Interview – Alan Noble, Emergency Recruiter at World Vision International
Alan Noble is the Manager of Global Surge Capacity at World Vision International. He is based in Monrovia, California, but travels often to World Vision offices around the world to identify and support the training of people to serve in responding to the largest global emergencies. Here is his personal opinion and advice about getting a job as a humanitarian aid worker.
Nick: Alan, tell us a little about your background – how did you find your way into this line of work?
Alan: I had a close family member who worked at World Vision while I was growing up, and I guess I always thought that I would work for a non-profit after I made my millions in the corporate world! (laughs). I graduated from university in International Business and got a job in the corporate sector, but I realized after a while that it really wasn’t what I wanted to do – I just wasn’t happy. I made the move to the Marketing Research department at World Vision, part of the team that works on raising money, and was with them for about a year. This was in the mid-eighties, a hard time at WV because of the ‘Ethiopia Crash’ – we really ramped up to respond to the drought emergency in Ethiopia, and then it came to a screaming halt. My job was eliminated as part of that process, but at the same time a position came open in what is now called the International Programs Group, and I made the move to that department. I held a number of positions in International Programs and then left World Vision at the end of the 1980s to pursue other interests. I came back though, in the early 1990s to help contract-manage a three-year USAID grant in Romania from the US, and then moved to the regional office in Austria, working with a range of things including HR, gifts-in-kind, and the administration function of the office.
During that time in Austria, the World Vision U.S. office moved near Seattle, so when I returned I came to work on domestic programs, focusing on rural programs and relief activities in the US for about 18 months. I then moved into Human Resources as a business partner. I spent a couple of years in Seattle then two years in DC, then came to Monrovia in 2002 to be the benefits manager in the HR Group, looking after benefits for our expatriate and US-based employees. In 2008, I moved over to our relief group HR function. World Vision divides emergencies into three categories – category three is the most serious the largest disasters. My job is to identify people to staff these responses. We’re looking mostly for existing World Vision staff who have experience in these kinds of situations, or, increasingly, people who have less experience (perhaps they have worked in smaller emergencies) but have the capacity to step up.
Nick: So what are the main differences for you between working HR in the corporate world and for World Vision?
Alan: I think one of the main differences is that we work in places that most corporations don’t. Because of the places where we have offices, our compensation and benefits schemes are quite different. International for us is not London and its not Frankfurt, it’s Darfur and various points in between. HR is probably an easier place to shift over from the corporate world though – we have people in different places – risk issues are more front and center, but there is a lot of similarity overall in terms of the systems and procedures needed.
Nick: What are the key skills that you look for when you are staffing your emergency teams?
Alan: First I look for good references. Then I look for a cv that shows someone has had a lot of experience in writing, it’s one of the key things that people need to have along with communication skills – good places to start are to be able to write proposals and do all the Program Officer type support stuff. Even Project or Program Coordinators need to have great writing skills. Then they need program design experience; I want to see project management skills and experience that demonstrates that on a resume. Even if it is managing some sort of project even in a building sense, if they’ve had that step by step approach to getting something done, that’s good.
Cross cultural skills are crucial – but clear thinking and adaptability is probably the biggest thing that makes someone successful. Probably the hardest challenge is to know whether you can drop someone somewhere and they can live in ambiguity – that is critical for success in a field assignment. We look for that using scenarios and behavior based interview techniques. Asking people what they would do in a particular situation is one thing, asking for an example of a time they DID display that behavior is another. I talk to people about their experience, particularly overseas – what were their first impressions, what did they notice that was different? What did they do when people acted differently or were perhaps not as flexible in some ways as they themselves are?
Nick: What are some of the characteristics of people you select? Are there any things they have in common, what about educational background?
Alan: The field is quite different now to when I was first getting into it – it has become much more professionalized over the years. People are coming out of university with much more experience much earlier in their careers. They are much more plugged into the world outside, with more knowledge of what’s going on around them, and more engaged. A bachelor’s degree is an absolute minimum these days, but most of the time we look for master’s degrees. Obviously, qualifications matter in the sector specialties like health and engineering, but increasingly for generalists too. Historically we saw a lot of international relations, international management, these kinds of degrees, but it seems even NGO management seems more specialized now.
Nick: Do you have any tips on picking a school?
Alan: We get a fair number of people from the Stanfords and the Harvards and Dukes – those places draw attention to your resume, but my advice is to pick a school that gives you practical experience in a work setting – a chance to go overseas or part of a thesis that relates to a practical application in what you learned. Ultimately that’s more important than a big name school.
Pretty much every year the proportion of people with graduate degrees increases. It seems that the majority of people have master’s degrees now – a lot of the Program Coordinators even. What I keep trying to tell my son though is that you’re better off trying to get some experience before you go back and get your master’s, you get more out of your degree that way, I think. That’s not always what people do though. I think people who do that tend to be more clear about what they want to do – there’s also a danger that with no experience in between a bachelors and a masters they can price themselves out of the market in some respects because their debt load means they can’t take entry level positions.
Nick: What about the support professionals who don’t work on international programs – where do they come from?
Alan: Most of our HR people come from other HR roles either in other non-profits or from the corporate world. We’re seeing that the aid world is getting more business oriented – within HR support functions I think we’re getting more people who are from a business for-profit background. I think within World Vision International all of our HR people are from external for-profit businesses. Even out President is now. On the US side in Seattle and DC its probably the same – someone who has come in from outside. We’re getting larger and there’s more to manage. We have some MBAs in some functions, but MBAs don’t tend to translate really well unless it’s an MBA in non-profit management – we’re getting more and more of those.
Nick: World Vision is a large Christian organization – what tips would you have for someone in figuring out whether that is a good fit for them?
Alan: One of the interesting areas for us is that as we’ve gotten larger we’ve gotten more ecumenical and broader – it’s probably easier to fit now than it has been previously for a broader number of people. One thing people need to be comfortable with is people at World Vision act out of a faith-centeredness – you hear a lot more of calling, purpose, those sorts of things, than maybe you would in other organizations.
In terms of you as a person of faith, you need to recognize within yourself if that’s what you are – like any organization it won’t flex to fit you – you generally have to flex to fit it.
Nick: Do you have any other career tips?
Alan: Well, my career hasn’t been very intentional – I don’t really think of it as a career path – I’ve been led by interest and passion and what God has called me to. In many ways there isn’t a ‘career path’, you have to forge your own path. Having said that though, I think that career pathing and workforce planning is something we will see more of in the future.
I haven’t done a lot of international assignments, but if that is what you want you can step out and do it – it takes getting to know someone who sees the value in you and is willing to step out and make the case for you. One of the key things is having a cross cultural experience – even though mine was 15 years ago it still has value that people recognize and that I draw on.
Those international field experiences are highly esteemed – you really do have to put in your time – get that assignment that enables you to see what other parts of the world really have to live under and through. That enables you to have other opportunities I think.
How you get that can be a challenge – just showing up may be dangerous and may not be wise, but when I’ve been to responses I see that we always hire some people locally. Even now in Haiti, Haitian Americans who were there or international staff who are there looking for a job, they come across the border and we hire them if they seem capable. It happened in Bosnia, Kosovo, the 2004 Tsunami – people just showed up – they were there and they showed they had the skills – writing skills, a willing heart. It’s not as safe, and it’s not as smart, but it happens.