How to Break into the International NGO Field

The NGO world is vast and the work varied. Like any job search, you first need to figure out where you want to work through a personal assessment and a survey of the field to allow you to identify the type of work that you want to pursue. Then you need to build the experiences and skills that will help you land the jobs you identify as meeting your interests.

Personal Assessment

NGO work may suit you if you are able to affirmatively answer the questions about:

▪ having, or being willing and able to build, international (preferably “local”) work experience

▪ building regional experience or other skills relevant to the NGO work you seek

▪ building language skills

▪ being willing to live with the challenges (tenacity needed to land the job, resource and possibly pay limits, possible emotional toll of some of the work, possible diminished comfort level in your work and living surroundings, and possible safety concerns) of NGO work

Identifying Opportunities

There are too many NGOs to list in one book and many more listed within the OPIA jobs database as well as through PSJD. You can also read other books to find out about many other NGOs. There are books that describe what it is like working in different sectors, such as the American Society of International Law’s publication Careers in International Law that contains narratives written by attorneys working on different aspects of international law. Additionally, there are books that list numerous NGOs. You can also use the web. Through websites it is possible to research NGOs as well as current issues in the field. For example, to research the kinds of NGOs in a particular field, the UN website provides information on organizations and trends in NGO work.  You can also simply link to these sites from the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA) website at http://www.law.harvard.edu/current/careers/opia/ and click on Job Resources, then Public Interest Links.

Networking

Most importantly, to learn more about the NGO universe, talk to people who are working in the field. Finding NGOs is easy. Discerning among them is more challenging and requires careful research. For general networking tips, see the Networking section of the OPIA website.

With international NGOs, students often conduct much of their research and networking by email. However, please remember that local NGOs, particularly those in the developing world, may not have as reliable internet and email access as U.S. law students. Thus, you may want to follow-up by fax or, better still, with a phone call. Personal contact – in many contexts – is important and sometimes more so in other cultures. Below are two examples of email networking or fax inquiries. As you will see, these notes are short and to the point. Other networking letters are more formal. The students first decided what types of work they wanted to do and where they wanted to be. These emails were sent to people in their fields of interest to whom they were referred either by students, faculty, alumni/ae or other people they found through panels and research about their fields of interest.

Example 1

Dear Ms. Smith,

I am a first year law student at Harvard Law School and I am writing you on the recommendation of Mr. Jones from the Woodrow Wilson Center. I am looking for a summer internship in China in the area of environmental rights and preservation. I recently read the meeting summary of the ABA China Project in the Wilson Center’s China Environment Series. From the summary it seems that this project is exactly what I hope to work on this summer. I am particularly interested in looking at these issues from a legal/rule-of-law perspective. My China experience includes a summer fellowship in Beijing and Hong Kong researching Sino-US security relations and the planning and execution of a 2002 symposium at Tufts University on this topic. I have one year of Mandarin Chinese and I hope to improve my proficiency this summer. I would appreciate it if you could give me some leads on the ABA’s work in the PRC, particularly if you know of programs in Beijing, which may be seeking legal interns. I expect to secure full funding from Harvard. Thanks so much for your help.

Example 2

Dear Mr. Wright:

I am a first year student at Harvard Law School and heard you speak on a panel here this fall. Your presentation inspired me. As I begin my job search for this summer, I am hoping to speak with you about possible internship sites. I am most interested in participating in projects that are centered on combating the global AIDS epidemic. However, I also would welcome the opportunity to work in a variety of fields from prison reform to refugee and labor rights. Your career path took you to many parts of the world and I am sure that I could learn a lot from you about the range of possibilities. Like you, I speak French proficiently. I also have basic Spanish speaking and reading skills. I am very flexible about where I work this summer, but I would prefer to work in sub-Saharan Africa. Thank you for your time and attention. I look forward to hearing from you.

Building Skills

When hiring attorneys, international NGOs look at several factors, including:

▪ demonstrated commitment to/ passion for their missions

▪ some experience working in the NGO/nonprofit sector (i.e. not just governmental)

▪ extensive experience abroad

▪ regional expertise

▪ relevant practical experience

▪ language skills

▪ maturity and judgment

Depending upon the mission and location of the NGO, expertise in a specific area could make up for limited language skills or less extensive international travel experience. NGOs value self-starters. Success in an NGO typically requires the ability to hit the ground running when charged with a specific task. It entails individual drive, confidence and commitment, particularly in understaffed offices where supervision is often limited but expectations remain high.

Build Your Language Skills

While in some international practice settings mastery of languages is not critical, for NGO work the importance of language skills cannot be overstated. For NGOs, language skills are key for communicating with client groups, government officials, opposing parties, media and court personnel, as well as in drafting and interpreting documents. The more languages in which an applicant is proficient or fluent, the more attractive that candidate will be to international employers. For example, to work successfully in the Middle East, a comprehensive knowledge of Arabic is often considered requisite among hiring committees of NGOs. If NGOs also work with the UN, then proficiency in two or more of the official languages of the UN is important. For NGOs where grassroots organizing constitutes a central task, language skills, including knowledge of indigenous dialects, may prove critical to working successfully with a particular community. The ability to speak the language and dialects of the country in which you work also may come into play in navigating personal safety. 

Cultural Competence

Language skills alone are not enough to enable law students and graduates to effectively take on NGO work. Law students and lawyers also need to be able to adapt to foreign cultures and to be able to work with people with different backgrounds. Students and graduates need to be able to spend time in foreign countries with an awareness that norms of those countries may sometimes be different from what they are used to and to try to be aware of and suspend their biases. Even within the United States, public international work usually requires a facility for interacting effectively with people from different cultures. 

For some people, cultural competence comes naturally. But most people need to learn how to understand, communicate with, and successfully work with people across cultures. To develop cultural competence, there is little substitute for time spent living and working in foreign countries or at least spending a great deal of time with people from different cultures, even within the United States.

Gain Work Experience

Actually doing the work is ultimately necessary if only to figure out if you like particular types of international work. Moreover, the number one piece of advice about landing postgraduate international NGO work that we hear from experienced NGO lawyers – including those in the position to hire – is to develop experience working with NGOs, preferably “in the field. ” Academic coursework, of course, is not enough, even when combined with language skills. NGOs – like many employers – want to see how academic knowledge translates into practice. Gaining practical work experience during law school not only helps you develop expertise and build a strong resume, but also will help develop a networking your field of interest. You will have relationships with and recommendations from attorneys in your area of interest who will know you, and who more likely than not, will know key people in the NGO world. There are a variety of ways you can build this experience which are listed here.

Volunteer and Clinical Opportunities During the Academic Year

Increasingly, schools are offering students clinical or volunteer opportunities to work on international matters. At schools located near international NGOs, some students work in the actual NGO office. However, schools are able to partner with U.S.-based or even international NGOs that are not located near them, as those NGOs are often eager for even long distance help with research and writing. At Harvard Law School, for example, students can volunteer – as early as the fall of their first year – to work on human rights projects with NGOs around the world through the HLS Advocates for Human Rights, a student organization that receives supervision and support from our Human Rights Program. During their second and third years, students can receive clinical credit for their work through the Human Rights Program. Many HLS students complement this work through work with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic. Because immigration and refugee clinics offer extensive contact with international clienteles and often offer exposure to the politics of foreign countries, they can be another great way to build some international experience.

If your school does not have such extensive volunteer or clinical opportunities, you can still develop relevant experience during the term time. Contact a local NGO or even one long distance to see if you can do any volunteer research and writing projects. NGOs can often use volunteers, especially during the term time when the summer influx of law students has dried up. Organize, as our students did, a student group to work on projects together with NGO partners. See if a member of your faculty is working on any international consulting projects and can use your help. One good way to develop ideas for international clinical work is to contact clinical professors and students at schools with active programs. The staff at the HLS Human Rights Program, for example, have already aided other schools in developing their human rights clinical offerings and are willing to continue to do so for additional law schools.

Last modified: December 04, 2013

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