Skip to content


Q. What is the purpose of this site?
A. I used to run the overseas internship program for a US based international NGO and got asked for my advice on how to get a foot in the door a lot. It got to the point where I couldn’t take every call, so I started a blog with my answers, and started taking informational interviews only if someone was going to ask a question that I hadn’t answered. That exercise got a little out of control, and you’re looking at the result…
I’ve also been in the position of being frustrated at not being able to get information on how to break out of the experience catch-22 situation.
This site is my personal opinion as someone who has worked in the field both as a practitioner and on the recruiting side. It is the distilled version of the information that I would give in an informational interview.
I should make clear that this blog is not the view of my employer. It’s not necessarily what I think is best for the humanitarian community, and it’s not how I think the world should work. It’s simply my honest opinion on the best way to get your first job in this line of work.

Q. Can you help me get a job in relief and development work?
A. Not directly. I can tell you what I know about getting your first job, which is the purpose of this site.

Q. What do you know about this subject?
A. I’ve worked for large well-funded international relief agencies and volunteered for tiny locally run non-profits. I’ve run large logistical operations supporting refugee camps in major emergencies, and worked one-on-one with returning refugees in rural communities. I’ve recruited for humanitarian programs, and run an international internships program for a major international relief and development agency based in the US and the UK.

I’ve run programs funded by most of the world’s major donor agencies including a handful of UN agencies, US Federal Agencies, UK, and European funders, as well as private foundations.
More importantly than this though, I’ve been in the position trying to break into this line of work, and successfully navigated the obstacles. In addition to my take on this, throughout this site you’ll find excerpts from interviews from people who have recently found work in this area, and from people who recruit for the industry. You’ll get a range of views on what hiring managers are looking for and how to get their attention.

Q. Don’t you think it is irresponsible to suggest that people should travel to emergencies and look for work?
A. I’m certainly not recommending that anyone do that – that’s a decision that they would have to make for themselves. There are risks both for the individual and problems that unprepared volunteers cause. Having said that, the reality is that a lot of people who end up working in this field get their first job this way, and I think the fairest thing to do is to present the information as best I can. I feel it’s patronizing to say that people shouldn’t do what I and many others have done. People need to make their own decisions with the best information available.

Q. I think you’re wrong.
A. Please do drop me an email, or comment on the blog. I’m very interested in feedback. Even if I don’t agree with you, I will try to find a way to present an alternate point of view.

65 Comments leave one →
  1. Matthew Wall permalink
    January 8, 2011 12:48 pm

    Thank you for the article, it was very informative and helpful. I am currently looking into grad schools, in an international development degree, and I would love any advice you have on choosing a school. You already mentioned practical experience component, but are there other things you feel are important to have in the experience? As well, do you recommend any particular programs or know of any resources evaluating programs? I’m based in Canada and I’m having a hard time finding good programs in Canada.

    Thank you

    • January 8, 2011 2:14 pm

      Hi Matthew – thanks for the feedback, it’s always good to hear this is useful!
      I guess the bad news is I can’t tell you which graduate program to choose, partly because I’m not very familiar with the offerings in Canada right now, and partly because I don’t know enough about what you want to get out of the experience, or your experience so far. Drop me an email and we can chat about specifics, but in general, I think that if it isn’t clear to you which school you should go to, you shouldn’t go back to school yet.
      What I mean by that is that I don’t think graduate school, in general, helps much in getting your first job. It’s primary value is in making you a better professional, and helping you get subsequent jobs. If you’ve spent a significant amount of time in the field already, I would suggest that you need to look at what drives you, and what areas you find yourself frustrated at a lack of skills in, and find a grad school that matches that. If the answer to that question isn’t clear to you, then I would say go back to the field until it is!
      Of course, this is a very personal issue – I know a lot of people who went straight to grad school before they held their first job, and everything was fine.
      There’s no one way to do it, but I’m happy to chat on email about your specifics if you like,

      • March 28, 2015 5:58 am

        Hey, Nick! (don’t you love how many of the comments/emails start this way! lol)
        Have you had any more luck looking into Canadian options for recent grads to get some overseas experience? I made the jump froom corporate to international development work about a year ago (after following most of your advice for the previous five years as I prepared!) and I’m loving it. My company (an African based agriculture development NGO called One Acre Fund) hires quite a few Princeton in Africa fellows as well as Peace Corps graduates. From everything I’ve heard, both of these programs are amazing opportunities for budding aid workers. I’ve just never heard of any large scale Canadian equivalents…maybe your readers have?
        Keep up the great work!

  2. Michelle permalink
    January 25, 2011 2:18 pm

    This is incredibly helpful. Thank you SO much! Please keep posting!

    • January 28, 2011 9:49 am

      Thank you Michelle, I’m glad it’s helpful.

  3. Sasha permalink
    February 15, 2011 7:16 am

    Thank you for the article!It is really helpful.
    Yet, I cannot understand one thing: how to discern between the real wish and potential to work in relief and development field, and mere youthful enthusiasm. I’d like to work in this area, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to spend the whole life doing it. I still have time to change my major (it is, by the way, International and Comparative Politics)

    • March 6, 2011 4:11 pm

      Well the good news is that you don’t ever have to spend your whole life in one career these days! There are a lot of people who end up working in this line of work for a few years and then changing careers to go into academia, the private sector, government, pretty much anything. If there is one skill set you will pick up in humanitarian aid it is solving problems with insufficient resources under time pressure, and you’d be hard pressed to find an area of work where that isn’t valued.
      The bad news is that I can’t solve your crisis of direction. The best I can offer is to tell you to go spend as much time as you can traveling, living, and, if possible working, in the developing world. College is a great time to spend vacations on internships abroad and independent travel. Go visit some aid agencies in the field and see if you can talk someone into giving you a tour of some project sites, get as much of a feel for it as you can.
      I used to tell people that if they could possibly be talked out of a career in this line of work they should be, and that it was only for people who felt that they could not possibly be happy doing anything else, but these days I am a little more optimistic. You should give it a shot if you seriously think it might be for you – you’re not signing up for life!

  4. Jill permalink
    April 19, 2011 8:54 am

    Hi Nick – A great resource here for anyone interested in relief work. If possible, I’d like to chat further through email with a few specific questions in regards to mid-career transitions into the field. I have a small amount of previous experience in volunteer relief work both locally and internationally. Look forward to hearing from you.

    • April 19, 2011 9:22 am

      Hi Jill – glad you found it helpful – please feel free to drop me an email (it’s on the About tab). Nick

  5. Duncan Sharp permalink
    January 2, 2012 8:38 am

    Firstly thank you, this information has been very helpful and informative. There is a couple of questions that I have though…
    It seems to me that some of the main qualities and skills required for a humanitarian aid or disaster relief worker are physical and mental toughness, ability to think clearly and effectively in stressful situations and under pressure, excellent leadership and decision making, and logistical skills. Also important is the experience of having worked abroad in less developed countries.
    All of these qualities, skills and experiences it seems to me are obtainable from a military background. In fact I cannot think of a better way to train and develop skills in logistics and management for maximum efficiency, in the sort of environments required for humanitarian work, than with the armed forces.
    Is it the case that a previous career in the military (4 to 5 years) would be favorable on the CV of anyone applying for a role within a humanitarian aid agency or NGO? And is it likely that applicants with a military background will be considered for higher jobs than just starting at the bottom as volunteers? How do you think this idea compares with the alternative of starting at the bottom with aid organisations and trying to get your foot in the door and gain experience that way?
    Thank you very much for your help.

    • January 10, 2012 9:43 am

      Hi Duncan – thanks for your feedback!
      I’m overdue a post on the issues of translating military experience to the INGO sector, but let me give you my quick observations on this.
      I think you’re right in that the key skills of international humanitarians often boil down to being able to get things done in chaotic environments, and I don’t disagree that the military can be a good preparation for those kinds of skills. I know a handful of people who have made the move from the armed forces to the humanitarian world successfully.
      The catch is that there are radically different organizational languages, cultures, values and practices, and the NGO world often brings a lot of ‘baggage’ about the military with it. The key is to focus on transferable skills – don’t assume that the person reading your military resume understands anything about what you did or the skills you picked up.
      Perhaps the worst case I’ve seen of this are the military style resumes that list certifications and trainings (weapons systems, vehicles, techniques) with a list of activities undertaken. You need to explain in very simple terms why what you did in the military equips you to work in this field.
      The other issue is the culture. INGO workers often assume that people with military backgrounds will bring a very hierarchical management style, and be unable to cope with a much more fluid and consultative working relationship with colleagues. It’s often the case that a country director will be utterly unable to ‘order’ his expatriate staff to do anything – they have to depend on being able to win the confidence and respect of their team, not rely on titles or positions on the org chart.
      How INGOs deal with issues like decision making and security management are obviously different from the armed forces, but be prepared to deal with values questions too – what do you really believe about the legitimacy of organized violence in these kinds of environments, and how do your personal value systems bridge the differences between military and humanitarian values?
      To sum up, I think there’s value there, and I’ve seen people make the transition. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it though, mainly because of the huge amount of prejudice that the humanitarian community carries around about the military. It will be an up-hill struggle to convince colleagues of the transferable nature of the skills you learned.
      Good luck!

      • Duncan Sharp permalink
        January 29, 2012 3:51 pm

        Hi Nick,
        Thanks for your valuable feedback.
        The issue I have here is that I am soon to finish Uni with a degree in Conservation and ecology (not international development as would be favourable). As i have read on this website it can often be very difficult getting your foot in the door in the humanitarian sector, in order to work up the ladder and learn the necessary skills. The link I made with the forces was purely as a learning experience; to equip me with the skills and experiences necessary for this sector. Consider for example that I joined the forces today. I could spend three years there and leave with the majority these skills to hand. I may have instead spent this time scratching around for aid work, trying to get my foot in the door, but not yet having achieved the break I needed…(and consequently having learned nothing)
        It just seems that the skills learned in the forces are very transferable to INGO work, but by learning them in the forces, you can remove the unreliability and difficulty in trying to get a foot in the door of the humanitarian sector….
        Perhaps though this stigma towards the military that you mentioned before may in fact be counterproductive?
        Let me just say at this point that I have no particular desire to join the forces, I am purely trying to be as efficient and rational as possible.
        Thanks again for your time.

  6. January 29, 2012 4:17 pm

    Hi Duncan – I don’t disagree that it could be a valuable way to pick up a useful skill set, I would just caution that you might have a hard time selling that skill set to an audience that has little understanding of the military training and often comes to the table with a high degree of skepticism.
    Having said that I’m not sure I think that int dev would be better than your current degree- there is a lot of talk in the humanitarian sector right now about climate related poverty and disasters – I think your degree could end up being very valuable. I would really encourage you to make a concerted effort to get as much field experience as you can, whichever route you take – good luck,

  7. Duncan Sharp permalink
    January 29, 2012 4:22 pm

    thank you

  8. Gee permalink
    May 13, 2012 4:15 pm

    Hi Nick. I’m ridiculously glad that I’ve stumbled upon this extremely helpful and informative site. I’ll definitely be buying your ebook and buying a couple of books from your links as soon as my payday comes in.

    I’m absolutely hell bent on finding humanitarian work of some description.But I’m in something of a muddle as to which direction to take my experience. In a nutshell, I have a law degree and ten years experience of working in a lawyer’s office (paralegal criminal work). I have spent 7 of the last 18 months in and out of Tanzania. I initially went there to volunteer for a couple of months as a pre primary school teacher. I returned as soon as I possibly could and I now help run the school with 4 others. I’ve just returned from a 5 month stint there. As well as fundraising for the school, I also recruit volunteers. The school has 50 children and its a free school in an extremely poor area of northern Tanzania. I also have experience of setting up small businesses for some of the children’s families, some of which are thriving (thanks to the hard work and determination of the families involved!). I’ve also managed to secure sponsorship for a lot of the children to go on to a more established English medium school in the area. I’d like to think that I’m pretty adept at fundraising and organising fundraising events, and its something I enjoy doing – especially if I get to see first hand where the money goes. I speak some Swahili and continue to learn it to improve on any future visits (I have Tanzanian friends who are helping me with that!).

    At present I’m in a cycle of working seasonally, saving up my cash, fundraising in my spare time and then returning to Tanzania over the UK winter months (usually December to February). My ideal is to break this cycle by using my experience to find relevant full time work in the humanitarian world. being employed at the school is not an option as we employ two teachers and a school manager.

    I have also volunteered locally by helping to open up a boxing club and being their fundraiser and secretary and working for the National Trust (rolling up my sleeves and getting dirty!).

    Although my work abroad has only taken me to Tanzania so far, I feel drawn to Peru and Ecuador and am learning Spanish with the purpose of going there to work/volunteer if I dont decide to return to Tanzania this winter.

    I’ve also been considering doing a TEFL course, but while that may get me a teaching job abroad, it may not be what I really want to do. Would a TEFL qualification look good, do you think?

    Any thoughts and suggestions on any part of this message will be gratefully received. I’m just finding it hard to decide where to go from here. I guess I’m hoping that you’ll read this and say “I got just the job for you!”. My apologies for rambling.

    Look forward to hearing from you


    • May 14, 2012 1:40 pm

      Hi Gee – I’m glad you like the site!
      First off, it sounds like you have a really interesting project that you’re working on, and, had you not said that you were hell bent on doing this for a living, I might have suggested that this kind of contribution can be a really positive thing in its own right. But, since you di, let’s look at how to pivot this experience into a paying job…
      There are two things I would suggest. The first is network. Network, network, network. Get a list of all the international organizations working in Tanzania, and get meetings with their country director, deputy, or director of operations. Pitch your project to them, and explain what you’re trying to do there and your career objectives. Being there on the ground is huge, and these relationships are very very important, not just for jobs in Tanzania, but because these people will know hiring managers elsewhere too. In fact, while you’re at it go through Kenya and hit up the regional HQs of the big INGOs there – nearly all of them have regional offices in Nairobi. It’s through a connection made with one of these people that you’ll get a job. Use Linkedin, share project reports and things you’re proud of with them. Don’t make a nuisance of yourself, but be graciously persistent. Update them quarterly with something you are proud of and let them know what you’re looking for.

      Number 2. Your resume. I haven’t seen it, but you need to break it out so that it’s clear that what you’re doing there is professional, organized, and that you’re being effective. The term ‘volunteer’ carries unfortunate baggage – there’s no need to declare it unless you’re asked – use a titles that play up your fundraising, recruiting, management etc.
      Focus on the high level activities, and don’t play up the getting your hands dirty elements.

      The humanitarian industry doesn’t value TEFL.

      On a personal level I would steer clear of Latin America just because it is SO hard to add value there as an expatriate – there is a hugely skilled domestic development industry there that really doesn’t need a lot of foreign input at this point.

      I’m sorry that I don’t recruit any longer, and don’t have the job for you, but please do let me know how you do – good luck!

      • Gee permalink
        September 3, 2012 4:22 am

        Hi Nick. A very belated thank you to you for your response and advice. I’m returning to Tanzania in December, and will venture to Kenya too. I was also considering approaching NGOs and asking them if I could work with them for free and see what they say. That might work! I have cash saved to last me about 6 months or so. I’ll keep you posted on whether or not I get lucky! Thanks again for all your advice. Much appreciated.

  9. Nishi permalink
    June 13, 2012 12:38 pm

    Hi Nick,

    My name is Nishi and recently completed a BA Hons degree in Hotel Management and Food Studies a little on Nutrition too. Although I studied the above, my passion has been to work with an NGo. I have no qualification on this field, but I have been helping voluntary and fundraising on my own to help people I know. I would love to work for humanitarian organisation as job full time but it seems so hard. Do you have any advice for someone like me on what to do?

    Thank you.

    • June 13, 2012 12:44 pm

      Hi Nishi – congratulations on graduating. You know, this site is my distilled advice on how to get a job in this field – do you have a more specific question that perhaps isn’t addressed here?
      Good luck,

  10. maxi permalink
    June 28, 2012 10:39 am

    Hi Nick,

    I’ve got a good human geography degree. I’ve been accepted to an international masters in development practice which includes 3 months in Rwanda. However, I have to get real. I’m in my early 30s and a mother of two young kids. I have a supportive family but I would probably be looking at an office based role until my kids get older. Any advice with my limited experience.

    • Thomas permalink
      August 14, 2012 2:19 am

      What part of the world or US are you living in? Options can be large if you are in a place like DC, much smaller if you are in Iowa. The most logical option would be to look for a local branch of an NGO that you are interested in and pursue them there. This can sometimes turn into overseas work, more often than not it won’t, but it will at least start helping you build your resume. For example, the International Rescue Committee has 22 offices in the US and are usually hiring, though not every position has an overseas equivalent. UNICEF is currently building their staff in Houston, etc. Check out,, and for leads.

  11. August 26, 2012 5:03 pm

    Hi Nick, Thankyou so much for putting all this fantastic advice out there. I’m 20 yrs old, based in the UK and currently working as a waitress to get myself through an Access to Humanities Course at college, wanting desperately to dive into exactly this kind of work, but not knowing what experience I should be working towards acquiring!
    (Have only got a tiny bit of experience volunteering at a youth centre)
    I’m currently thinking over my choices for University courses, leaning towards Law, and was wondering if there was a course more specific to this kind of work that maybe you could recommend looking into?
    I’m sick of wasting my life knowing that this is what I passionately want to be doing, and would really appreciate a tiny bit more help if you can spare it!
    Thankyou again, Emma

    • August 27, 2012 1:04 am

      Thanks for the feedback, please do consider buying the ebook – it really helps me to support the site.
      To your specific question, I wouldn’t worry too much about not feeling that at 20 you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing – getting your degree is an important first step regardless of what you end up doing. In terms of university degrees, I honestly would not advise a law degree unless you want to practice law (and there are relatively few opportunities to do that in the humanitarian world). There just are not that many jobs where that would be a key qualification. Honestly in terms of degrees, I would study whatever you are interested in. Something with an international bent certainly won’t hurt, and could well help you get international experience, which leads me to…
      The single most important thing to do, and I think much more important that anything else, is to get field experience. That means to get experience living and working in the kinds of places you want to get a job. You need to find volunteer opportunities, internships, travel scholarships etc, and get out there, make contacts, and build a portfolio of experience that will convince a hiring manager that you know what you’re letting yourself in for and can get things done in challenging environments.
      That’s the advance of a development studies degree (or something like it) that you stand a better chance of getting field experience into the deal.
      Good luck, let us know how you do!

  12. September 2, 2012 3:51 pm

    Will get right on it, and definitely looking forward to reading the eBook (: Thankyou Nick!

  13. Cora Marr permalink
    January 24, 2013 6:51 am

    Dear Nick,

    Having found your blog extremely helpful in showing me that this is what I am really motivated to do in the future, I have a few questions about where to begin. I’m currently doing my Erasmus year in Paris (third year at University) and because I am fortunate to get a long Summer holiday I want to do some volunteering overseas. Could you help to point me in the right direction? I am finding it difficult to find something which does not require me to have already finished my degree.

    Thank you!

  14. Nicholas Pedrick permalink
    April 10, 2013 1:15 am

    Dear Nick,

    First off let me say a big thank you for the invaluable material on this site. I’ve been searching for something like this for quite some time!

    My background is perhaps a little different in so much as I am just about to graduate as a mature student in International Relations and have already secured a place on a very good course (at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester UK). However, having read your blog posts I am now wondering if grad school really is the way forward. Given that I changed career paths (used to be a chef) and am about to get married to a Canadian my life doesn’t necessarily fit the ideal picture of a humanitarian worker. I have links to a small water and sanitation NGO in Uganda that might provide work experience but it would have to be at the cost of a place on the course. What I’m really getting at is that is seems much harder for someone in their 30’s who is about to start a family to be thinking about this as a career; it is something that I have chosen though and as such I wonder if you might have any sage advice?

    Many thanks,

    • April 12, 2013 11:36 am

      Hi Nick,
      Thanks for your kind words – please do consider buying the Amazon e-book and reviewing it – that really helps me to keep this site going!
      OK – now to your question – bear in mind that my advice on grad-school is my general thoughts on matter, and your milage may vary. Certainly programs like the one you’re enrolled in can be really helpful both professionally, and in terms of networking, and I think that it may well be a really good fit for you as a career switcher. In general I caution people from going straight from undergrad to grad school without any work experience at all.
      As to whether your career so far makes you an ideal humanitarian worker, the field is full of people with very odd backgrounds. Don’t be surprised if yours doesn’t really raise any eyebrows in terms of being the strangest!
      On the family issue, yes – it is tougher when you have commitments to other people in your life – you can’t drop everything and go anywhere at a moment’s notice. Don’t worry too much about that though, there are certainly ways to do it.
      The bottom line is I think I don’t want to talk you out of grad-school – the Ugandan NGO will still be there when you graduate!
      Good luck – let us know how you do!

  15. Toby permalink
    June 12, 2013 9:47 am

    Hey Nick,

    I was wondering if you had any words of advice for me. I had always hoped to build a career in international development. I have a undergraduate joint degree in International Relations and Politics

    …but could not find employment with an NGO/IGO.

    I went onto to complete a MSc Masters degree at a very well respected university in International Public Policy

    ….but could not find employment with an NGO/IGO.

    After a year applying for entry level positions with charities and other organisations within the sector, I participated in the UK Department for International Developments International Citizen Service Scheme (unpaid charity volunteering) with Voluntary Service Overseas (3 months)

    …but I am STILL finding it near impossible to find entry level NGO/IGO positions…and get an interview.

    I thought I had the right academic background to get a position on a young professionals scheme…but I graduated to long ago to qualify for most of them. I thought VSO ICS would give me valuable experience in the field…but most NGO/IGOs ask for MORE than 3 months experience.

    I have dedicated so much time, effort and money into a career in international development…and I am close to just giving up on the idea. I have spent so much time constructing and adapting detailed cover letters…only to apply to an organisation and never hear back from them. It is extremely irritating and demoralizing. How can someone with my qualifications and experience find it that difficult to get a job. I am currently unemployed and still looking.

    Kind Regards,


  16. Toby permalink
    June 16, 2013 7:58 am

    Thank you for your reply Nick. It is very much appreciated. I will begin to look for ways of gaining experience in the field. I have been looking for paid positions…or at least a position where my airfare is paid for. I guess I had hoped that volunteering in Nigeria with ICS would have been enough to get me an entry level job…but I am probably wrong (it was only 3 months).

    It is a shame, because the ICS program is funded by the Department for International Development and my reference is very good…I thought that would give me a foot up. I have experience project managing in a developing country now…I enjoyed it and I think I am pretty good at it.

    I will have a look at the webpages you have suggested.

    Thanks Nick

    • June 17, 2013 3:16 pm

      Sorry Toby – I feel like a downer on this, but I really do think more field experience is what you need. Do let us know how you do,

  17. Layse Farias permalink
    June 29, 2013 10:59 am

    Dear Nick!
    I recently came across your ebook through a friend and loved it! You’ve absolutely confirmed all my doubts about getting a job in this field. I have just made a review of your book on Amazon, it’s amazing! I have an e-reader, but not a Kindle (I have a Kobo), do you think it would still work on my device? I am very interested in buying it so I can finish reading where I stopped!

    I was also wondering if you could give me a small advice. I’m originally from Brazil, but have been living in Europe now for the last 2 years. I have two bachelor degrees, a Law degree (5-year program) and an International Relations degree (4-year program), as well as a master’s in Conflict Resolution and Governance from the University of Amsterdam. I’ve always been on the honor role and given everything I do my very best. However, in practice, this hasn’t meant much for me.
    I am the only one of my friends back home, from both universities, to decide to pursue this career. In Brazil, opportunities in this field are very limited. My dream is to work for an international organization or an NGO. I know that I need more years of experience in order to find a job in an IGO, so I’ve been trying at NGOs instead. However, since I’m not European, I can’t apply to most of the jobs, because I don’t have a work visa (which wouldn’t be an issue with an international organization since they have agreements with the host countries). All of my colleagues from Europe, even the ones who weren’t very interested in working in this field, or those who weren’t very hard working to begin with, have been able to find work. I haven’t. So, I’m in somewhat of a dilemma. In order to work for an international organization I need experience. In order to get experience I need to be able to find a job that will sponsor my visa (nearly impossible right now in Europe). My visa will expire in September and I will then have to go back to Brazil. I know that once I’m there I’ll have to work in the private sector, as everyone I know is doing. So in the end, it seems like I’m never going to be able to get the experience I need to pursue this career!
    It is very sad and depressing at times, because I want this so bad. I’ve put so much effort into achieving this dream (I’ve been in college for the last 10 years, I speak 4 languages fluently, my parents have been sponsoring me while I’m doing an unpaid internship at an International NGO in the Netherlands) and now it all seems like it was in vain. I’m very thankful for my family and friends for always supporting me. I know they would never say or think that I have been wasting all this time/money for nothing, but sometimes that’s how I feel. I also know that if given the chance, I’m very capable of doing a good job. My bosses have always told me that and they also feel bad that they can’t hire me because I’m not an EU citizen. They’ve been trying to help me, but that’s just the reality right now. In terms of field experience, I’ve been doing unpaid NGO work in Brazil for years. I also spent several weeks in India pursuing field work and collaborating with local NGOs. I’ve been doing unpaid work for so many years that sometimes it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to get a real job.

    Do you think there’s just no solution in my case? I don’t want to be the “Debbie Downer” but I’ve been searching for a job throughout my internship (the last 10 months) without any luck.
    I know you’re probably a very busy person and I appreciate you taking the time to respond to people! Your book and blog are both great! Thank you so much for doing this!!

    Kind regards,

    • July 2, 2013 2:41 pm

      Oh my.
      Layse – first off – thanks for buying the ebook – unfortunately I don’t know how to get the Kindle app on the Kobo, but you know that the entire content of the book is available for free on the website, right? The reasons to buy the book is to help me out… Anyway – please do, and thanks for the comment – I appreciate it.

      OK – so you’re bright, well educated, but you’re having trouble getting work experience for visa reasons. It sounds from your question that you’re applying for jobs in the Netherlands? That’s going to be difficult. Have you asked your colleagues and supervisors at the organization you’re with what their advice is, and for contacts and referrals to people who are hiring in the field?

      I’m afraid my advice is pretty much what it always is – you need more experience living and working in the places where you want to work, and you may need to consider just going there and looking for work. It’s going to be a lot easier to get hired in the field than from a headquarters office.

      Good luck – I dot think your situation is hopeless at all! Let us know how you do,

  18. jeffrey permalink
    July 9, 2013 3:26 pm

    Hi Nick,

    I read through much of your material on the blog and I want to tell you I think it’s fantastic and well organized.

    I wanted to get your opinion on the humanitarian situations that are happening now. Which area do you think are in the most need, (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Mali, etc. ) ? Although you explicitly say you do not suggest going to the site to look for work, I am considering this route very seriously after spending some time in Washington DC (I don’t belong there ).

    I would be very interested in your specific recommendations on how to connect with aid workers once there, for someone who has absolutely no connections on the ground.

    My background is this: I’ve traveled extensively through some rough areas on my own before. This led me to pursue a MA degree in International Relations, which I have. I’ve decided I want to be a humanitarian aid worker. I just don’t know how yet.

    Thank you!


    • July 9, 2013 7:59 pm

      Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for your kind feedback – I appreciate it – I’d also love it if you could go and rate my ebook on Amazon – and buy it too!

      So – you’re right – I don’t advise you go to any of the places on your list – in fact my advice would be that you should not go to any of them.

      That out of the way, by far the biggest emergency of the most recent few years in terms of humanitarian response is the greater Syria crisis (greater because a lot of the response is playing out in neighboring countries). For any emergency or conflict, there is going to be a calm country in the neighborhood that NGOs and others use to ‘stage’ for the response. For a lot of East Africa that’s Nairobi, for example. You need to pick an area (if that’s what you’re committed to doing, against my advice) and work out where the response is being staged from. You should be able to travel safely there, and then network and volunteer with agencies who are responding to the crisis. A good place to start is the UN coordination lists. The next best place is to figure out which agencies are there, and then figure out where their regional offices are and who is running them.

      It doesn’t hurt to start making those connections now though – you need to begin to network, get informational interviews, and make connections through things like LinkedIn.

      Good luck – let us know how it goes!

  19. Marc-Olivier Boucher-Duplain permalink
    December 31, 2013 9:47 pm

    Hi Nick,
    My name is Marco. I’m a 18 yo boy from Québec, I have a good head on my shoulders, I’m a hard working person, and I know that I have what it requires to do humanitarian work (It might not seem humble, but trust me please).To make it simple, I took a break from college this year as I want to orientate myself about what I want to do in the future. I’ve did some research and sent a lot of e-mails, but I realised that it is not as easy as it seems to find a humanitarian post with no specific skills and no college degree. And reading your blog just confirmed it. The thing is that I don’t mind spending money to find a volunteer post, this is not a problem for me as I’m a tree planter duing summer…
    This experience would litteraly change my life if I am able to find a post… I know that you don’t nomally help people one by one, but I’m lost at the moment. I won’t give up, but I don’t know how and where to find.
    Even a few words from you would me a lot…

    Thanks for what you do, and I truly hope to have a reply !
    Have a good day (and sorry for my poor english level)


    • January 15, 2014 9:35 am

      Hi Marco,
      Thanks for your question – I regret that there’s really nothing practical I can do to help you – I don’t currently work in recruiting. What I would say is that you should go back to college, get your degree, and make sure that you get plenty of experience living and working in the kinds of places you want to work –
      good luck,

  20. Alejandro Valdes-De Paz permalink
    January 20, 2014 1:40 pm

    Hi Nick,

    I’m very glad I found this website. As a soon-to-be college graduate who is looking at how to get into the world of international development, the information here has been extremely helpful. That being said, after reading a comment regarding how you would “steer away from Latin America” I got scared. I should be graduating this upcoming summer with a BA in International Relations and a Certificate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. I am fluent in Spanish and have a decent knowledge of French and on top of that I am of Salvadoran and Cuban descent. I plan on attending grad school but only after gaining experience. As of now, I am planning on moving to El Salvador for a year or two to volunteer at some local NGOs (I have an uncle who works with them and has offered to help put me in contact) but after reading that comment I don’t know if that would be wise. I would appreciate any advice and/or if you could elaborate on how I should approach whole “gaining experience” ordeal. Should I go to another region/country to gain it? Would it look bad if I were to go to a region where I share obvious cultural ties? Also, would taking a grant writing course be helpful?


    • January 20, 2014 3:10 pm

      Hi there Alejandro,
      Don’t worry too much about my comments on Latin America, especially as you have language skills and cultural fluency. What I mean is that Latin America generally has progressed hugely in recent decades in terms of being self sufficient in bright educated and talented emergency and development professionals. The region has a tremendous amount of capacity, and the need for Gringos is low and declining. That isn’t to say that it’s not possible to find work, especially for someone with strong ties to the area, simply that for people looking to get a start in this business as an ex-pat it’s one of the toughest job markets.
      Good luck, let us know how you do!

  21. Karina permalink
    June 2, 2014 4:57 am

    Hey Nick, awesome website btw!! your such a contribution to the world!

    I’am seriously looking into gaining a career in the humanitarian field-im thinking of doing an internship with a local NGO i have worked for previously-ADRA- for a year or two and then start looking for a paid career e.g. a program officer or something similar in Australia. Eventually i want to work my way up to working for the WFP. I’am also doing an assignment on this for university and i just have one question for you: What skills/attributes are the most important when looking for a job in this field??

    Any feedback you can contribute would be awesome!! 🙂


    • June 2, 2014 9:26 am

      Hi Karina – thanks for your question – I really feel that this topic gets covered quite a lot here – I don’t think there is any one set of skills or attributes that trump everything else, but I guess if pressed I’d pick resilience, communication, flexibility, and the ability to solve tough problems under difficult conditions!
      Good luck!

  22. Ashleigh Rushton permalink
    January 16, 2015 7:06 am

    Hi Nick

    I’m currently completing a MSc in International disaster management in the UK, however when searching for jobs within this area, all are asking for 3 years minimum experience. How can I break through into this career paradigm with having little experience? Un paid work is unfortunately not an option for me right now, (student debts etc) so I would be really grateful for any advice you could give.

    Thank you


  23. Eoin Raftery permalink
    February 12, 2015 1:17 pm

    Hey Nick,
    My names Eoin from Ireland and Im 16 years old. Ever since a young age I’ve always aspired to want to do something thats actually going to make a difference in the world (a cliche i know) however Im getting towards the stage in school where I’m choosing colleges and careers, the mainstream options have no pull factor for me and after researching humanitarian work extensively I’ve decided its definitely an area i want to be heavily involved in. In college id like to study something along the lines of Law, Politics and phycology and I’m wondering if theres any way i could apply these skill sets to humanitarian efforts abroad. I had the luck in having an uncle who works in Uganda and i visited him during the summer and i never felt such a compelling pull to do something that could possibly help people like those i saw over there. Your opinion on my options would be greatly appreciated!
    Kind Regards,

  24. Jamiya Cathcart permalink
    April 21, 2015 3:00 pm

    Hi, I’m Jamiya Cathcart
    Right now I’m a senior in high school and I’m going to be attending college in the fall. I want to be a humanitarian and wanted to know what I should major in. Also, after I completed college what should I do next in my steps to becoming one. I want to travel around the world and also help people. Based off of that do you think this is the right career for me?

    • April 21, 2015 9:21 pm

      Hi there Jamiya,
      Thanks for you question – as to what you should major in – I think I cover that pretty thoroughly on the site – basically, I don’t think it matters that much. My advice would be to take subjects that interest you, and try to get some experience overseas and some internship work. You don’t mention where you live, but if you’re in the US I would definitely recommend the Peace Corps. While you say that you want to travel round the world and help people, I think getting some experience of travel and work around the world would be very valuable before you make that decision – good luck,

  25. Krysta McClellan permalink
    May 18, 2015 11:39 am

    Hey Nick! Firstly, thanks for making this website. It’s really helpful! So this might be a stupid question and also a question that you might not know the answer to but here goes! Humanitarian aide organizations are always posting newsletters and articles about what they are doing in the field to build publicity for their cause. Basically what I’m wondering is how you would go about getting a job as a journalist for one of these organizations, and what the job would entail? Also, would it be probable to be both a field worker and a journalist?



    • May 18, 2015 11:41 am

      Hy Krysta,
      I’m going to try to answer this one as an article…

  26. Sierra Mike permalink
    May 25, 2015 4:48 pm

    I was wondering if you might have any advice for me, and if you’ve already answered this then I apologize, seeing as how I’ve just found your site. I recently got out of the Army, I’ve served a combat tour in Afghanistan and I was wondering if that would count in any significant way towards experience in the field? I wish that I could say that I have more to offer than security, though I am preparing to take an EMT class this coming fall, but I was a combat engineer while in the military, and not the kind that built things but the kind that dealt with explosives. I would definitely be interested in hearing any advice you have for me, I’d love to be able to actually hire on as a relief worker and continue to try and make a real difference in the world, if at all possible.

  27. Peter Lake permalink
    June 2, 2015 9:20 pm

    Hi Nick, I want to volunteer in aid work. I’m a 16 year old Canadian with no skills, just an able body. Is this possible?

    • May 22, 2016 11:25 am

      Well, all things are possible, but to be honest Peter, the developing world doesn’t need unskilled labor. My advice is to stay in school, go to college or learn a trade, and get some useful skills. Good luck!

  28. February 4, 2016 12:16 am

    Hi Nick, thanks for the blog.Its so informative and very helpful. Now I want to drop you an email, how do i go about this? Thanks

  29. Liz Sanchez permalink
    May 22, 2016 11:21 am

    Hello Mr. Macdonald! Is there anyway I could get an email interview for my English project on our dream careers?

  30. September 1, 2016 7:07 pm

    Hi Nick,

    I am exploring career opportunities in the impact investing space. Would this fall under your area of expertise and help me in landing a job at one of the companies working in this space?

    • September 12, 2016 9:35 am

      Hi Kapish – I’m familiar with impact investing only fairly tangentially – I don’t think I would want to be giving advice on how to get into that sector – good luck, and please do let us know how you do!

  31. Elena permalink
    September 16, 2016 3:20 pm

    I am an RN and have been traveling and volunteering around the world for years. My passion is to ultimately volunteer at a refugee camp but know its not quite as easy as some other missions I’ve been on. I recently applied with the UN and am waiting to hear back. If there is anything you can do to help, any tips you have (other than what you’ve given) or contacts you know to help me network, it would be so appreciated. I am so passionate about this and would love to actually make it a reality!
    Thank you!

    • September 16, 2016 3:26 pm

      OK – I know I keep on promising a medical interview, but really, I will get one scheduled soon!
      Have you ever volunteered with the Red Cross or MSF?
      The UN is a great gig if you can get it but it’s super competitive,
      Let me know what you’ve tried,

  32. Jan permalink
    January 22, 2017 1:05 pm

    Hi Nick.. Are there any agencies in South Africa you might have heard of or know that’s looking to hire?

    • January 27, 2017 10:30 am

      I regret I’m not really familiar with agencies in South Africa – please do let us know what you find if you research this! Thanks,

  33. tash permalink
    August 6, 2017 3:54 am

    Hi Nick,
    thank you so much for all the information you give us,
    I am from New Zealand, however, am getting my degree in Australia to hopefully go into humanitarian field work afterward.
    I have been a lifeguard and rescue diver for the last few years but was wanting to improve medical knowledge & ability. Do you know of any courses that are recognized world wide that I can take in either of the countries in my semester breaks? (I am fine also studying it during term if it takes longer than my vacations but between full-time study and volunteering would be hard to fit in.)
    I know it’s a bit of a long shot but thought I would enquire anyway,
    Once again, thank you

    • August 8, 2017 9:35 am

      Tash, I’d love to help but I regret that I don’t track these kinds of courses – let us know what you find out – good luck,

  34. Alexandrea Trevino permalink
    November 14, 2017 12:05 pm

    Hey Nick,
    I have a few questions for you.
    How do you actually get the job?
    Who pays the people?
    Do you have to be “religious”?
    How did this get started?
    I’m sorry if some of these questions are on the site and I just missed them.

  35. November 14, 2017 12:12 pm

    Hi Alexandrea,
    I think that some of these questions might be on the site already, particularly the question of ‘how do you actually get the job?’. ‘Who pays the people?’ is a pretty complicated question, but you should check out the post on ‘who’s who in the aid industry’. No, you don’t have to be ‘religious’, and how did what get started exactly?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: