Interview – George Bragg
It always makes me happy to hear from people who have had success in their job search! I first heard from George back in September of 2011, when he wrote to me asking for advice about getting a job in humanitarian aid. I asked him it return to come back and tell us about his experiences:
Nick: Tell me a little about your background, and how you decided you wanted to get into development work.
George: I’m 24 years old and currently work for One Acre Fund; an agricultural micro-finance organization. I think it was about halfway through my undergrad degree that I decided that I wanted to work in development. The primary reason that I was attracted to development back then remains the reason now – I don’t want to spend the majority of my life slaving away, lining someone else’s pockets. I’m happy to slave away, but I’d rather it be to achieve financial stability for others. I’ve also itched to work abroad since I was 18, and development work seemed one way to do that.
Nick: What are your job hunting statistics?
George: Approximately: 4 months, 60 applications, 4 interviews, one (great) job. Most of the organizations I never heard back from.
Nick: What were your first attempts at finding a job – what worked for you and what didn’t?
George: I think I probably sent off a few substandard applications in the beginning. I definitely didn’t hear from any of the employers that I wrote to in the first month!
Nick: What sources of information were most helpful for you in looking for a job?
George: For development work, there are some great websites. If you haven’t found them yet, do try www.idealist.org, www.reliefweb.org, www.thirdsector.co.uk. These are great not only for finding work, but letting you know how your skills might be useful for development work. I’d also harass all your friends in development work (if you have any) for referrals. You’d be really surprised about the amount of help you might get – don’t be shy about asking. Everyone was in this position at some point!
Nick: Tell me about the organization you found work with – what do they do, what is your role, and how did you get the job? How long did it take? How many applications did you send?
George: I found work with One Acre Fund in Bungoma, Western Kenya. They provide a ‘market bundle’ to smallholder farmers in East Africa. It’s a simple model – we provide farmers with fertilizer and seed on credit, along with agricultural trainings and some other impact-generating products like solar lights. Farmers pay back in a flexible schedule over the course of the year and double their income on average. It’s an exciting company to work for – we run like a business and are doubling in size every year. I work in administration and HR – my time is divided between security, property management, donor logistics, staff on boarding, training, recruitment, policy work, etc. In a start-up organization – everyone does a bit of everything!
I got the job through a fairly regular internet application. The application process took about three months, and included about 5 rounds including a 1 hour phone interview with the CEO, and an in-person 3 day interview at HQ in Kenya. The interview style is very management consultancy style – lots of case studies and exercises. It’s intense. I’m not entirely sure why my CV got to the top of the pile, but I did send through a 15 second video introducing myself that might have helped!
However, there is no doubt that I got extremely lucky. They only screen 3% of applicants by phone, and I know that there were over 2000 applicants for this role. Additionally, they told me that they have never taken on someone with no developing country experience before, nor someone my age (23). So even though I managed to scrape through, I wouldn’t recommend it as a good option for other people wanting to get a foot in the door.
Nick: You mentioned when we corresponded last November that your experience in Kenya “seemed to support what you suggest about going somewhere and keeping your ears open. The place is teeming with NGOs. I met aid workers on the plane, in the hostel I was staying in, and everywhere in between. I made quite a few contacts in my short time there. Also the lady who ran the hostel said that she saw people coming all the time for the purpose of job hunting within the NGO community and usually found something sooner or later. She also said however that there were a lot of NGOs cluttering up the area and doing a lot more harm than good, and that a lot of them take on unpaid volunteers and fail to invest in them in any way.” Has your opinion changed on that? Do you have any tips?
George: That’s an interesting one. I think that you probably could turn up in somewhere like Nairobi and find some work with an NGO, if you’re not picky. The problem is that there are literally thousands of stagnant or underfunded NGOs having little or negative impact. If you are going to turn up at find work, don’t take the first job you find. I also think this route used to be more effective than it is now, and I do know that it is strongly discouraged for food relief work.
I would be more inclined to recommend an unpaid internship if you can find one, in a developing country. That will tick your ‘developing country experience’ box, and a whole new host of jobs will open up for you.
Nick: What specific advice do you have for others looking for work?
George: Play the numbers game. The more applications you send off, the better your chances.
Another piece of advice is that referrals do count, but aren’t essential – use any connections you have to get your CV to the top of the pile. Having been on the other end of recruitment now, I would also say that I and many others screening CV’s can go through hundreds in an afternoon. Make yours stand out, and imagine the person reading it to be slumped over a desk slurping coffee. How are you going to get their attention? Lastly, I also would spend some time researching how to send off good applications. We reject applications all the time because of ugly formatting or simple spelling/grammar mistakes. When employers are searching through thousands of CVs, they’ll use any excuse to bring the pile down.
Lastly – don’t be picky about your role. I’ve you’re good, you’ll get a promotion and will be able to negotiate a better set of responsibilities. What’s important is getting that foot in the door.
Nick: What did you learn from the process? What surprised you most?
George: Having spoken to my current colleagues, other job hunters and those who made it to final interview process at One Acre Fund, the biggest takeaway I can give is that there is no one way to get a job. Ignore those who tell you that you can’t break into development work without connections – I did it, and so have others in my organization.
I was surprised at how little there seemed to be for those without developing country experience. This seems to be the number one criteria for development work. It’s not fair, because everyone needs a foot in the door somehow. I was also the exception with my organization, who never employs those without developing country experience.
Nick: Any other tips or advice for job hunters?
George: Apply to work at One Acre Fund. We’re expanding rapidly and need as many great people as possible!
More broadly – you could try sending an introductory video to employers. Just say who you are, why you are applying, perhaps a sentence on your USP, and thanks for their consideration. I can’t say that it worked for sure, but the three interviews I got were all from companies that I sent a video to, and I only did that for about 10% of my applications. It made the application process a little more fun as well!