How to get a job at an international NGO without any prior experience

How to get a job at an international NGO without any prior experience

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“I’m going to New York City for a conference,” Caroline* tells me, when we hung out last Saturday. “They’re flying me out there.”

“I would have never thought I’d be working here. I never imagined this was all possible,” she says, a huge smile on her face, eyes alit with happiness.

We met last year, through our friend Alison*. Caroline was sad that evening, distraught because she could not find a job doing the kind of work she dreamed of doing. At one point, she burst into tears: “I don’t have any experience in this field. I’m trying so hard to find something, just to get my foot in the door, but it’s been five months and I haven’t found anything yet!”

Happily, her situation did not last long.

Last summer, Alison hosted a party, where she introduced Caroline to Gerhard*, who runs an organisation working in the sustainability sector. Caroline expressed her keen interest in getting her feet wet in sustainability and NGO work. Liking her open spirit and friendly energy, he offered her an internship. After the internship, the organisation offered her a paid, full-time job.

Wondering how you, too, can get your foot in the door of a dynamic organisation in the NGO and sustainability sector? Here’s what Caroline recommends:


  1. Every day is a networking opportunity.

“Alison and I met through a running group-” she told me, “nothing to do with sustainability or NGO’s – and she introduced me to Gerhard at a brunch at her place.


“It doesn’t have to be in a professional setting,” she continued. “It’s more beneficial if you can meet people while being comfortable, having fun. These things will give the best impression of your real self, which is the person that the Managing Director wants to hire, rather than a super professional and manicured version of yourself, who is boring and forgettable.” Seek to be authentic, genuine, and sincere.

Hang out where the kind of person you’d want to work for you might hang out. It could be a running club, or Toastmaster’s, or a book club for Emily Bronte fans. Don’t think about it as networking, think of it as a new activity to integrate into your life.

  1. Follow up

“My first impression on Gerhard was not a good one. It was perhaps one of the worst first impressions I’ve ever made,” she said, laughing.  But, as it turns out, first impressions are not crucial.

“A few days later, I reached out via email, being honest and saying, Hey, I am interested in what you do, and maybe you’d like to get to know a bit about me, too.”

It worked. By the end of that month, Caroline had an internship with the company, despite having no prior experience in the field.

“I expressed my interest, my work ethic and my skill set, and that was enough,” she said.


  1. Adopt a learning mentality.

“Some of the people at the organisation have been doing this work for a long time,” says Caroline. “But it’s so great to be around them, because I’m learning so much.”

“It’s so key,” Caroline continues, “that once you get in, you don’t just sit back. Learn, pay attention, read – play catch up on the job. I’m a strong believer in faking it ‘til you make it. Talk the talk, use the lingo, and just throw yourself in there.”


  1. Bring all of your skills to the table.

“Once I was in the company as an intern, I worked my butt off to prove that I take my work seriously and work well in a team,” Caroline adds. “Interestingly, the things that “sealed the deal” and got me my job were my natural people skills. Most of the other stuff can be learned as you go. It’s what comes naturally to you that’s your greatest asset.


  1. Select for long-term success.

“Before I started this job, I had never written a programme budget, nor designed a social media strategy. But I’m learning how to do it, and I’d love to do work like the programme manager one day, perhaps even work as a consultant,” said Caroline. “My background is in the service industry (hence, people skills) but it has gotten me, step by step, to where I work now.”

Choose your first job based on whether it will allow you to develop the skills you need to perform the job you want to have five years from now.


  1. Market your outsider view.

People ask me, how long have you been working in this field?” Caroline says, cocking her head. “And I tell them, um, like, a few months? And they say, great! A fresh perspective.

“After a while, you’ll realize that you’ve developed your own unique perspective in your organization, and your diverse background adds another key element to the mix.”


  1. Build experience using a multi-pronged approach.

Before we call it a night, I ask Caroline if she wants to meet up again on Tuesday.BenjaminMoser1

“Oh, I can’t,” she says, “I’ve signed up to volunteer with Democrats Abroad, so I’m going to be working on their website and communications strategy.”

“I’m just doing it because I’m afraid of Trump winning,” she grins. I grin back, also hoping Trump doesn’t win, but seeing that she’s building a portfolio of work that, alongside the learning she’s gaining at her current job, she can use to demonstrate skills and expertise to future employers.

And that’s how everyone else gets jobs requiring five years of experience: by amalgamating a portfolio of projects that demonstrate that they have the skills and exposure required by the job posting.



*Names changed to protect privacy.

Top photo via Alice Gao, bottom image by Benjamin Moser.

16 thoughts on “How to get a job at an international NGO without any prior experience”

  • If you are looking for information on how to do it at UNESCO, or the broader UN network as a whole in Paris, check out my LinkedIn profile video on “How to Get a Job in the UNITED System.” It is embedded in the profile and is also available on Vimeo.com.

    It is a professionally produced documentary of a half hour long, made by the University of South Florida Library.


    • @Richard,
      Thank you for sharing the video, which can be viewed directly here: https://vimeo.com/7967667

      The important lessons from your video:
      – Network relentlessly, even if you don’t think you have a network. LinkedIn, Google, and sometimes even Facebook are free resources available to all of us.

      – Think about the needs of the employer: what candidate are they looking for and how can you be that candidate?

      – Know your value and insist upon it ! Don’t do an unpaid internship if you don’t feel happy and proud to work pro-bono, no matter the job or organisation.

  • Hi my name is yosan ….caroline life really giving me hope this impressive geneva is not the place that you can get a job easier,but I hope one day I can get the same chance were my dream will be true ,I am 21 years old and I haven’t get any job or any chance to study in geneva…..great job!

    • @Yosan,
      You don’t need to study in Geneva to get a job there; Caroline in the article above certainly didn’t study anywhere in Europe, but knew what she wanted and was persistent in her goal, trying every possible avenue.

  • Hi
    I want a job in America or Australia or Europe country
    As a driver. .. cook …. house care taker. … Child care. ….. anything job I want my age 40 years old male from India

  • Do you have any tips on interview technique for Skype or possible interview questions asked for an International Organisation? I have an internship interview with the OECD coming up and I think my interview technique is really lacking!

    • @Jacinta, thanks for the question! Absolutely, I have an article coming up on the ten questions you can ask and expect to be asked in an NGO job interview.

  • Thank you for your articles Malaika, they are very helpful indeed.
    I was just wondering and would like a light from you. I am 37 years old, and all my contracts are temporary. Despite I graduated more than 10 years ago and have a master degree, I don’t have much experience because I jump from a temporary contract to another with a huge gap between them. All that I wanted my entire life was to work in an International NGO and to help people who are suffering.
    I’m thinking to study a Master degree abroad (somewhere in Europe), to help me get in touch with this environment and to obtain knowledge. However, as I already have a master degree from a university from my country (more research and academic), I was wondering if it would be better to try a doctorship. What do you think would help me better to have a career in an IO?

    • Hey Aola! Sounds like you’re marketing yourself poorly. I’d suggest getting my CV and Cover Letter Template – and you can get started by downloading the free e-book on writing your CV.

  • Hi! I study Early childhood care and education (NCE) and presently I am doing my B. A In Early childhood education at the National open university of Nigeria. Due to my field I believe I could help in one way the other. if am needed due contact me through my email.

    • Of course your skills are needed! But that’s exactly it: education ALONE is not sufficient – use your time in university to reach out to local NGOs and volunteer or intern on their projects. Seek ways to contribute, so you can get as much exposure to the issues and challenges of your thematic area (early childhood education) as possible, which will give you a boost when it’s time to apply for a full-time job.

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