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. No one will hire you to do research or “lobbying.” You just got out of school, and you’re paper on “Regime Theory and the 2003 WTO Ministerial” won’t impress any NGO staffer. Too many graduates want to start immediately writing policy papers for GreenPeace or lobbying the Chinese ambassador for their labor practices. It ain’t gonna happen.
So in your inquiry letter, don’t say that’s what you want to do. Because people like me will place that letter in the round file.
2. 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…
3. 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.
4. 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 in New York who are worth knowing. The same goes for Geneva.
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.
Find out if there are a group of interns in your office or in your issue area who meet regularly. There might be a weekly lunch, or drink outings every Friday or other regular social gathering. If not, you might consider starting one.
The intern network is a great way to stay informed of any opportunities that might come down the pike.
5. 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 Chinese or Arabic, 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.
But if you want to ensure that you are never, ever unemployed in the UN NGO world you should learn how to bring in the Ben Franklins…
6. Learn how to Fundraise. 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 the fast food industry seem lucrative by comparison. The “successes” you achieve are often measured in changing the wording of a UN resolution from “recognizes” to “affirms.”
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. Happy hunting.
16 thoughts on “How to find a job at an NGO at the UN”
my name is atif nawaz and i m done master in economics i want to find a job in n.g.o, becoz i m very poor and i want to support my family.
sir i have worked with NGOs for past 6 months and it is about AIDS AWARENESS, i would like to do NGOs work in my hometown coz there is a lot of educated people but they dint get jobs due to less seat available in our home town.there is no company as well as factory and people out there are really hard working,
about out home town:
its highly resource place,plenty of electricity,water etc.
EAGERELY WAITING FOR REPLY
MY CONTACT NO-09990627347
sir my name is Qasim Ali and I m already worked with Unitited Nation Mission in Liberia for 1 year and I have 17 UN courses from unitorpoci from Liberia and Qual all. i want to job now again any NGOs or any UN set up or any org. I m volunteer for UN job any country in the word. I have 14 years computer nad accounts experince. i have two years civil job experice as management in a big company. in Liberia
OMG i finally find something i like to do then what do you know. Smarter people are everwhere, so my question is how do you get a job when people like a tif nawaz are everywhere.
this is a very useful and motivating guideline. I work in an NGO in Mumbai, India and looking forward to get one in the UN. Hope I can follow ur suggestions and achieve my goals.
I am unable to understand what a Type account is
I have a Master of Arts in Communication Management, but I’m beginning to question how relevant that is. I currently work at Amnesty doing community campaign and hope to transfer my experience and skills at the UNDP or UNIFEM in the Philippines to increase AIDS awareness, and the rights of sex workers. My aim isn’t to become the next Kofi, but I wonder how highly they rate experience over my lack of a Masters in public health or development, particularly as my career goal is, actually, ‘lobbying’ and ‘advocacy’.
iam nurse and i will like to work with peapol in somalia to give ol i can. i spaek english, somali, sawahili, danish, italian, and it is my dreme to help tha somali peapol
“Most of all, you need to write good.”
Apparently, not exceedingly well.
Glad you got the joke. Or not.
i m dr naveed, im seeing job as a volunteer in any country
This is great advice!
I’m looking at doing my Masters in International Relations and hope to get into a program of study either this year or next year. I come from a Human Resources background and am a little worried about not being able to translate my skills from the Human Resources field to the NGO field.
It’s good to know that written and oral communication is key – being the past President of a Toastmasters Club has helped my public speaking skills enormously. My issue is that I don’t have any experience with proposal writing etc. Do you have any suggestions on how to gain such experience?
sir i am a graduate in commerce and worked for two years as a accountant and presently working in the field of customer service in retail, but since a school i have a interest to work in social welfare, to be in the mid of people with different culture and mentality, to learn them. so since school i was with many local clubs and one international club Rotatory. it inspire me a lot and really enjoyed to be the part of it. but now i am in golf presently working in retail but would like to start in ingo in any field, can anyone help me please ???
i am a MBA qualified person and having 5 years exp in service industry, now i realy work for NGO , kindly send me the information regarding the carrier in NGO on my mail id.
Assalam-o-alikum hi my name is imran javed. i did Fsc(inter science) and I’m also doing B.com From AIOU. and as well as I’m doing Job in a school(WARSAK PUBLIC SCHOOL PESHAWAR) i really need a Job in N.G.O…. Because i want to become something… By doing this teaching job they are giving me less money. so i need more than that…….. My contact number is 92331-9056104