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Why is it so difficult to get your foot in the door?

At first glance, it can be difficult to understand why it is so hard to get your first job overseas. After all, there is a huge amount of need out there, aid organizations are always stretched (and usually recruiting). You are bright, educated, enthusiastic, have low salary expectations, and are ready to go – why don’t they want to hire you? In fact, why do most of them not even want you as a volunteer?

Well, there are a couple of things going on here. First, let’s deal with the structure of staffing in relief and development organizations.

If you find this site at least as useful as a coffee and a bagel, please consider buying my e-book on Amazon! Getting your first job in relief and development

Lack of hiring cycles and recruiting resources

The corporate world has a round of careers fairs and job postings that coincide with the academic seasons. They attend these fairs and often hire from them. Most non-profits don’t do this – their budgeting systems mean that positions are posted and filled in a much more ad-hoc fashion that aligns with project start and end points and with events in the world like earthquakes and wars. Some of the large NGOs do attend some of these job fairs, but this represents a very small percentage of their hires, and it’s my impression that they attend more for visibility than to actually hire any substantial number of people.

They are also less likely than corporations to place ads, or manage large numbers of postings on different job boards, tending to post things either on their own web sites, or on industry specific boards and publications. They are more likely than corporations to hire from within their own personal networks, and from a relatively small pool of the ‘usual suspects’ who make their living going from one developing country to another. This makes it more difficult to break into the business, because there are fewer truly open recruitment channels.

Staffing structure

In most industries, you come out of college or school, and apply for entry-level positions in a company – you get your foot in the door as someone’s assistant, making the coffee or doing the photocopying, and work your way up. In international relief and development, about 90% of the staff in the field are citizens of those countries. The 5-10% or so who are expatriates (or ‘ex-pats’ as they are known – citizens of a different country) are senior managers or technical experts (like engineers or medical staff) who cannot be found on the local job market. This varies by country – so sophisticated, relatively developed regions with good schools and universities (like Latin America and India) will often have few, if any expats – the local pool is filled with educated, skilled staff who are very capable of managing the agency operations. Countries like Sudan, either because their educational infrastructure is inadequate, or, more likely, because of people fleeing war and chaos, are less likely to be able to supply the skilled staff, and so often have relatively more expatriates. Other factors that affect the numbers of expatriates in any given program include:

  • The particular agency policy towards them (some aspire to eliminate expatriate staff as much and as soon as possible, while some reserve certain positions as always being expatriate).
  • The type of program – some programs tend to have higher ratios of expats than others (for example an economic development program might employ more foreign technical advisors than an earthquake debris clearing program).
  • Local governments – some countries limit visas for foreigners or limit the roles in which they can be employed.
  • The environment – wars, natural disasters and similar crises usually lead to hiring of more expatriate staff, at least in the short-term. Countries rarely have a large number of people capable of managing large emergency response programs, or dealing with conflict and displacement. Expats who make their living traveling from one disaster to another have much more experience running refugee camps, for example, than people who are seeing them for the first time.

So, the point is, there are no entry-level positions for you – if you turn up in Indonesia, you are going to find that all of the positions in a typical NGO below (and often including) Program Manager are held by Indonesians. Good for them, and most likely good for the program, but bad for you. The agency is only looking for expats to fill positions that it cannot source locally – there is always plenty of unskilled labor, and usually plenty of bright kids out of school or college with a little bit of experience – plus, they speak the language and know the context better than you likely do. You’ve got to add value over and above being willing unskilled labor that’s available locally.

This is hard for those of us trying to get our foot in the door, I’ve wrestled with this myself, but philosophically I chalk it up in the ‘good things’ column. It is local people who are best equipped and motivated to create lasting change in their countries.

An extreme amount of value is placed on prior experience

International NGO hiring managers are extremely conservative when it comes to giving chances to people who don’t have demonstrated field experience. This is frustrating for applicants who may have the skills, aptitude and attitude to do extremely well, but lack experience. All professions suffer from this somewhat, but NGOs are an extreme case. There are a few structured ways to gain this experience, but not many (we’ll talk more about that later).

Hiring for overseas positions from the point of view of the hiring manager

So put yourself, for a moment, in the position of the hiring manager for a Project Manager position in South Sudan. You are the head of a program in South Sudan, and your organization, a large NGO, has just won a grant from a major donor, let’s say USAID, who has approved your project to start next month. The clock is ticking. You don’t think you can source the position locally, so you call up your recruiting department in the US or the UK, and you tell them what you are looking for – your list might look something like this:

  • Someone who understands USAID regulations – US government procurement alone is a topic that people spend years studying, and making mistakes is costly – if the regulations are not followed, government auditors will disallow those expenses (that means that the agency may not get paid for all or part of the project and will be left covering those costs out of its own cash reserves). These can end up running to millions of dollars, and some agencies have gone bankrupt through these kinds of mistakes.
  • Someone who understands the technical focus of the project – this person will have to hire engineers, agriculturalists, whatever it is, and know enough to manage partner organizations or subcontractors. They can’t be learning on the job.
  • Someone who knows what it’s like to live in South Sudan – depending on the agency, it can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars and take three months or more to find someone, ship them and their life from wherever they are to their new post, and keep them there for a year, in addition to their salary costs. If it turns out in the first few weeks that they are not as excited about Sub-Saharan Africa as they thought, that can be a very costly mistake. Especially because some donors will not pay twice for things like relocation – if the agency messes up, and needs to replace a position, they are often left holding the cost for that. On top of all this, the agency is behind schedule by three months with no one to run the project. All of this leads hiring managers to be very conservative in their decisions.

The first thing that they will ask is: Has this person lived in an environment like this before? Do they really know what they are letting themselves in for? Does their CV show clearly that they are willing to live for long periods at a time in this sort of place? If yours does not, you will likely not get an interview. Everyone has a horror story of the person who showed up and had a nervous breakdown because there was no hot water (or no email, or too much shooting – whatever) and left within a week.

Next up, as they are leafing through the resumes of people who have 3-4 years of Sub-Saharan Africa experience – has this person run a project of this type, size and scope before? Not just worked on it, but shown that they can start it up (if that is important) run it, and close it down. There is some room for negotiation here – after all, smart people can learn new things. Even if it is a technical project, very often the manager only needs to understand enough to manage the engineers or medical staff, or whatever it happens to be.

Lastly, do they have the knowledge of the donor regulations. On large programs, where the donor might insist that they approve the senior staff, this can be a deal breaker. It is hard to overstate how complex, counter-intuitive, and arcane UN / EU / US regulations can be (you can take courses on this stuff, by the way – check out the USAID / UN etc websites for postings).

So – the bottom line? The hiring manager is only hiring for senior positions. They want someone who has lived there (or somewhere very like it) done that job (or something like it) and worked extensively with that donor. That means your CV won’t get looked at if you don’t already have substantial experience in the relief and development field. It will go straight into the recycle bin, every single time, because you are competing with a pool of people who are more qualified than you are. That’s one side of the story.

The other side of the story is a little more optimistic. You see, the hiring manager is wrong about his assumptions, and he knows he is wrong. He knows that he is throwing away great candidates who could do the job, have the right attitude, the right energy and the enthusiasm they need. His problem is that he can’t tell the difference between you, and any number of other applications who will crash and burn leaving him to clean up the mess. He doesn’t have time to interview more than a shortlist of 3-4 people, and he has a long-list of 10 people with the experience he needs (from an applicant pool of many more), so he plays it safe, and hires someone who knows the ropes. Your task is to reassure him that he is not taking a chance on hiring you, allay his fears about your lack of experience, and get him to move out of his comfort zone. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2011 11:34 am

    Hi Nick,

    Great article here! It really clearly explains what is going on behind-the-scenes of NGO hiring!


    Elizabeth Hebert

  2. Paul permalink
    June 12, 2011 7:43 am


    Eureka! Thanks for confirming in black and white a hard fact that I was pondering: expats have almost no chance of getting a paid, entry level position in the field. It’s great to see these countries building a pool of qualified nationals, but it makes life a lot more challenging on the other side.

    Great posts.

    Atlanta, GA

    • June 15, 2011 4:22 am

      Thanks Paul, I’m not sure I want to say you have no chance of getting a paid entry level position, but yes, it is tough. Don’t be put off though – if it’s something you really want to do, and you’re prepared to spend a bit of time getting experience on your own time, then I don’t think it’s an unrealistic goal. Good luck!

  3. Richard FUSI permalink
    January 18, 2012 12:20 pm

    Hi Nick,
    First I will like to appreciate the work and effort you have made to put all this out here for us. Its a great job and thanks for being so frank.

    Ive been trying to have my foot in the door for over two years now and Im almost thinking my desire to work in Development and Humanitarian aid is useless. I have a masters in Development finance (i.e. development economics and finance) from the UK, recently obtained a certification in project management (PMP in august 2011), and have mostly lived in Central Africa where hardship is norm for me. have in project finance in the banking sector in central Africa for over 5 years. Volunteered on community development projects for 2years.
    Ive applied to over 30 humanitarian jobs but never selected. Im not counting on my corporate experience or pay scale, I just need an entry level job to get me started and I strongly believe I have the required skills to meet and exceed the expected performance on most of the positions I apply for. Please, what can I do? where am I getting it wrong?

    • January 19, 2012 11:18 pm

      Hi Richard,
      Thanks for the feedback. Sorry you’ve had a frustrating time, without seeing your resume or knowing the jobs you’re applying for, there’s not much that I can say except it might be worth trying to find someone you trust and asking them for frank feedback about what might be holding you back. You don’t mention specifically whether you have work experience in the places you are applying to work, that could potentially be an issue.
      Just reading your post though, I wonder whether language could be an issue? Your question has a number of grammatical issues, and while that’s fine, if you’re writing that way in cover letters you’re most likely going to be rejected.
      Hope that helps,

  4. Richard permalink
    January 31, 2012 8:34 am

    Hi Nick,
    Your guess is right. 90% of the applications were for jobs in emergency or post conflict regions and I have no direct experience working in a post conflict environment. As regards language, I am fluent in English and my French is average. I basically rushed over my last post and that may explain the grammatical errors. The 30 applications were made over a four years period and mostly before I earned the PMP credential. I am simply gathering knowledge to identify my weaknesses before making any further applications. If you don’t mind, I could send you my CV and sample cover letter for comments. I am pleased with your frankness.

    • January 31, 2012 8:53 am

      Hi Richard – I’d be happy to take a look at your resume and cover letter, but you probably already know what I’m going to say about this – no matter how good your application is, without field experience you’re not going to be competitive for those emergency or post conflict jobs. In my opinion the number one thing you can do to improve your chances of getting a job in this field is to get field experience. Send your resume over – my email address is in the contact section.

      • April 16, 2015 2:20 pm

        How do you get field experience without getting an entry level position somewhere? You need the entry level job to get experience, but can’t get the entry level job without experience. That just doesn’t add up.

  5. Richard permalink
    February 2, 2012 5:52 am

    Dear Nick,
    Thats exactly where I have my greatest concern and why your blog is of great help. Despite good qualifications and skills, without field experience one cannot be competitive. If getting a job to acquire this experience is almost impossible without previous experience then where do I start?

  6. Mirela permalink
    February 12, 2012 9:36 am

    So what do people who get “burned out” after 4-5 years of work do with the rest of their lives? Does this field open doors to other more conventional jobs or is it a dead end? And by the way, thank you for taking your time to put all this together. It’s great finding all the answers in one place. Finally.

    • February 12, 2012 11:54 am

      Thanks Mirela – if you like it please do consider buying the e-book ( or at least rating it on Amazon! As to what people who get burned out do, it really varies. Some go into more conventional jobs, some become academics, some take jobs in headquarters offices, or with donor organizations, and some stick with it.
      I think there are a lot of opportunities for someone who can articulate the value of the skills they learned in this line of work. Most of it amounts to solving problems under pressure without enough resources, and those kinds of things translate well into other fields of endeavor. I don’t know anyone who sticks with this because of a sense that they don’t have other options, but there’s no one path.
      Hope that helps a little!

  7. brendon permalink
    March 1, 2012 12:40 am

    Hi Nick
    Just wanted to add to the praises and personally say cheers for the work you’ve done in putting this stuff together. Great to hear from the other side.
    Best of luck.
    Brendon. NZ.

  8. Nancy permalink
    April 23, 2012 4:50 pm

    Hello Nick,
    Thank you so much for this information! I will definitely look into buying your e-book. I am an undergraduate student in the U.S. looking for a future career in international educational development, and I want to make sure I take all the right steps to enter this field and don’t end up unemployed with thousands of dollars in debt. How important is the name of the grad school I attend (with all the connections that come from faculty and alumni) versus joining volunteer programs such as the Peace Corps or Teach for China? Big grad school means big debt- should I go to a European university instead? Also, I still have a year left of school and would like to know whether concentrating on research or taking internships is more important. Ideally, I see myself in a management position of one of the programs of the Teach for All Network ( or working for UNICEF in the far future. Does a general degree in international educational development mean nothing? Should I go for a more ‘useful’ degree in management instead? I am a native Spanish speaker (Venezuelan), proficient in French and Italian, and beginning to learn Chinese- how much time should I continue to invest in languages? Sorry for all the questions, but I really want to know everything so that I can make smart choices. Thanks!

    • April 23, 2012 11:14 pm

      Nancy –
      Glad you like it – please do ‘look into’ buying the e-book – I can promise that it won’t leave you thousands of dollars in debt!
      Allright – let’s get to it. Your questions:
      1. “How important is the name of the grad school I attend (with all the connections that come from faculty and alumni) versus joining volunteer programs such as the Peace Corps or Teach for China?”
      I say ‘not very’. I mean, yes, Fletcher, SAIS, etc bring advantages, but you’re much better off banking the extra money and using it to spend time in the developing world volunteering, interning, and making yourself useful until someone hires you. Field experience is much more useful than the right school in getting your first job.
      2. “Big grad school means big debt- should I go to a European university instead?”
      Debt is a problem for a lot of people – it stops them from taking low paid entry level jobs or volunteering, and so is an impediment to breaking into this line of work. Do whatever it takes to graduate with as little debt as you can.
      3. “Also, I still have a year left of school and would like to know whether concentrating on research or taking internships is more important.”
      Seriously? You don’t know what I’m going to advise you to do? Field experience is almost everything. In general, unless your degree is technical in nature, like engineering or medical, your degree doesn’t matter that much. Experience is much more important.
      4. “how much time should I continue to invest in languages?”
      Languages are a essential for some parts of the world – Latin America, Francophone Africa, the Russian speaking world etc, but for other parts they matter less. If you have them, that’s always a plus, but many agencies will take the right person without the language over someone fluent with a less appealing resume. It’s highly contextual though.
      Get out there- spend as much time living and volunteering in the developing world as you can, and network like crazy. And buy my ebook. 😉
      Good luck – let me know how you do,

  9. Kay permalink
    March 12, 2013 5:29 am

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for this blog! I will check-out your ebook as well. After getting my undergraduate degree last May, I picked up and moved to West Africa with the hopes of finding some experience and getting my foot in the door. I moved from unpaid internship to paid internship and am now looking for my next opportunity. I may get the opportunity to do a Fellowship with a start-up social enterprise in a rural region of the country I’m currently working. It’s not exactly my field of interest, but would get me good, diverse field experience while allowing me to gain deeper knowledge of the country I’m currently living in and continuing to develop my language skills (possibility for full-time hire after the year-long fellowship). I may also have the opportunity to take an entry-level facilitator position in eastern Africa where it would be a full-time position and I would be working on diverse development projects more closely related to my field of interest. My role, however, would be less diverse and I would not have the opportunity to further develop my language skills. My questions is, if given both opportunities, which do you think would be more valuable? Language skills, deep knowledge of a country in my region of interest, and a more diverse job function through a fellowship? Or a full-time entry-level position in a different region working on projects more closely related to my field of interest but in a more narrow job function? Of course, I realize both would be great opportunities and I would lucky to have the option of choosing! Thanks in advance for any advice!

    • March 12, 2013 10:58 am

      Hi Kay –
      Thanks for checking out the e-book – people buying and rating that on Amazon really helps me to support this site!
      As to your question, I’m not sure I can really settle this for you – I think I would look at least in part at what kinds of organizations these opportunities are with – you should be considering either one as a stepping stone, and partly evaluating the likely opportunities each will provide you with for your next move.
      Sorry not to be able to tie-break that for you, but it sounds like you’re in a good predicament!
      I would love to chat a little more, and interview you about your experience moving to Africa to look for opportunities – it sounds like you might have a lot of insight to share – let me know if you’d be interested,

  10. Ahmed permalink
    January 16, 2014 4:28 am

    Hi Richard,

    Really enjoyed reading your blog, still only half way through it though. Just to give you some background, I am currently doing an anthropology of development degree at at pretty good London University college, having worked as a lawyer in the both central and local government, dealing with issues such as procurement, with my last job involving managing a team of five. I am now 38, and my only experience in development is a short volunteering stint in Karachi. I speak five languages, which include Arabic, Urdu and Swahili, and I am of mixed South Asian and Zanzibari ancestry, which might or might not be an asset. A couple of questions for you, starting with obvious, am I to old to enter this field, secondly can I specify the regions I am interested in at the application stage, and finally I came across this website, they claim to be able to help in preparing cvs and covering letters for a fee, are they legit.



    • January 17, 2014 12:22 pm

      Hi Richard!
      Your questions, in order:
      1. No.
      2. Generally applications are for a specific job in a particular place, but not always – you can always specify preferences and areas you don’t want to go, although it may reduce your likelihood of being hired a little.
      3. Sorry, I have no idea.
      Good luck!

  11. Aubrie permalink
    February 8, 2014 8:07 am

    Hi Nick,

    I really like your website and am thinking about getting your book. I have spoken with some UN people as well as some people at USAID and they all tell me, much like you do, that I need field experience (I am an MA student, nearly finished, with some field experience but less than a year). They suggested Peace Corps which I would prefer not to do, but do you think that going to a country and teaching English for a year or two would qualify as field experience, or is that not really development?

    My other option is hopping on a plane to Liberia/Sierra Leone/Ghana (its a region I have worked in before and am focusing on in my masters program) and knocking on doors. I have read your pieces about this as well but I am really short on options.

    Thanks for this website, it is truly wonderful.

    • February 8, 2014 10:10 am

      Hi there Aubrie,
      Glad you like the site – please do consider buying the ebook on Amazon and rating / reviewing it – that really helps me cover the costs of maintaining the site.
      I’ll be honest – I don’t think teaching abroad ‘counts’ as field experience for most positions. You want to show experience living and working in the kinds of places you want to work, doing related things. I’m a big fan of Peace Corps as a structured, straight forward way to get two years of experience, network, build contacts, and network (you see what I did there?). I’m not sure what your objections are to it, but if you can get relevant field experience some other way that’s great too!
      Jumping on a plane is a mixed bag – I never recommend it unless you absolutely know what you’re doing – that said, it works for a lot of people!
      Good luck, let us know how you do!

      • Aubrie permalink
        February 8, 2014 11:10 am

        I see. That’s what I thought…I’m just confused because most people I know who are in Peace Corps have ended up at teaching jobs in their respective countries so I wasn’t sure how it would really be different.

        Also, I purchased the book. Thanks!

  12. February 8, 2014 2:00 pm

    Thanks – you know, I’m not sure – but there is certainly a ‘Peace Corps Mafia’ in the aid business, and there are a lot of people who are not teachers in Peace Corps. The important thing is to make sure you take advantage of opportunities to get involved with relevant other activities and build your professional network.

    • Xaerox permalink
      April 21, 2014 2:05 am

      Hi I am a medical graduate and post that have done my MBA and have been working with a food and beverages company for almost a year now as a finance manager. I have always realized that I want work which is meaningful and more than money which gives me the satisfaction of having helped someone improve their life. Also to be completely honest which affords me the opportunity to travel to exotic locations. How can I go about applying for a job with the UN,WHO or doctors without borders. My qualifications are mismatching with low levels of work experience, I have been educated in elite colleges, both medical and MBA in India but want to start in the humanitarian field, Kindly suggest how can I go about it.

  13. July 29, 2014 1:46 pm

    Hey, this was a really great read (albeit discouraging) about what I have ahead of me breaking into the nonprofit international humanitarian aid field, and I appreciate knowledgeable material on the subject. For anyone who wants to work on gaining some experience, I’m putting together a blog on international volunteering, among other things. Its new, and I’m new, but if it can help get anyone involved ill consider it a success! Check it out: !
    Thanks again 🙂 good luck!

  14. Mikhail permalink
    March 18, 2015 4:48 pm

    It seems that you have provided me a problem without a solution. If gaining a position requires experience, how does one go about getting experience in the first place?

    • March 18, 2015 6:55 pm

      Well, if you read the site, I do provide some suggestions.
      Good luck,

  15. Stephanie permalink
    May 27, 2016 2:29 pm

    Hi, is there an email I could get in touch with you instead of posting here??

  16. Elhassan permalink
    August 8, 2016 4:16 pm

    Hello nick
    Thank you for your great article, I have recently graduated from high school and I am very interested in working in the ngo section ( certainly with the un) , I am wondering about two questions, would be very grateful if you are able to give me your opinion.
    1- do you think it makes sense to take a volunteer trip abroad before starting my bachelor degree to have more insight into the ngo and humanitarian sector?
    2- how many languages are enough to get you a competitive candidate? I speak fluent English and Arabic and currently learning German and French ( hopefully I will be fluent before finishing my university degree)



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