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8 Tips For A Career In The Humanitarian Aid Sector

Wednesday, Dec 06, 2017
by Cory Steinhauer

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Afghanistan, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, and Yemen…

The world is a complex place filled with wicked problems.

It requires a special kind of person to make a decision that goes against the grain to strive for a career in tackling seemingly insurmountable global challenges.

But most of us have thought about it - buoyed by a news story or NGO marketing campaign we ask “isn’t there more I can do?” The good news is our society needs more talented people to make the decision to work on tough issues; so, yes, there is more you can do!

However it’s not easy.

Whether it’s the working conditions, the hours, the stress, the remoteness, or time away from friends and family - the life of an international aid worker is one of sacrifice. 

Then again it’s not all a grind. The experiences gained, the friendships formed, the results achieved, all knitted together create a lifestyle, a life choice that is greatly different from the Monday to Friday existence many of us feel unhappily trapped in.


Yet despite the need, despite the sheer number of humanitarian disasters occurring around the world, getting that first job can feel like the toughest challenge of all. Remember, there are many capable people out there similarly committed to making a difference.

So, with that in mind, here are our eight tips for making yourself more competitive and landing that first gig in the humanitarian sector:

1. Think outside of the box

21st century humanitarianism. The humanitarian aid and development sector, a multi billion dollar beast, is far more diverse than many of us realise. It is not just the charity / NGO sector where social change occurs.

There are amazing opportunities across the public, private and community sectors. Excitingly, with new models of business, we are increasingly seeing people make the decision to help by opening a social enterprise focusing on solving society’s most difficult issues, from energy poverty to food security and female education.

Tip: Spread your search wide. Go beyond the normal, or what you deem to be normal, and be creative. Jobs and opportunities exist in private development organisations, consulting for foreign governments, or if you are entrepreneurial how about opening an enterprise that’s purpose is social good not profit?


2. Set specific goals

Know yourself first. What is your motivation to get involved? You may feel you are at a crossroads in life, or you may be leaving university and setting your career direction – whatever your situation, analyse your skills, your weaknesses, your preferences and set specific goals that will guide your search.

Remember be SPECIFIC.

A goal is not ‘to work for the UN’ – too broad. It may be ‘to use my financial management skills and qualifications in an African based NGO focusing on gender equity’. Of course over time your goals will evolve, but we need a starting point.

Tip: Understand your motivations, your strengths and skills and target where your talent is most needed - try a self styled SWOT analysis!


3. Understand the sector

Professionalisation. Modern development has been occurring for decades. A huge amount of change has happened during this time, and what we now see is an incredibly complex (some may say dysfunctional) sector that requires at least a basic understanding to ensure it is put to work in the right way to drive for sustainable change targeting the people that need it most.

Tip: Undertake training. Read, watch, listen, network, learn – do whatever it takes to delve into the structures and systems that make the humanitarian sector tick. By becoming trained, even if you are new to the sector, you are demonstrating a commitment to increasing your competency and to your new career direction.


4. Volunteer, intern

Building experience. Particularly within the NGO sector the opportunity to volunteer your skill sets to a cause is a great opportunity for you to experience not only working on difficult issues but to gain exposure to the workings of the sector (the good, the bad and the ugly). 

Tip: Skilled volunteering. Find a volunteer position that is skills-based, particularly if you are looking at engaging in an overseas volun-tourism position as there is no shortage of unskilled labour in the developing world. Take your skills, whether that be design, logistics, accounting, administrative, whatever, and apply those to the project. Skilled volunteering opportunities exist, and those are the ones to target when building your humanitarian career.


5. Align your skills to sector needs

It’s a BIG world. As we already discussed, the sector is large, diverse and only getting more so as new innovations in social change and tackling the worlds problems come online. But helping does not occur in a vacuum. Whether it is responding to a natural disaster or building a functioning healthcare system in the developing world – all skillsets from a range of thematic areas are needed.

Sure, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators and public health professionals are vital to rebuilding a functioning health system, but so are logistics personnel, HR professionals, communications experts, procurement specialists, IT gurus and social media wizards… you get the idea. Odds are your expert skills are needed.

Tip: Do your research. If you have set goals, know your strengths, and have undertaken training, then it is time to do some desktop study and create a job search strategy. If you are an accountant with specialist skills in auditing then knowing which sub-sector, region, and implementer to target is important so as to not waste your, or an HR departments, time.


6. Know where to look

Network. Let the fun begin. Ah looking for a job, time consuming frustrating, super exciting, super mind numbing; it can be a roller-coaster ride of emotions – especially if you are ill prepared.

Obviously your first touch point (if flying blind) is the Internet. But do not limit your search to the usual job engines for humanitarian work. These sites, in our opinion are great as a gauge of trends in the industry – not only recent humanitarian events, but also funding streams and emergent needs. We could list job sites here, but lets leave that to Google and our Jobs Vault. 

Beyond random applications to random job ads, look behind the posting. That is go straight to the organisations website. More often than not there will a number of roles not advertised on external jobsites listed on the webpage. But don’t stop there, check out their LinkedIn profile; perhaps there is a 2nd or 3rd degree network you could link with? Because networking is key, the old adage of ‘its not what you know but who you know’ is very much alive in the humanitarian sector.

Tip: Beyond the web create networks by:

  • Attend humanitarian networking events and talks in your city (check Meet Ups and the like);

  • See tip #4, volunteer! A great way to get your foot in the door with an organisation;

  • Join LinkedIn groups, and participate (professionally and on-message) or if you have not already, set up a complete profile;

  • Put your feelers out with your friends and family, you will be surprised whom they may know.


7. Learn, refine and try again

Persist. Most important of all, stick to your job search strategy (#5)! Random applications to random jobs can be like a turkey shoot. By being strategic, knowing which jobs are where, which ones align to your skills and motivations, and remaining persistent and patient, you stand a better chance of success.


8. Step by step

Begin at home. Find a job with a local NGO or community-based organisation. Baby steps people. Look on the usual job search sites that target the domestic market (Seek, Indeed, Ethical Jobs, Pro Bono etc.). Refine your search for roles in the community sector – you may just find your perfect match. The amount and type of roles in the community sector at home is equally intriguing. Whether it is fundraising with an international NGO’s headquarters or project administration with a small NGO focusing on working with the homeless, there is a need for qualified, passionate professionals to make a difference. This may be the perfect step for you in a long-term process to achieve an offshore posting.

...and finally

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Remember the world needs you and your skills – but it needs them in a targeted, strategic manner that can be focused on solving the challenges humanity faces.

If you are passionate, professional and driven then YOU WILL break into the sector and YOU WILL have a rewarding career helping others less fortunate. And there will come a time when you look back and smile at the journey you took to achieve your goals.

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