How to land a job at an NGO

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You spot an awesome job at an NGO and think you tick all the boxes, so you apply and are confident that you will get the job. But you miss out and don’t understand why. What’s missing from your application? Why is it being overlooked?

In my eight years of working in human resources and as the HR manager at The School of St Jude–a nonprofit school serving over 1,800 students in Tanzania–I have sifted through countless applications and know what it takes to make your job application shine. Here are some tips on improving your chances of getting that dream NGO job.

Your resume and cover letter

Use the cover letter to address the selection criteria

A cover letter is the best chance you have to explain why you’re good a match for the organization and to win that crucial interview. Don’t sell yourself short, even if you don’t meet all the selection criteria. If you can produce a convincing cover letter that demonstrates what you can offer then you will likely secure an interview. Start a cover letter by addressing a simple question: Why should this organisation hire me? Go back to the selection criteria and show how through your experience (both through work and personally) you have strong communication skills, good organisational skills or whatever it is the company is looking for.

Highlight volunteer or community work

Hiring managers look at the types of volunteer and community based work that you have done either at home or overseas. It could be as simple as working in a soup kitchen or organising a fundraiser, however this all goes a long way in showing a hiring manager that you have a genuine interest in community development.

Avoid clichés

We don’t want to hear that you want to go to Africa to save the world. Be respectful to the fact that your destination of choice is likely to have a proud and vibrant culture where people do not like the idea that their country is helpless or in need of saving. Telling an HR recruiter that you “love Africa” gives little insight into how you would be the best person for the job. Have a strong knowledge of the country, culture and job that you’re going for and give good, clear examples about how you are suitable for the role.

During an interview

Demonstrate an understanding of the country and cause

Take a real interest in the organisation, place or industry you are looking at joining. Research, research, research. For example, if you wanted to move to South Africa to fight poverty could you explain to your interviewer what you know about poverty there? You will always be asked at an interview why you want to move to a new country or join a particular company, so if you are well prepared for a job interview it greatly increases your chance of success. Don’t forget to highlight any previous travel or experience you have in a developing country as this reinforces your commitment and interest.

Be aware of the challenges that can come with working in a developing country

Resilience is a key trait that hiring managers are looking for in candidates. You may be a confident, social person at home but that alone is not enough to be able to cope with living in a developing country. Think honestly about how you would handle living somewhere where you don’t have all the comforts of home — where Internet and electricity can drop out regularly. A really good job applicant will demonstrate at an interview that they have the maturity to handle such situations, and that they are sensitive to cultural differences and have experience with working with people from different nationalities.

Be clear about your motivations

Do you really want to help build a sustainable community or fight poverty or another cause? Or are you trying to run away from a problem or boredom at home? The latter can really work against you as it can be difficult to fulfill requirements if you are dealing with difficult, personal issues from abroad. Working in a developing country is a noble act, but make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons.

Good luck in landing that dream job!

Anna Richardson is the HR manager at The School of St Jude, a nonprofit school serving over 1,800 students in Tanzania.

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