This site is about getting your first job as a humanitarian aid worker. Whether you want to run refugee camps, micro-credit programs or health programs, this is my personal opinion (not my employer’s) about ways to make the transition to international relief and development work.
If you find this site at least as useful as a coffee and a bagel, and wonder how you can possibly thank me, please consider buying my e-book on Amazon! Getting your first job in relief and development. It also helps me to recover some of the costs of hosting this site when people review the e-book – thanks!
My take on getting a job as a humanitarian aid worker is organized by chapters (on the right-hand side under the heading Book chapters) – and is supposed to be read top-to-bottom more or less like a book. Book reviews and other pieces are posted below. Find out more about this blog here.
Please read the disclaimer, and understand that this line of work is not risk free. You need to do your own research, make your own decisions, and take responsibility for them.
If this site is as useful to you as a book you might have paid for please consider buying my new Kindle eBook, which contains much of the content from this site, thoughtfully formatted for off-line reading on a Kindle, iPad, laptop, or other e-reader. It’s $7.99, and honestly, what can you get for that these days? Get it here.
If you have questions please do send them either by email or in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them or find someone who can. I also offer individual coaching services for people who have in-depth questions about their particular situation, want feedback and support with resumes and cover letters, or want interview coaching and critique. To learn more about that see my career coaching page.
The Wall Street Journal is running an interview with Kurt Tjossem, IRC’s Regional Director for the Horn and East Africa here. Learn about his story, and what to pack for the road.
I thought I’d update you and your readers on my situation so that they always remember that their dreams of getting an international development job CAN come true!
After 20 years of being a Canadian banker and 10 years of dreaming of working overseas, I’m finally living my dream and it took a lot of your advice to get me there.
1) Focus on a skill that is needed to grow organizations.
For me it was finance, but experience and education in logistics, procurement, program design and human resources are all in high demand.
2) Get some volunteer experience.
For me it was a month long posting in India with Grameen Bank USA’s “Bankers Without Borders” program, but organizations such as AfID (Accounting for International Development) and Peace Corps prove that you can survive and thrive overseas.
3) Work your network.
Although I hunted through job boards galore, my chance finally came from a referral by a colleague of mine. Make sure people know you are looking and make sure to take the time to listen to everyone that has a story to tell.
My dream job came with an organization called One Acre Fund (www.oneacrefund.org) and now I’d love to pay it forward and help some of your readers get a shot at their dreams. We have almost 50 job openings available right now for postings in East Africa and we need early stage professionals in a whole range of skill sets. Maybe we can be your first step to an amazing new career!
Thanks again for all the time, effort and wisdom you put into this blog, Nick…awesome work!
Q. Hey Nick,
I am a recent architect graduate, I would like to get into relief and development and it need not be related to architecture. Is there any way I can either volunteer or start as a fresher in any of the conflict countries (the current refugee crisis or Africa )? I would like to help them in any way possible.
I am 23, Indian and a freelancer after graduating.
A. Hi Vishnu,
Thanks for the question, and congratulations on your architecture degree! First off, I don’t know a lot about the job market in India, and what kind of opportunities there are for you to gain experience overseas. That said that is going to be one of the major issues. Even though you clearly have experience of the developing world, recruiters are going to want to see that you can function in environments and cultures other than your own. I believe that the VSO program is open to you, and I would encourage you to check that out, but to get hired you’re going to need to show some overseas experience.
As to your architecture training, I think the skillets of project, budget, and contractor management are really relevant, but there are very few people working as architects in the aid world.
Maybe this is a little well ambitious for a 20 year-old to say, but I would like to dedicate myself to humanitarian work. I believe that this line of work may be the only one to take in order to live with myself. Aaaanyways, I wonder what sort of education I need. Would for example a bachelor in nursing be a good start?
A. Hi William,
Thanks for the question. It’s one a get a lot, and my typical answer is on this page. Before I get to the detail of your question, without wanting to sound patronizing, I would urge you to keep an open mind on the question of how to live with oneself – it can take a while to feel at home in the world.
That said, the main thing that you need to decide is whether you are interested in a role that has some technical component that requires a particular qualification. Nurses are in demand in medical agencies, and if you want to serve as a nurse you will need a the appropriate qualifications and several years of professional experience as a nurse to be considered. Likewise if you want to serve as an accountant, an engineer, a pharmacist, a doctor, or a lawyer.
Most people who work in humanitarian aid though are generalists – the manage projects, write proposals, lead teams etc. In this case what you need above all things is field experience. No education can supplement for this, and you need to use your university career to get as much experience living and working in the developing world as you can.
Q. Hi Nick,
First off love your blog here. And I am going to find your book to buy. Second, I’m a 33 y/o former Chef and now currently design homes. Doing any sort of international volunteering, aid/humanitarian work has always been something I have wanted to do. Granted I am more of a boots on the ground grunt labour type of man I would like to think that my experiences with handling food, food management (ie storage/preserving) and structure design could be a possible asset for certain regions. Is there a non-profit or any type of organization you could recommend that someone like myself could start with to get the experience needed? Even if it were something as simple as helping to build schools and homes.
Thank you in advance,
A. Hi Jordan,
Thanks for the feedback! So – I don’t know where you live, but I’m assuming it’s the UK or US. My first observation is that most development or humanitarian situations are not in need of ‘grunt labor’. There isn’t ever a shortage of people to do the hard manual work. International staff need to bring some kind of expertise that isn’t available locally. That’s usually in the project management area, or in some kind of technical specialty.
My advice if you’re really interested in this as a career is to look at the transferable skills that you have in that area, and then start to build your professional network and experience overseas. There really aren’t a lot of organizations that will help you get the experience that you need, bar the usual suspects of the Peace Corps or VSO – you need to figure that out in a more entrepreneurial way I’m afraid.
One thing I would suggest is that you consider whether you might be able to scratch this itch domestically. The design / food management skill set might be much more valuable to domestic non-profits than international ones?
Let us know how you do,