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What if I decide international humanitarian work isn’t for me – what next?

I used to advise people that they should only pursue a career in humanitarian aid if they could not imagine being happy doing anything else. I rarely do that any more, largely because it sounds a little melodramatic, but I stand by it as a measuring stick. As Cecil Day-Lewis said (about the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War):

Tell them in England, if they ask,
What brought us to these wars,
To this plateau beneath the night’s Grave manifold of stars –
It was not fraud or foolishness, Glory, revenge, or pay:
We came because our open eyes Could see no other way.

But enough of that. There are a lot of people who are interested in the world beyond the borders of their country, committed to international issues, and engaged in global humanitarian goals who are not international humanitarian workers. That’s ok, in fact it’s a good thing – there is a lot of other work that needs to be done both at home and abroad, and you certainly don’t have to make a career of it to make an impact.

If after reading this I’ve helped you decide that this is not for you, you may be interested in some leads in finding fulfilling, meaningful work in some other way. Here are some resources that I like for beginning that search:


    • The Non-Profit Career Guide – how to land a job that makes a difference‘, by Shelly Cryer is a great primer on the US non-profit sector, with a wonderful introduction to the sector as a whole, its scale, scope and variety. She goes on to discuss various sub-sectors in the field, and the types of professionals they employ as well as giving great tips for building a resume that will get noticed by non-profit recruiters and doing well in interviews. Get it from Amazon or Powell’s Books.


    • Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for First-time Job Seekers‘ by Meg Busse, and its companion volume ‘The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for Sector Switchers‘ by Steven Joiner are another pair of guides focused on the US non-profit sector from the perspective of first time job-seekers and mid-career switchers, respectively. Published by Idealist, they deals with many of the same topics, reprising an overview of the sector, job-search and networking skills, cv building and interviewing. The good news is that you can get them (and many other cool things) both as free downloads as well as in hard copy from Amazon (Sector Switchers, First-time Job Seekers) and Powell’s Books (Sector Switchers, First-Time Job Seekers).
    • Paul Souders is one of the wisest people I know – his article on the topic is worth your time here.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. Milind permalink
    May 20, 2011 3:36 am

    I am new to humanitarian sector.I found these articles & blog very useful.

  2. October 22, 2011 12:06 pm

    I’ve read through your entire book chapter postings, and I really appreciate all that you’ve had to offer in terms of insider insight, recommendations, etc. My wife and I are at the point where we are deeply interested in doing overseas humanitarian work. We have two kids (a 3 year old boy and a 1 year old girl) and are wondering what you might be able to add about working abroad with children in tow? Thanks for any further help you can give.

    • October 31, 2011 3:03 pm

      Hi there – I’m overdue a posting about kids in postings, and since I have never personally done this I want to recruit some people who have. The short story is that it’s all about the location. Some places have great services, schools, health-care, and child-care, and some don’t. All the usual issues apply, except you’ll be juggling your kids too. Of course it’s easier if one partner can stay home with them, at least at first.

  3. Mike permalink
    October 28, 2011 2:21 pm

    This has been a great perspective on how to get involved; thanks for writing it.

  4. ODA permalink
    December 14, 2011 1:10 am

    Thank you for writing this blog, it was a very interesting and illuminating read. O.

    • December 14, 2011 3:06 pm

      Thank you – it’s always good to get positive feedback!

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