Tackling the clichés about working for an NGO

Jan 11, 2022 - updated Feb 03, 2022

7 mins

Tackling the clichés about working for an NGO
Marcela Ospina LopezLab expert

Communications and Sustainability consultant. VP of Sustainability and Culture at Both People & Comms, and Director of the Master in Communication Management at EADA Business School.

Ask people who aren’t familiar with the nonprofit sector what it means to work for a charity or NGO and you’re likely to get a range of answers, many of them incorrect and probably based on stereotypes. By exploring these clichés, though, we discover a diverse, dynamic sector full of opportunities for those who want to be part of the change, creating societies that are fairer, greener and altogether more equal.

The nonprofit universe is both prosperous and diverse—educational institutions, museums and hospitals, which often have large budgets, come under its umbrella. And the sector accounts for roughly one in 10 jobs in the US, according to a 2019 report by the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The Department of State says approximately 1.5 million NGOs operate in the US, undertaking a wide array of activities, including political advocacy on foreign policy, elections, the environment, healthcare, women’s rights and economic development.

I’ve worked for the nonprofit sector for more than 15 years. I started out volunteering in a development and peace program in Colombia and ended up managing communications and fundraising for an international NGO in Spain. I’m still volunteering in the sector and working to activate sustainability within businesses. I want to try and tear down some of the clichés I’ve heard about charities and NGOs. If you’re looking at the nonprofit sector as an option for your next job, don’t let the stereotypes get in your way.

‘The salary won’t pay my bills’

The term “nonprofit” doesn’t mean that the staff don’t earn a fair salary. An organization is nonprofit because the purpose isn’t making money to end up in private hands. Revenues generated by public grants, government contributions, sponsorships, the sale of goods and services, memberships or donations go back into activities that serve the organizations’ mission and the issues they are tackling, be it poverty and hunger relief, human rights or the protection of the environment.

Nonprofits and even big NGOs rely on volunteering for all kinds of tasks at all levels of the organization, from managers to technicians in the field. They do so not only as a way of reducing costs but also to legitimize themselves as social actors, create a sense of community and give job opportunities to those that might be excluded from the market. Volunteers often give their time for free as a way to begin a career within the sector. In fact, I volunteered in Barcelona for a small foundation called Photographic Social Vision as a media specialist, for just a few hours a week. After several months I was given a part-time paid role looking after communications.

Even if volunteering is a reality, NGOs are professional organizations in constant need of talent: people who can contribute in the long term and thrive. Staff are paid from the revenues, and salaries are considered part of the operating costs of the organization. “The sector is committed to ensuring salaries that avoid precarious jobs and guarantee decent conditions for the teams,” says Pilar Orenes, CEO of the EDUCO-ChildFund Alliance, who has more than 20 years of experience in the sector. “As we work to eradicate poverty and fight inequality, this may not be the sector where you have a high income, but you will be able to live from it while obtaining other benefits such as affinity with the purpose of the organization.

Employees receive a salary in line with the pay structure, which often depends on the size and funding of the organization. In 2021, among the top 100 UK charities, the mean number of people earning more than £60,000 a year was 84, according to the Third Sector’s salary study.

The higher a position is within the NGO, the higher the salary will be. Managers may make less money than executives in the private sector, but compensation also comes from accomplishing their purpose in work.

‘I’ll be spending most of my time in the field or doing direct service work’

We’ve all seen too many images of people from the developed countries working in Asia, Africa or Latin America in co-operation with local communities. The most visible in the US are often the ones serving meals, giving clothes or offering some form of assistance to the vulnerable. In Europe, in recent years the attention has been focused on humanitarians in the Mediterranean helping migrants who risk their lives looking for a better future.

But most of the people in nonprofits are less involved in direct assistance and work in back-office positions: human resources, information technology, accounting, fundraising or management. It all depends, as in any job, on the match between your skills, capabilities and interests and the requirements of the available positions.Without leaving your city you can work for many organizations, while still increasing the aid for the people who need it most,” says Aida Vinyes of MSF. “Whether it is writing an article for a newspaper, running social media, sending emails or recruiting people, we all contribute to the organization obtaining more resources to finance its operations in the field.”

Many humanitarian organizations working to save lives in countries suffering from armed conflict, however, have a high proportion of staff based in the field. In 2020, MSF, which works in more than 85 countries and is one of the largest NGOs in the world, reported that, of its staff, 83% (37,763) were locally hired, 9% (4,088) had jobs at HQ and 8% (3,409) worked on international programs.

I’ve seen many people working in head offices dreaming of having the opportunity to work in the field, but not everyone is suited to the job. Depending on the sensitivity of the program, it will demand maturity, commitment and strength for the person to focus on delivering aid while witnessing suffering and despair.

Working to support those on the front line can also be fulfilling and provide a lifetime of inspiring work. If you understand that every function is necessary to pursue a mission and achieve the goals, you will feel proud to contribute.

‘Peace and love all around, and everyone is super-nice’

Co-operation and collaboration are at the heart of many nonprofits. Organizations providing complementary services co-operate to deliver a more holistic response to their beneficiaries. Some nonprofits make alliances with governments and/or the private sector to fund expensive operations, and some join forces to change laws or create new ones. In other cases, they might have opposing positions regarding controversial issues such as abortion or legalizing prostitution.

Peace is declared part of the mission of some international NGOs. People are trained to solve conflicts in a peaceful way. But organizations are made up of normal human beings with all their failures and fears. You will also find egos, power struggles, unresolved conflicts and the misbehaviours that exist in any professional environment.

In the course of the past decade, many NGOs have begun to guarantee safe spaces, free from violence and discrimination, fraud, corruption or inappropriate use of power. Oxfam, for example, has a range of policies and processes in place to protect the people it works with (including staff, volunteers and partners) from any form of abuse, exploitation or harm.

I have been pleasantly surprised by leadership models based on transparency and constant care for a team,” says Lula Gomez, a journalist and communications specialist who has worked in various NGOs. “I’ve also witnessed the struggle to get rid of the patriarchal mindset that is still present.”

As society evolves, so do the organizations in the sector. Leaders have had to face challenges around diversity and inclusion as well as gender equality in their own workplace. Some are totally transforming their internal culture in order to genuinely live the values they expect from others.

‘Little budget and few resources: I’ll have to do more with less’

Many nonprofits manage budgets of millions. According to The Nonprofit Sector in Brief, released in 2019 by the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the sector contributed an estimated $1,047.2 trillion to the US economy in 2016, comprising 5.6% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Private foundations such as the Novo Nordisk Fonden, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust and Open Society Foundations are some of the world’s largest philanthropic funds. They have been long-term supporters of funding to charitable organizations, even to small grassroots NGOs around the world. Each of these foundations has a financial endowment that goes beyond $20 billion.

Of course, not all the organizations have the size and budget of the biggest and most prosperous in the world. Many international, national and local NGOs worldwide struggle each year to raise funds and run their programs. But working with limited resources might also have a positive side. It forces you to prioritize tasks and project goals, and makes you more conscious that resources have to be used effectively on time and to budget. In short, it makes you more efficient. “You just need to look at the sector with genuine curiosity to discover a bunch of people who, beyond motivations of social justice and high doses of passion, are an example of professionalism and efficiency,” says Ricardo Magan, program director of Greenpeace Spain.

Working with fewer resources in terms of money, facilities or people doesn’t always translate into precarious jobs, nor does it mean that each person within the organization has to juggle dissimilar tasks or do extra hours. As in any sector there is always a strategy and management decisions to organize workload, focus on results and help people thrive. There is a constant need for specialized and skilled professionals and the best available talent to be able to deliver quality services, programs and aid.

‘I’ll work with heroes and together we’ll save the world’

Most of the people who choose to work in the sector are purpose-driven individuals trying hard to build better societies and preserve our planet. But they are certainly not the only ones who care and not all of them want to be portrayed as heroes.

Plenty of people who work in the private sector participate in complementary ways within their own companies—by volunteering or donating, and by pushing their leaders to take urgent action for a better world. By doing so they make possible the work of many NGOs. “As you gain experience as a humanitarian, you realize that saving the world might not be possible, but making a positive difference in the world is,” says Melanie Gallant, director of communications and government relations at UNHCR Canada. “True heroes are not only the tough guys in vests who parachute from emergency to emergency, but the people who keep their humanity and humility, who do what is uncomfortable when faced with injustice, and who go above and beyond every single day to help others.”

Of course there are people accomplishing heroic tasks, especially those on humanitarian missions where the conditions are difficult to cope with. They sacrifice comfort, a life near their loved ones and sometimes even security to pursue their job. We owe them gratitude for their efforts in saving lives during natural disasters or armed conflicts. But to change a system that promotes increasing inequality, keeps 700 million people (10% of the global population) living in extreme poverty and exploits nature in devastating ways to serve insatiable consumption, we will need more than one sector involved.

Even if the contribution of most NGOs is invaluable, to face today’s social and environmental challenges we need co-ordinated efforts from all sectors across all parts of the globe, involving diverse talent and multidisciplinary teams. We live in a world of interdependence, where consciousness and participation are key. So, yes, we need people doing heroic work in remote places, but we also need people facilitating changes and influencing others with hope and perseverance. Solutions for saving the world are neither quick nor easy.

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Tackling the clichés about working for an NGO
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