even the largest, wealthiest NGOs might have very little support for their UN office. Amnesty International USA has 174 paid staff. The UN office of Amnesty International is staffed by three people.
So if you can write a grant proposal, coordinate a direct mail fundraising appeal, organize a benefit dinner or put together an e-donate site, you will never lack for want of work in the NGO world. And if you ever hope to start your own NGO, one of the first things you will have to figure out is how to raise the financial support to begin operations.
Hopefully these bits of advice have been encouraging. I don’t want to fool you though, this is not an easy field to work in. The jobs in the UN NGO world are few and far between. The salaries some NGOs offer might make some industry seem lucrative by comparison.
But at the end of the day, if you play your cards right and are willing to work your little butt off, you might find yourself gainfully employed at an NGO. There certainly is a lot more work to be done than there are qualified and skilled people to do it.
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