8 Common Humanitarian Job Search Errors

Tuesday, May 16, 2017
by Humanitarian Institute


The humanitarian job search, for newbies and experienced personnel, can be a long and frustrating process.

If your search feels like a sequel to The Never-Ending Story, then it’s time to reflect on your efforts and make sure you’re not guilty of these eight common global development job search mistakes.


1. You Employ a Shotgun Application Method

Do you send out applications by the dozen? Applied to over 100 jobs this month? Not getting interviews? I’m not surprised.

If you’re sending out this kind of quantity, you’re probably focusing solely on online job postings - this is a mistake. You need to be doing more homework. Is every single job you’re applying for really aligned to the transferable skillsets you possess? If not, scale back the applications, and make your job search smaller and more targeted.

It may be hard to believe, but you’re not right for every advertised humanitarian job. Don’t waste your, or the organisation's time by sending pointless applications. Make sure you have correctly identified your value-add and applicable skillsets for each role first.

The difference will be clear.


2. Your Cover Letter Is Like Everyone Else’s

You know your cover letter and introductory email are perfect, because you use the same flawless template for all applications.

This technique will backfire.The job description outlines what the Aid Agency is looking for in their ideal candidate - it includes VERY clear clues which of your strengths you should mention in your cover letter.

Basically, when you submit your application, if your cover letter pretty much looks the same as before you found the role, you’re doing something wrong.

Every single one must be bespoke and targeted to the role to which you are applying.


3. You’ve Got a Lazy Resume

Have some empathy for the reviewer on the other end.

They have just been inundated with 100’s of hopeless cover letters and resumes! It’s this overwhelming volume that creates a situation where on average they will spend 6 seconds perusing each resume before tossing them into the shredder.

Your job is to make it easy for them to elicit all the relevant information they are after in those 6 seconds! If you’re not making it absolutely easy for them then you need to rework your resume.

6 seconds - two thirds of a page - is all you’ve got.

So showcase all of your best, and relevant information up front. Use bullets if you need to. Don’t bury the lead. Much like a cover letter, every single resume must be different and aligned to the job description you’re applying for.

And be smart! Make sure your formatting is clear and easy to read; and make use of white space to draw the viewer's eye to the exact detail you want them to see.


4. You Only Apply to Humanitarian Jobs Ads Online

You need to be doing the hard work of networking and building up your humanitarian profile.

How else will people know how amazing you are;)

So get more face time in the sector. Attend events, Meet Ups, conferences. Invite your networks for coffee. Be ready to concisely share your humanitarian career goals with them. Let them know how they can help you!

Also, I’m constantly amazed at the lack of depth people go to in the job search process itself. Remember, those vacancies on public search sites are the tip of the iceberg. Link through to each organisations site for more roles. It’s the little things people.

And a final point on this one - do you attempt to reach out to the employer? If you’re the perfect candidate then send a short LinkedIn message informing the key contact that you applied and ask for the opportunity to interview.

But only if your LinkedIn profile is A-MAZ-ING.


5. Your Application is Riddled With Mistakes

Yes, we know you’ve heard it again and again. But given that 58% of resumes have typos, we’re going to say it to you one more time! So, how can you stop sending application documents with typos?  It’s the 21st century! Download Grammarly. But also have someone else read your documents. Other people can more easily spot errors, structural issues etc. because they haven’t been staring at the page for hours and hours. If you’re too shy to have someone else read your resume and cover letter, then temporarily change the font and margins, or read your application documents from the bottom up - you get used to reading a page one way and can often catch new errors when you mix the approach up.


6. You’re Keeping Your Job Search A Secret

Job searching takes a village. Especially in the international development space. So don’t try to do it all by yourself.

Seek help from your family, friends, professional networks and community. Take advantage of your support systems. They’ll be useful in helping you mourn your defeats, celebrate your wins, and sometimes offer valuable connections!

If you keep it a secret how will people know how to help?


7. You’re Not Being Realistic

Is your ambition leading you to apply for positions you don't qualify for? It's cool to apply to some "stretch" positions, but these should not make up the majority of what you're applying for.

If everything you're aiming for would require a leap of faith from the hiring organisation, you shouldn't be surprised you're not hearing back. So keep the majority of your applications targeted to your transferable skillsets and areas of expertise.


8. You’re Rubbish In An Interview Situation

Not many people like interviews - but it cuts both ways - not many like being an Interviewer either! Thus, be prepared. Be confident. And practice, so that you have clear, concrete examples that you know will demonstrate your competence for the role. Use the STAR method - Situation, Tasks, Actions, Results - to help structure your responses.

Also, similar to resumes and cover letters, there are some things that are better left unsaid during an interview. The interview must be all about what you have to offer the organisation, that is, how you’re the best candidate to accomplish the position and ultimately the goals and mission of the organisation. So focus on making a match between yourself and the job, not on why you want it - and don’t you dare say you ‘want to give back’ or some other tired cliche!


Final word. Learn from your humanitarian job search mistakes!

We’ve all had that sense of desperation - but the worst thing you can do is increase the number and frequency of applications. Not learning from your mistakes will mean you’ll make more and more of them.

If you’re not progressing to interview, then it might be time for some self-evaluation and humility.

Figure out why you’re making progress, and rectify.

After all, learning from our mistakes is the only way to make sure we’re moving forward.


When building a successful humanitarian career… opportunities don’t happen, you create them.


  • Why are our world’s biggest challenges getting worse?

What if…

  • Talent was mobilised to work on humanity’s greatest threats?
  • People mastered the skills required to create sustainable change?
  • You could direct your passion and skills toward positive global development?

What if…

  • We gave you the skills to meet your humanitarian potential?
  • We raised your hidden talents and untapped knowledge?
  • We were deliberate about preparing you for the rigours of development work?
  • We facilitated your journey into a humanitarian career?

What if…


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