Working For NGOs: Should I Work For An NGO?

by Mark Ellwood

Working For NGOs: Should I Work For An NGO?

If you’ve been following us on social media, you’ll know that we’ve recently been appointed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to be their exclusive recruitment partner for the next year, working on a variety of roles within their Global Shared Services centre in Malaysia.


About the UNDP


The UNDP is an NGO funded entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states and it operates in 177 countries that have requested its assistance. It works with local governments to meet development challenges and develop sustainable goals. The UNDP focuses on poverty reduction, HIV/AIDS, democratic governance, energy and environment, social development, and crisis prevention and recovery.


Should I Work For An NGO?


This win is great news for us and we’re proud to be a partner to such a respected organisation and a worthwhile cause. But it is likely that many of our candidates haven’t thought about working for an NGO before, or have considered it but are unsure of what is expected when applying to work in an NGO.  So, here we have a two-part blog series on working for NGOs – starting off with why you might want to consider working for one.


What’s An NGO?


Let’s begin with the fundamentals. What exactly is an NGO? Many people get the terms ‘charity’, NGO and ‘non-profit’ confused. In truth, there is a great deal of overlap, but generally speaking:


NFPs (Not-For-Profits, aka Non-Profit Organisations, Non-Profits)

These organisations, despite the name, can (legally) make profits, but all the money they make is channelled back into their own work and their (regulated) staff wages. All the activities must work towards furthering the organisation’s stated mission. Many NFPs are actually staffed by volunteers. Their missions vary widely, covering a whole host of purposes and agendas – everything from supporting youth sports to promoting animal welfare initiatives to encouraging vaccination programmes. There are exceptions, but NFPs tend to be smaller organisations. Importantly, charities and NGOs are NFPs, but specific cases of NFPs.



A charity is a specific type of NFP that has attained ‘charity’ status – a classification controlled by strict guidelines before an organisation can be legally registered as a charity. The organisation also has an obligation to demonstrate its continued meeting of these requirements over time. While charities must be NFPs, they must also only serve charitable and public-benefit causes, comply with in-country charity regulations and not have any political affiliation.


Non-Government Organisations

Non-government organisations (NGOs) are also a type of NFP. They are independent from government (not overseen by government, nor have representation by government) but can receive government funding and usually have socio-political agendas. NGOs are often set up to respond to global issues – such as humanitarian relief or global crime problems. NGOs usually have paid full-time staff as well as volunteer programs. They can normally call on large scale resources and have very active advocate/lobbying initiatives alongside big, multi-country projects, possibly pulling in other organisations in partnerships. Their focus is on creating change.


Why Work For An NGO? – Top 5 Considerations

Working for an NGO can be a real challenge, but it can also be highly rewarding. Here’s our top-5 considerations when thinking about joining an NGO:


  1. Making a contribution to society

Many people will work for several years in a job for a corporation but feel they are simply making profits for that firm and not really contributing to society at large. With NGOs, the focus is always on creating change within society, so your impact is very apparent. This appeal of making a positive contribution to society is the biggest draw for most people who join an NGO, and many are prepared to take a salary cut in order to make that happen (although this is not always the case). In fact, this dedication to the cause is key, as simply looking at it as a CV building exercise is unlikely to get you far


  1. Transitioning job types

NGOs can offer the opportunity to change your role completely. You might change from a strategy consultant role in a management consultancy to a project manager position in a public health organisation. You may not need a background in public health – as the NGO will be looking for your core management skills instead (structured thinking, problem solving, negotiation, communication, project management, analytical skills). NGOs tend to look at these transferrable skills in a way that other corporate organisations don’t


  1. Broadening and improving skills and experience

Working for an NGO often requires multi-tasking and is therefore a good way to broaden out your skillset, rather than getting siloed into one particular area of business. On a CV, experience with an NGO can demonstrate depth, adaptive abilities, and on-the-job learning - something most employers like to see. You may think your team leadership skills are good in the office, but under pressure in a third world country with poor sanitation? Working with passion for a cause can show commitment, while NGO work can often lead overseas, broadening experience further with different languages and cultures


  1. Networking

Working for an NGO can lead to interaction with senior figures from the world of business, working in partnerships on projects as part of their CSR initiatives. These contacts can prove valuable to both becoming more senior within the NGO, or should you decide to re-enter the corporate world later


  1. Flexibility

NGOs often operate very flexible working arrangements. Being (often) publicly funded, they tend to be very inclusive organisations. However, looking at NGOs merely as an opportunity to go part-time would be an error. You still need the personal buy-in to the cause they pursue and you may find that even the part-time work is very challenging. Rather, if you have a desire to work in an NGO but also want to work more flexibly, this is another reason to take the plunge. That said, many people end up dedicating their lives to the cause and actually see a reduction in their work/life balance, so this has to be a careful consideration


Will I Fit In?

Cultural fit is one of the key considerations when joining an NGO. Essentially, you are looking at two ends of the NGO spectrum: Highly organised and structured NGOs with tiered management structures at one end, NGOs that have a looser structure and require a greater degree of multi-tasking at the other end. They may be more of a political lobbying organisation, or more of a hands-on, grass roots action type of organisation.


You’ll need to assess how well you feel the fit with the organisation’s mission and also its structure and role requirements. You could be in a highly specialised admin role dealing with promoting the organisation and its work to corporates (to attract partnership opportunities), or in a very demanding front line role in the field building relations within local communities.


Piyush Mehra, current CEO of the Antara Foundation and ex-KPMG consultant, wrote about this in an article for Business Today (India):


“I was fortunate that the organisation I joined - the Antara Foundation, was a good fit for me. It was founded and led by an ex-McKinsey director who led the Gates Foundation in India for a decade; the team was a mix of business and development professionals; the philosophy was to have a perennially entrepreneurial and 'start-up like' culture. We had flexibility in designing our programs, making mistakes, learning and trying again. It is essential while making a transition to be reasonably certain that it does not end up being a culture shock either for you or the organization”


Now that we’ve covered the reasons you may want to work for an NGO, in the next post we’ll be looking at how you go about applying to an NGO.