This is part of our ongoing series Jobs That Require Travel, helping you get paid to travel while doing something you love. Interested in other jobs that require travel? We’ve got links to other in-depth articles about travel jobs at the end of this resource.
All articles in this series are written by people who have worked in the field and actually lived the lifestyle, no bs or fluff. This one was written by my friend Raphi. Take it away…
One of the most frustrating things about travel is how much it can feel like the domain of the privileged few.
When I talk about traveling to friends, they’ll almost invariably sigh and lament that they wish they, too, could do the same. And I can understand, because it can all seem pretty overwhelming.
Here’s a secret, though…
I’ve traveled the world a few times over and my family is poor.
And when I say poor, I mean that my parents wouldn’t be able to scrape together 100 bucks, and have not given me any financial assistance since I was 18.
When I told my mom I wanted to quit my first “real” adult job and travel, I asked her if she would be able to assist me financially if I were homeless/in dire need (I have a penchant for melodrama, what can I say?)
She responded, “What do you mean, honey? Like $50? I could probably do that.”
I talk about this not to show that I’m incredibly special and resourceful, because the truth is most people who are a little bit scrappy and willing to put themselves out there can do what I’ve done.
My one great skill is my willingness to embarrass myself on a regular basis, and I’ve found that this skill has actually served me very well in my pursuit of affordable travel opportunities.
So what’s a savvy traveler like yourself to do?
Well, for one, you don’t need to quit working to gallivant around the globe – you can make work part of your gallivanting by finding jobs that require travel.
There are a lot of options for working abroad, and backpacker jobs can be great, but if you want to do meaningful work, NGO jobs are probably going to be your best bet.
Generally speaking, an NGO is a Non-Governmental Organization, is a non-profit organization that works to solve a variety of problems globally.
Having worked for NGOs internationally, I created this article to help you do three things:
- First, to help you understand some of the issues and provide context around what it means to work for an international NGO.
- Second, to give you some ideas on how you can go about deciding what type of NGO work is right for you.
- Third, to share with you the techniques to find the NGO jobs that are right for you.
What’s Up With NGOs?
Before you embark finding NGO work, though, make sure you know what you’re getting into.
The first question to ask yourself is, “What skills and experiences you can put to good use and how you can be a positive influence on the communities you wish to serve?” After all, your first duty is going to be to them.
Before we go further, here is something to consider.
A lot of NGOs are populated with very smart, wonderful people who care deeply about the people they’re working for, but may inadvertently be doing harm because they haven’t really made a genuine attempt to grasp the cultural context under which they’re working.
To give you an idea of what I mean, imagine this scenario…
A group of 18-26 year old Nepalis, equipped with academic studies showing that squat toilets are healthier and more sanitary than Western-style seated toilets, come to the United States on a mission to gut all of the toilets in the country and replace them with holes in the ground.
None of these people has any experience building toilets, but the studies seem very persuasive, and they’re bringing plenty of enthusiasm and a strong desire to do good. That’s all that matters right?
They can’t speak the local language, though they might be working under an older Nepali, who’s managed to speak English at a conversational level. So the group learns a few key English phrases, but nothing that would help them to hold any sort of meaningful conversation. Sure, they can’t communicate effectively with the locals, but they have some pretty strong ideas about what we need to do to improve our toilet situation. So they get to work installing the new sanitary squat toilets and making our lives ‘better’.
The whole scenario probably seems bizarre, but this is pretty much exactly what happens when young people from wealthy countries travel to poor countries to do good, emboldened by a steadfast belief that they have something beneficial to offer.
Maybe these thoughts have never crossed your mind; it’s definitely not the first thing people think about when it comes to NGO work abroad.
However, keeping these concepts in mind while you search for opportunities will help you find something that is right for you.
There is still plenty of goodness going on out there in the world, which is why finding the right NGO to work for is so important.
How To Find and Get International NGO Jobs That Are Right For You
Here are a few things you can do to get the upper hand when looking for NGO jobs or working in the NGO sector abroad.
Clarify what you really want out of the experience and why you think it’d be great for you and the local community.
What are your motivations and how much time do you have? The more time you can give, the more appealing you’ll become. This really isn’t a good option as a short-term plan to kill a few weeks in the developing world. Dedicating yourself and diving into the whole thin will increase your chances of finding a great job that is right for you.
What do you do well?
Figure out what you do well, and do that. Your skills don’t necessarily have to involve professional training, although that’s obviously always helpful. Great people skills can come in handy and so can a willingness to work really, really hard.
Just understand your core skill set, and where you have a solid foundation. You’re probably not going to do much meaningful work building homes, for example, if you’ve never held a hammer before. If you have language skills and can work as a translator, put them to good use! You don’t necessarily need to have a professional background in and you’re undoubtedly good at something, so figure it out and go from there.
Try not to get bogged down despairing over the enormous issues that you’re facing, because sometimes, especially in poor countries, the problems can be daunting and disheartening. NGO work can be long, hard, and, frankly, pretty thankless at times. It’s hard to be upbeat, but it helps if you temper your expectations and learn to savor small victories. Finding NGOs that make measurable, tangible differences in people’s lives and have a track record of delivering on their goals can help in this regard.
You’re not going to change the world, but you might make a difference in one person’s life, and that can feel pretty incredible.
Network Like Crazy
Once you’ve picked out a location you’d like to work, think about whom you know in your social circle that might have connections there, and contact them. I’ve found many jobs (and helped many of my friends find jobs) by reaching out this way. Having someone to personally vouch for you (especially one who knows the area and might have a good understanding of the work that’s already being done there) is invaluable. Good bets will include:
- Friends who studied abroad in the region – chances are, you have some savvy, smart, worldly friends who care about the same things you do and have made contacts in the region you want to visit. You probably have friends who come from the region, too. Talk to them! I know people who have gotten NGO jobs through Facebook, which seems impossibly silly, but it’s the 21st century, so get on board.
- Local nonprofits with ties to the region – non-profits like the American Himalayan Foundation are going to have a great idea about what’s going on with NGOs in the Himalayas and what’s most needed there. Reach out to them and respect their expertise.
- Former Peace Corps volunteers in the area – this is a no-brainer, but Peace Corps volunteers will have spent two years working on the ground level. They’re going to have a good idea of what’s going on, and they’re going to have made mistakes and seen other people make mistakes which you’ll definitely be able to learn from. Plus they’ll have the best stories.
- Ex-pat communities – a ton of ex-pats work with NGOs, and chances are good that even those who don’t will have connections to the NGO world.
- Your old anthropology professor or a study abroad advisor – If you went to university, took anthropology, and had a professor anything like mine, they’ll be thrilled to hear about your job hunt, and have a hundred million pieces of valuable if somewhat annoying advice on how to not to be a Colonialist. The study abroad advisor at your college can also be a great resource. Ask them to put you in touch with people who’ve studied in your desired region.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to others. You’re going to need to put yourself out there if you want to ask complete strangers to take this chance on you, so get used to it. I’ve found NGO jobs by cold-calling alums from my college whom I’d never met, contacting English-language newspapers in foreign countries, and reaching out to friends of friends on Facebook.
When people ask me how I’ve had found most of the opportunities I’ve had, I have to be honest: it’s because I’m totally and completely shameless. I put myself out there and embarrass myself on a regular basis. There’s no string that isn’t worth pulling, so get at it.
In my experience, most people are thrilled to help out.
Scour job directories.
Most of the jobs I’ve found have been through networking, so I put that first. Job directories are another great way to get inspired and see what’s out there. These directories can be a great jumping-off point, at least to give you a sense of what organizations are doing and how much NGO presence there might be in a given area – especially in the beginning if you don’t know the region very well.
Just beware that reaching out directly to human beings is statistically way more successful, and it can be disheartening to send your resume out to 100 places and never hear back from any. If you do see a listing that looks promising, go to the organization’s website and see if you can get a phone number to call. You might be hesitant to call because of a fear of pestering people, but it’s definitely worth a shot if you feel like you’ve just been throwing your CV into the internet abyss.
Idealist.org is a great place to start your hunt.
My first NGO job came from a volunteer opportunity I found through vfp.org. I volunteered for a summer in a totally affordable (and awesome) program, formed connections, then returned twice as a paid employee. This was great because, from the organization’s perspective, I was risk-free. They’d already met me in the capacity as a volunteer and knew I’d work hard which made hiring me worth their while.
This isn’t a great solution for people who can’t afford to volunteer at all, but some of these programs are really cheap or even free. You’d only responsible for your living expenses and incidentals. If you can afford to keep yourself afloat for the short-term, volunteering is probably one of the easiest ways to get a good in at an NGO. Just beware of the smarmy for-profit voluntourism ventures that exist solely to make a quick buck feeding off the guilt of young Westerners.
Pick up skills locally that will help you become a more desirable employee at NGOs abroad.
First, get a sense of the place and understand the culture you’ll be operating under. If you can speak the local language, you’re going to be a way more valuable asset.
This harks back to the need to really ask yourself seriously, “What it is that I can provide?” If you can’t honestly answer that question, figure it out first.
NGO jobs can be great learning experiences, but NGOs don’t exist for you to find yourself on someone else’s dime.
Skills that are always useful everywhere include:
- Hands-on skills that require strength, like carpentry. Everyone wants to do this sort of work, but most of us are completely useless at it. If you have actual skills here, you’ll be invaluable.
- Farming and gardening. Ditto. This is one of those things that every Joe Schmo fantasizes about doing when they’re 9 to 5 gets particularly mind-numbingly boring, but it is a lot of hard work and requires a ton of knowledge. If you have experience with it, that’s a major selling point, so use it to your advantage!
- Animal husbandry. I’m mostly including this because I love that term, but seriously, that’s useful everywhere. You probably have useful skills if you’ve ever volunteered at an animal shelter or even trained your own dog.
If you want to do these sorts of physical jobs abroad, first try it out in your home country and see if it works for you – they’re way more demanding and exhausting than you’d probably think.
Make sure you’re asking the NGOs all the right questions.
NGOs are going to run the gamut. Some of them do profoundly meaningful work, but a huge number of them are giant useless wastes of resources. I’ve worked for some pretty crappy ones, and I’m sure that most of the well-intentioned work that I did with them was negated by the creepy imperialist overtones and terrible organizational infrastructure. It’s important to vet the NGO thoroughly. It’s a red flag if they don’t vet you as well – they should probably vet you even harder than you vet them, so don’t be offended if they probe you a bit.
One good rule of thumb is to try to see how many locals are being employed at the NGO, and what sort of local knowledge the people high up in the organization have. Local people are going to understand their needs better than any foreigner will. Understanding and believing this is an essential aspect of respecting people and their autonomy. If no locals are being staffed in meaningful roles within the organization, that should raise some serious questions.
The Final Word
Finally, here are some words of wisdom for anyone who really cares about figuring out what they have to offer and not doing harm (and maybe even doing some good):
You do have plenty to offer. Keeping a strong foundation of humility is key. Learn as much as you possibly can before teaching anyone. Some NGOs are wonderful and beneficial and save countless lives. Others are pretty crap, and it’s your responsibility to learn to tell the difference.
Now go put yourself out there and do something awesome!!!
About the author: “Raphaela’s greatest travel skill is her incredible knack for picking up rare exotic diseases, no matter how many precautions she takes. She has studied, worked, or traveled in more than 50 countries but don’t even try engaging her in a discussion about her favorites. Her proudest moment was the time she became a certified polar bear for swimming in the Arctic Ocean in Svalbard; her least proud moment was when pictures memorializing that harrowing experience made the rounds on the internet.”
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