For a limited time I'll answer questions from students, and encourage other long-term professional aid workers here in AidSource to do the same...

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not a long timer but I'll be happy to share my 5 years experience with anybody in need.

In particular I spent quite some time in East of DRC and Burundi and I'm writing my dissertation on the country so if anybody has an interest let me know.

I'm actually got back to uni for a degree and I'll be happy to answer questions on "bridging the gap" from school to field and vice versa if needed.

I'll be travelling soon for a few days without access to connection, don't be afraid if I do not answer soon. Private messages are also welcome.

I would say that field experience is always, always a plus. The earlier you can specialize, the better ("I work specifically on M&E for rural ag programmes on the subcontinent" sounds pretty good, no?)  Also, if you want to do M&E, make sure you have strong tech skills. Many people in this industry come in from the humanities side, and having more math/computer/analytic skills will give you an edge. 

Hi Sian,

You're facing a tough choice and there are no easy answers! However, it might help if you try to more clearly define what you are hoping to achieve through a work placement. What are the top 5 things you want to get out of it? 

Once you have defined that more clearly, your choice may become easier.  For example, if you are hoping to learn about the aid industry and work alongside people with more experience, probably ICRAF will be an environment where you can get that. Plus it never hurts to have a respected name on your CV. On the other hand, if your goal is to get first hand experience working and living in a developing country, then India would be your bet.

My one caution about going for a grassroots placement is that while you will learn a lot, you will likely be in a position where you are expected to provide advice / skills etc, not in a position where you are expected to develop those. That was certainly my experience, and while it was an amazing life experience, I didn't exactly come out of it with more skills than when I went in. 

One final word of hard-learned advice is not to limit yourself too early to an idea of what you'd like to specialize in. Coming out of undergrad, I was certain that I wanted a career in "Gender" and focus on North Africa. I have ended up finding my professional calling in communications and working mostly in South-East Asia, West, and East Africa - and having no interest in gender and development whatsoever. ;)

Our small NGO has constant, constant problems with the American off-site team. They are all volunteers, and are well intentioned, but our (4 person) on-site team spends a lot of time just explaining and reexplaining programming. For example, I run our M&E and have been told to work with 2+ American volunteers. They have NO CLUE about M&E and I spend more time explaining things to them than I do actually working on M&E!

At the same time, we do really need volunteers. We are such a small NGO, and all of our fundraising, website, marketing is in the States.

We are a fairly young organization (7 years) and I want to improve this system....what could I do to help rework our volunteer network? We need to get people who are more qualified, and the postings on idealist aren't cutting in. 

Sarah, I worked for what I liked to call a baby NGO which was suffering from the same issue except our volunteers were coming to where we were working with no experience or understanding of what they were walking into.

One of the things I think that worked to remedy the situation is to have targeted job descriptions for the positions you are trying to fill including an education and language requiremnet if applicable. Also don't be afraid simply because someone is a volunteer to ask them to complete some type of pre interview testing. For example you could do a test on M&E knowledge of terminolgy and protocols.

Another thing you can do is use those volunteers who were stand outs as mentors to current volunteers so you are answering less questions and doing more of the work you are trying to complete.

Just some ideas...

more or less on the same principle why not using Interns rather than volunteers?

I think that there will be many people just graduated that will be happy to work for free to gain experience on field and according to what you said maybe they can be a step better than simple volunteers.

You might also create link with universities offering degree in the field in order to have a regular flow of interns.

Sarah (and Lauren): 

In general I find the volunteer paradigm generally problematic for exactly this reason. As the old adage goes, "you get what you pay for", and in my experience (which does include working at one time for a small NGO with an overwhelmingly volunteer-centric identity) this is almost always the case with a volunteer-heavy staff, no matter how committed.

Assuming that changing over to a mode of operation where recruiting qualified staff and actually paying them to work for you is not an option, in my experience your options are basically:

1) Manage your volunteer workforce very assertively. This would include things like screening for competence, specific skills, even worldview, and becoming more selective about who is allowed to volunteer. A common tendency is to assume that because volunteer staff are volunteers, somehow the normal rules of good management and supervision don't apply to them. In reality you can manage volunteers in more or less the same ways that you manage paid staff, although you do need to invest in understanding their motivations and rewards. You can 'fire' volunteers for poor performance, too, by the way. 

2) Very dramatically downsize expectations about what you can accomplish in the field. Understand that working with volunteers requires a LOT of investment on the volunteer side. If You are intentionally a volunteer focused/driven/supported organization, then your job does necessarily becomes about educating volunteers about M&E (frustrating as that may be). While your organization may inadvertently get lucky now and again, the unfortunate reality is that you cannot do as much or run programs at the same level of excellence with volunteers as you can with paid professionals.

Volunteer-based programs are generally controversial. But basically, you have to go into them appreciating them for what they are, willing to make the kinds of commitments needed to operate them.

I'm also a Global Studies major getting ready to graduate in May. I would like to do a Masters in some sort of international development degree, but I'm planning on taking at least a year off first (like most people are advising).

I know it'd be a great time to get some experience working... but any specific ideas about how to go about getting an entry level job in the humanitarian sector and/or advice on what are good organizations? I know there are a lot of non-paid internship opportunities, but ideally I'd like to do something where I am at least getting paid a little, because I have loans from my undergrad to pay off..

I just don't really know where to start as far as a job search.. Should I look for small local NGOs, or bigger, more well-known ones? Should I look around where I am living now in Southern California (near my family/university) or should I just look for jobs anywhere? Any advice?

Karly I suggest you to try everything, or at least to apply everywhere and then according to opportunities take a decision.

In my opinion you already spent too much time in SoCal, better trying the field now.

Do you already have a specific interest in a sector or geographic area?


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Hi J.,

As a (fairly) recent graduate, I've done several internships and worked in Washington, DC, in fields unrelated to development or aid. I'm now taking some time off before I consider graduate school and am currently in Hanoi trying to understand the NGO scene. 

I know that mentors are really important for both personal and career development, esp in this field, which seems so overwhelmingly vast. I'm not sure where to begin, but what I have done is follow a lot of practioners blogs (the usual suspects) and their twitters just so I keep abreast of what people "in the field" are currently thinking and talking about.

I hope this isn't a silly question, but, what are some best practices you can recommend in finding a mentor?


Hey Thuy,

It's not a silly question at all. (What I do find truly silly are those people/orgs who try to structure mentorship - "Here, meet your new mentor..." Mentorship and mentoring, in my opinion always happen organically. Anway...)

In my experience, both as someone who has been mentored by different people in the past, and who also now mentors (one or two) others, finding a mentor is 95% personal connection, even "chemistry" though not in a fall-in-love way.

I think it starts with basic acquaintance, then friendship. I'd say try to get to know some of the NGO staff there in Hanoi. I haven't lived there for many years, so can't guide you about who to start with specifically, or where to hang out. But in general - and this is very Hanoi-specific - you want to be thinking more "AmCham" and VUFO expat gatherings, and less the bars on Ngo Bao Khanh. Put another way, for a mentor you want to be making friends with people who can actually mentor you - not senior management (Country Director or Country Rep) so much as mid-management and/or senior technical staff: Senior Programme Officer, Health Technical Director, Operations Manager, etc. (the titles change a bit from org to org). Make sense?

You want as a mentor someone who's been in the game for a few years, got some real world experience, and who knows enough about the industry to give you good advice.

Obviously it's easier in person, but in-person isn't the only option. 

Hope this helps.




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