Emerging Practitioner: Build your Humanitarian career  Online course

Inexperienced and Underqualified for Humanitarian Work?

Wednesday, May 03, 2017
by Humanitarian Institute


9 tips to get in the game!

Like many of us, at some point you’ve spotted an amazing international development job posting and thought to yourself “I can do that” - even though the opportunity is outside of your field of experienceSo how do you present yourself as qualified when you have no proven record?

The under-qualified or inexperienced tag is all too often pinned on new graduates as well as career-changers whose experience is external to the humanitarian domain. Straight up… fighting the under-qualified tag is a difficult thing.

Difficult, yes, but not impossible.

Honestly, there’s no escaping the fact that most Aid agencies prefer to employ people with the requested qualifications and experience over under-qualified yet enthusiastic candidates.  

But don’t be dismayed.

What follows are 9 strategies for helping you overcome a lack of qualifications and / or experience. By implementing these actions you will enhance your chances of securing that dream humanitarian role.

So stay focused!

1. It’s all about transferable skills.

At this stage of your humanitarian career you probably don’t have the qualifications required for many advertised global development opportunities. But odds are good that you possess skills and abilities that are needed for many humanitarian jobs.

Analyse aid job postings and identify the skills you’ve demonstrated in the past that are needed for the opportunities that interest you. Commonly sought skills include communication, critical thinking and leadership.

Quantify your transferable and applicable skills and prominently display them on your resume; and in your cover letter explain how your skills apply to the humanitarian job you’re after.

Read more about the key skills required for 21st century humanitarian work.

2. Emphasise voluntary experience.

You may have no paid experience in the humanitarian field but you should have some applicable education and/or voluntary experience. List relevant voluntary experience in the main experience section of your resume!

Experience is experience. It doesn’t matter whether it was paid or not. If volunteering helped you develop skills that are relevant to the humanitarian sector then it’s cool that they’re in your resume experience section.

3. Design a functional resume.

If you’re after a development position that you’re really not qualified for, your employment history may be more of a hindrance than a help. A resume format that de-emphasises employment history in favour of applicable skills is worth considering.

A chrono-functional resume highlights relevant skills and achievements that otherwise may be hidden within the experience section. The focus is on transferable skills and experiences that are most relevant to the position you’re applying to.

Remember at most you have 6 seconds to get your key messages across to the resume reviewer! Structure, focus and keywords are critical. However, be aware that some Aid organisations are not used to receiving alternative resume formats and may find them confusing.

Get more help with your international development resume here.

4. Don’t apply for roles which you’re really under-qualified!

We’ve all been there. As desperation kicks-in we send tons of resumes for jobs that we’re not remotely qualified for. This is a major reason humanitarian employers are unable to respond to every applicant.

The resumes of the unqualified create a traffic jam in the system.

So don’t apply if you are completely unqualified - but if you are amazing at some criteria then consider applying. Remember that job postings are often employer wish lists.

Most employers in the global development space don’t expect the successful candidate to have every qualification listed - a job posting represents the ideal candidate. If you can demonstrate you are strong in important areas (take note of the order the criteria is listed) you may get an interview even if you’re missing other qualifications.

If you can demonstrate excellence in the most important qualifications, the organisation may overlook weaknesses in the less important ones.

5. Write a bulleted cover letter.

An effective way to sell the skills you have while obscuring the ones you don’t is to use a bulleted format. Quote the specific qualifications that come from the job posting and present your evidence (attributes, skills, achievement etc.) that meet those qualifications - bullet by bullet.

The format clearly demonstrates that you are qualified in so many areas that the Aid agency may overlook the areas where you lack the exact criteria.

Struggle writing an amazing cover letter? We can help. Read more here.

6. Indicate your flexibility and willingness to learn.

When sorting resumes humanitarian employers sometimes use a ‘inexperienced but trainable’ category. If you can’t convince them that you’re qualified you may be able to make a case for being trainable.

Clearly state in your application documents that you’re an enthusiastic and quick learner who can rapidly get up-to-speed. If a role carries a specific educational training certification state your willingness to pursue it.

However, tread carefully.

As I’m sure you can understand, Aid agencies don’t like to be reminded of the time and expense of training the under-qualified. Use demonstrable examples of your ability to learn quickly as well as concrete statements of future willingness to be trained.

If you’ve already enrolled in the appropriate training your case will obviously be even stronger.

7. Bait and switch.

Hypothetically speaking, say there’s a senior humanitarian position that you are marginally qualified for. Consider applying while simultaneously indicating a willingness to be considered for a job that reports to that role.

This strategy is best deployed when a humanitarian organisation is assembling staff for a newly funded program or country office.

8. Target the organisation’s needs.

Another hypothetical, say there’s a country program or Aid agency which you’d like to work for. But you’re not quite the right fit. Try finding out more about the agency’s needs and challenges than what is available in the job advert.

The trick is to discover needs that you can fulfil - clearing a path to perhaps creating a position for yourself.

9. Volunteer to work on a trial basis.

There may be no better way to demonstrate your enthusiasm and skillsets for a humanitarian job than to offer to work for a short voluntary period.

Be mindful that you need to find the balance between how long you can afford to work without pay, and the amount of time needed to demonstrate what you can do. Also, be careful not to come off sounding too desperate.

An alternative approach is asking to demonstrate your skills through a short-term project. Ask the organisation for an assignment similar to what you would be asked to do if you got the position (within reason).

Then set about WOW-ING them!

The strategies here can go a long way to mitigate the under-qualified or inexperienced tag - however they are not foolproof. However, research demonstrates that it’s not always the most qualified candidate who gets the job... but the one with the best rapport with the interviewer or the most enthusiasm and confidence!

So never give up. Out-think and outcompete your competition!

Lastly, and most importantly - don’t remain stagnant - pursue training that will enhance your humanitarian credentials, and volunteer to build skills in your weaker areas. When building a successful humanitarian career… opportunities don’t happen, you create them.

Make Your Time Count.


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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