Category Archives: Career advice

Can fiction help us work better in humanitarian aid & development? Yes.

What can fiction teach people for working in humanitarian aid and development? Quite a lot! Fiction can build depth, richness and empathy to the concepts development professionals grapple with daily. Adaobi “Ada” Nkeokelonye explores this topic regularly via her blog, She finds surprising connections between fictional narratives and her day-to-day experience as a development professional. This interview with her from DevelopmentEx offers great background.

She’s worth following on Twitter: @adankeokelonye

Also see:

Aid workers in fiction – new ABC show in January in 2011

TV depictions of volunteerism

Is it really *impossible* to break into humanitarian work?

guardian logoI saw a headline recently from the Secret aid worker series from the Global development professionals network in The Guardian:

I’m sick of job rejections – is humanitarian work only for the elite?

The headline struck me, as I constantly read questions on Quora and YahooAnswers from people that want to work in humanitarian aid and development. The questions are so frequent, and so similar, that I created a page of answers to that specific question, and I point people to it often.

Unfortunately, comments on this particular Guardian blog are closed. But I really wanted to respond to it, specifically, not just refer the author to my web page for people like her.

The blogger says she longed for a development job abroad “where I would get to do something real – responding to crises, spearheading interventions and doing hands-on development.” But then she never says anything about her own experience responding to crises, spearheading interventions and “doing hands-on development” anywhere. She never once says, “Here’s my area of expertise, here’s what I’ve proven myself capable of doing that is transferable and needed in the developing world.” She just goes on and on about a desire to work in development.

She’s now “hoping a year in INGO corporate fundraising and some experience in publicity and campaigns can help give me an edge in getting a job that’s a little more hands-on, because that was all the experience I could get. Development is a subject I’ve been passionate about for over five years.”

Again, she never says what it is she has that development agencies really, really need. A year of experience doing one thing, some experience in something else? Passion? Sorry, but it isn’t enough to give you an edge. Not at all.

“I can’t help but feel that humanitarian and development work is for the elites.”

No. But it is for people that have the skills and experience actually needed by local people in post-conflict zones and transitional nations.

Look, I don’t mean to sound mean, but in addition to be a person that seeks work in development – more on that later – I’ve been on the hiring side of things at development agencies. I’ve been on the job development side of things as well. I’ve written the description of the job that we need someone to do, and never once have I thought, “Hey, let’s give this to someone who doesn’t have experience but, by golly, they really want to work in aid and development! As long as they have a Master’s Degree!” The people I serve – the local people of a developing country – want more. They deserve more.

I think for anyone that wants to work in aid work, this blog by Marianne Elliott, Why Your Passion Is Not Enough, is worth reading, particularly this part:

My point is that passion, perseverance and innovation are sometimes highlighted at the expense of professionalism… much more than passion is needed in order to make a positive difference in the world… Just as passionate persistence without professional skills won’t get you a part in The Hobbit, good intentions without professional skill won’t result in doing the good you intend.

I am sometimes invited to talk to university students that want to work in aid and development. One thing I say to every class: to get paid to do something abroad you have to have done it locally in your own community, or somewhere in your own country. You want to help people start micro enterprises? You want to educate young people about HIV/AIDS? You want to open a school? You want to help people become motorcycle mechanics? You want to help respond to a post-disaster situation? You want to help refugrees? Whatever it is, you have to have done it in your own country – why would anyone want to hire you to do something you’ve never done before?

You can pursue such as entry-level paid work at local NGOs and nonprofits and maybe even in government programs, to get that experience. But I warn you, it’s really low-paid when you do it locally in your own country. Or you can do it as a volunteer, outside of your better-paid non-humanitarian work. I was stunned when I interviewed for my first job with UNDP, and one of the interviewers focused in on my volunteer work in communications for an abortion-rights group. He was interested because he wanted to hear about when I’ve had to communicate about a contentious, controversial issue that can bring out people’s hostilities, how I’ve navigated deeply religious communities, and how I’ve communicated about legislation and science. He didn’t care that I did it “just as a volunteer” – the work was real, and he wanted to hear about it. I’ve never forgotten that moment.

I am sympathetic to the person that says they cannot afford to take a low-paying job with a local NGO or nonprofit to get the experience in a field in which they want to build experience. I’m sympathetic to the person that says they cannot afford a Master’s degree. I’m not only sympathetic to people that cannot take unpaid internships at development agencies, but also outraged that they are expected to work full time for no pay. But I’m not sympathetic to someone who says, “I don’t have time to volunteer to gain experience so I can get a job in humanitarian work” or “I don’t want to spend a year or more gaining this experience just through volunteering.” Unless you don’t have time to volunteer because you are a primary caregiver to a family member – in which case you cannot be a humanitarian aid worker anyway – you can make the time. Here’s how: unplug your TV and cancel your Netflix subscription. Ta da: all the time you need. You have to set times and days when you would be able to go onsite to an organization to volunteer, and orient your social life and out-of-work responsibilities around that schedule. If you want to engage in virtual volunteering as well, that’s fine, but you are also going to set times to do the tasks you want to undertake. And this time for volunteering (and experience-gaining) can happen outside of work hours, in case you are having to do paid work outside of your career field in make ends meet. You have to make gaining the experience you need a priority – no whining.

But just as you can’t get an aid job solely based on your desire for such, you can’t get a volunteering gig that will give you the skills you need for an aid job solely because you call a nonprofit and ask for such. Just like a paid job, you are going to have to map the various nonprofits in your area – those that work with immigrants, or formerly incarcerated people, or victims of domestic violence, or young people that need tutoring, or those helping people train for new jobs, or people educating re: HIV/AIDS, etc. –  and research them in terms of what they do and how they currently engage volunteers, and get to know them, approach them, go through their application process, and try, try again. You may have to work with an organization for many months before you get to move into the kind of work you really want to do. And you will have to work for many months, maybe longer, to design and undertake your own project that will have a big impact locally and showcase your talents for your CV.

Job hunting is frustrating for most people, even me. Since 2009, I’ve found it far easier to get international placements than to get a job, short-term or permanent, with a local nonprofit or local government agency in my own county; I can’t decide if local agencies think I sound too good to be true or if they think I’m overqualified for the jobs I’m applying for. But if you think aid work is only for the elites, consider this: I’ve had three jobs with the United Nations, and I didn’t get any of them because someone already at the agency put in a good word for me, or because I went to some elite university (I went to a public university in Kentucky you have probably never heard of). None of the jobs were in the same country, and none had offices where anyone knew me, had worked with me, etc. I got all three because of my skills and experience. I was just an applicant for those three jobs, like everyone else. I actually did some digging to find out how I got the attention of the three hiring managers for each of these jobs. The first was because the job was created for me – I happened to be the most well-qualified expert in the world regarding a very particular subject – virtual volunteering – and this was precisely what was needed. The second job was because I had been a part of UNDP and had a robust communications management background, and not just at the UN – they didn’t really care anything about virtual volunteering, but they did care that the UN’s Online Volunteering service branding and other marketing success was directed by me. The third was again because I had been a part of the United Nations and had a robust communications background, with the addition of having lived in a post-conflict zone – and in that job, I was the third choice for the position (first two folks turned it down), and what got them to really read my CV was my comment at the very end that I ride a motorcycle! And for the record, I’ve applied for far, far, far more international development jobs that didn’t even get an interview for than jobs I did get an offer for. And I still volunteer as my way of keeping my skills sharp, to expand my skills, and to keep learning.

Do unqualified people get hired for humanitarian jobs? Do friends-of-friends, and family members of some connected someone, get hired over qualified people? Do applicants get rejected because of really dumb reasons, like because someone reviewing CVs thinks someone is too old or too young, despite their experience? Sure – just like in the corporate world. It happens because humanitarian agencies are run by humans, and humans are profoundly fallible.

Is a career in international development out-of-reach of people from certain economic classes, because they cannot afford the education? Absolutely – just like being a banker or a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or so many other professions. I wish it wasn’t true. And I’ll go even farther: there is a strain of racism in the choice of who gets to be an aid worker that no one is talking about. A black Peace Corps member has challenges never faced by a white Peace Corps member, and black American applicants and black African applicants face obstacles as well, yet I don’t hear many people talking about that. And then there are the challenges for women, as applicants and actual workers…

But even with all those admissions, I stand by the belief that working in international development is not just for the elite. Get the skills and experience needed and learn another language well enough to work in it – it won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Also see:

Isn’t my good heart & desire enough to help abroad? – a response to a mother writing on behalf of her daughter that wants to volunteer abroad (but is too shy to write herself – yeah, I know)

In defense of skills over passion

Misconceptions re: VSO, UNV & Peace Corps

Being emotionally ready to volunteer – or to continue volunteering. There are training tools for new volunteers that can not only help to build volunteers’ awareness of how to handle a variety of challenges, it also might help to screen out people who are not emotionally nor mentally prepared, or not emotionally resilient enough, to serve. In addition, volunteers can face feelings of isolation, stress, even fear during or because of their volunteering service, especially if they are in high responsibility or high-stress roles. Volunteers in these and other situations may need mental and emotional health support -otherwise, you risk volunteer burnout, or volunteers providing sub-par service.

Volunteer managers in USA: learn from other countries too!

Erin Barnhart put together a “Volunteerism and Volunteer Management” course for Portland State University, (PA592 CRN 82727) and I was thrilled to be asked to teach one of the modules, particularly since Erin took such a different approach to putting together this university-level course: she didn’t just focus on the basics of volunteer management, though that was certainly there. And she didn’t segregate everything regarding the Internet into a module at the end (Internet use was integrated into ALL aspects of the recruitment, support and involvement of volunteers – as it should be!). She also included discussions of all volunteers – board members, interns, pro bono consultants, executives on loan, etc. – not just the traditional volunteer model (you have a task or role onsite, you recruit a volunteer to commit to doing that task or role for the rest of his or her life, etc.).

This comprehensive course will cover topics ranging from core competencies and emerging trends and tools for building and sustaining a successful volunteer program, to understanding the broad-reaching impacts of volunteer service and effective volunteer management, to engaging individuals in innovative and accessible ways to serve in their local neighborhoods, via their computers and smartphones, and in communities across the globe.

I was thrilled to be able to do a brand new series of workshops I had never tacked before:

How the practices of volunteering in other countries, how international volunteering – long-term volunteers, short-term volunteers that pay for the experience, online volunteers that help organizations in countries different from their own, people that volunteer as they travel internationally – can teach us to be better managers/coordinators/leaders of volunteers here in the USA.

I believe that my experience working with volunteers abroad, and being immersed in international development for most of the last decade, has made me a much better manager/coordinator of volunteers, and it was a fascinating, intense experience to do research and put materials together that could help the students in PSU PA592 – all of whom are working professionals with volunteer management experience under their belt – to learn about other countries’ views of and practices regarding volunteering, particularly very poor countries.

I love teaching. I try to give my workshops a lively, audience-oriented feel. I use case studies to illustrate points, focus on both what’s happening now and what is trending, encourage a lot of student participation, and develop activities that get class participants designing strategies they can use immediately. My goal in any training is to give participants a base on which to further build and improve long after a class is over. My schedule fills up very quickly. Contact me and let me know what kind of training you might have in mind!

Tags: volunteering, volunteers, community, engagement, international, volunteerism, volunteering

Advanced Volunteer Management Retreat in New Zealand May 25-27, 2011

The 2011 Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management will be held in New Zealand for the first time, in partnership with Volunteering New Zealand. The retreat takes place May 25 to 27, 2011 in Wellington.

If you are working with volunteers in New Zealand, there’s no question that you should look into attending this conference. People working with volunteers in Australia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, or anywhere else in the region should also consider attending this conference. But note that this conference is not open to just anyone: this is an advanced retreat, limited to just 52 participants who have a minimum two year of ‘hands on’ experience managing volunteer programs.

Accepted attendees must agree to attend the retreat in its entirety. If you wish to attend, you fill out an online application via the web site, which will be vetted by an independent panel of managers of volunteers. In most cases, a decision will be made about a person’s attendance within 72 hours of submitting an application. The application asks questions about what you want to learn at the retreat, what specific experiences, skills or resources you have to offer others at the retreat, what would you like to gain from the retreat, etc.

I really cannot emphasize enough the advanced nature of this retreat:

    • This isn’t how do I recruit volunteers. This is how have you created a diverse volunteer corps? How do you reach new groups as volunteers? Here’s what I’ve tried myself.


    • This isn’t I don’t have enough time to use the Internet to support and involve volunteers and am tired of people telling me I should do it. This is here is what I am already doing to use the Internet to support and involve volunteers. What are you doing? What works? What doesn’t?


    • This isn’t what should be on my volunteer application? This is what might I be doing that’s turning great volunteers away from my organization? Do I need to change the way that I work?


    • This isn’t how do I say thank you to volunteers? This is how do I move volunteers into critical roles that involve decision-making at my organization?


  • This isn’t give me the safe, easy, quick way to deal with this volunteer management issue. This is push my boundaries, give me new ways of thinking, challenge me, scare me, inspire me! 

There are discussions. There are disagreements. Tears may be shed. But there is also a lot of laughter, a lot of ah ha! moments, lots of encouragement. If you are ready for the next level of volunteer engagement, this retreat is for you.

There is nothing like this retreat in the USA, unfortunately. Which is particularly sad since I believe that organizations in the USA are doing the most innovative, exciting things regarding the involvement of volunteers in the world. But there is no conference here in the USA that captures and shares those innovative experiences; our volunteerism conferences are the usual, with corporations telling nonprofits how they should operate, celebrities talking about all the great volunteering they do, large, traditional organizations talking about experiences and resources that aren’t at all possible for small nonprofits, and everyone having the same old same old discussions. Conflict is avoided, debates discouraged.

I was honored to be the keynote speaker at this advanced retreat last year in Australia, and to then travel across the country presenting intensive workshops on trends in volunteer management, diversifying volunteer ranks, and, ofcourse, using the Internet to support and involve volunteers. Here are my blogs from that experience, which reflect the level of discussions that happen at the retreat “down under”:

What it is like to be a consultant

A frequently-asked question to me is, “What is it like to be a consultant? How can I be one?”

I’ve offered what advice I can, like about how to telecommute/work from home and how to pursue a career in humanitarian activities, but today, I’ll share a Friday funny that shows what it’s often like from a financial standpoint to be a consultant (thanks to Martin Cowling for the heads up):


Children in the USA should learn a 2nd language – but it shouldn’t have to be Spanish

Most of the time, I agree with Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. But I think his recent column Primero Hay Que Aprender Español. Ranhou Zai Xue Zhongwen. (First learn Spanish. Then study Chinese) misses the mark hugely. His proclaiming that “Every child in the United States should learn Spanish” gets people’s hackles up, and anything that comes after a statement like that isn’t going to be taken well, even if the reasons for recommending Spanish as a second language are good ones.

I chose to study Spanish in high school. For me, ultimately, it has turned out not to be the best choice for a second language, either personally or professional. I work internationally, and I know now that French would have served me far, far better. But back in the 1980s, my mother kept telling me, “They only speak French in France.” And I was just a small town girl from Kentucky – what did I know? I believed her. When I moved to Germany, I resumed studies in Spanish when found that my employer, the UN, offered free classes in such, forgoing not only French, but German as well (I thought I would be in Germany for only a year or two). And it was only after a couple of years I realized just how much I had handicapped myself by my second language choice, both personally and professionally. Most of my colleagues at the UN in Germany spoke French, most Africans I met (and continue to meet) speak French before English, and most international workers I have worked with outside of Germany speak French as a second language. Had I learned French, I would probably still be living in Europe; I certainly would have a full time job with an international development agency by now.

I ended up living in Germany for eight years, marrying my husband, a German. When a few years later my husband and I traveled throughout Eastern Europe, almost everyone spoke German – it’s by far the most popular second language among anyone working in the tourism industry in most of Europe. Germans seem to be everywhere in the world, and I would have had endless opportunities to speak German over the years outside of Germany — but Spanish, not so much. German would have not only served me well living in Germany, it would have served me well in my travels.

Even Arabic would have been a better second language choice for me than Spanish. Persian Farsi or Dari would have been a better second language choice for me than Spanish.

Spanish has not been a worthless investment at all, and I don’t at all want to imply that I’m saying it’s not a good second language choice for someone in the USA. Knowing Spanish (well, at least a bit) has brought me some benefits: I had a wonderful time in Spanish classes at the UN, as well as my intensive classes in Avila, Spain. My Mexican neighbors here in Oregon seem to appreciate my attempts to communicate. In Romania, on a rare evening when we stayed somewhere that didn’t have anyone that spoke German, I was able to secure a room in a guest house where the owner spoke some Spanish. There was one Afghan-American guy in my office in Kabul who spoke Spanish, and it was fun to say something to him and watch my colleagues stare at us in confusion. My German mother-in-law speaks some Spanish, and it’s fun to speak it with her and leave my husband out of the conversation. And I have many friends from Spain who really appreciate my language skills.

Again, I don’t at all want to imply that I’m saying Spanish is not a good second language choice. I’m sure it’s going to serve me professionally at some point in the future, and that’s why I’m going to continue to cultivate my skills in such. But a lot of factors go into a parent’s selection of their child’s second language, everything from their ethnic or cultural heritage to the neighborhood where they live to their career hopes. Spanish is, indeed, the best choice as a second language for most native English-speaking American children. But it is not automatically the best choice for ALL children.

What’s more important than Kristof’s idea of requiring every American to choose Spanish as a second language: I could totally get behind requiring that every American child both master English and learn a second language, whatever that second language is. Americans are getting their butts kicked in the global marketplace by other countries, where even the working class speaks at least two languages. In the USA, the tragedy isn’t that rich parents are choosing Chinese as their child’s second language; it’s that learning any second language is reserved almost exclusively for only rich school districts and private schools.

And I’ll end with this: my German husband is on a business trip right now. He’s in China.