Want to Work at an NGO? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

9 min read
Two women wearing blue volunteers shirts are holding up a wooden frame for a house

Looking for a career where you can help those in need and work to better the world? Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, can be a great career choice for if you’re looking to help a specific cause or gain valuable experience. Most NGOs offer full-time positions, part-time jobs and  internships — so you could choose to make it your primary career or a vocational side job. 

Here’s what you need to know about contributing to an NGOs mission while advancing your career.

What is an NGO?

An NGO, or non-governmental organization, is a non-profit organization that operates independently of any government. The term and business type was created in 1945, with the inception of the United Nations and its need to differentiate intergovernmental specialized agencies from private organizations. Today, the U.N. considers NGOs to be a subset of civil society organizations (CSOs) — which are “voluntary organizations with governance and direction coming from citizens or constituency members, without significant government-controlled participation or representation.”

NGOs are typically created by individuals or groups with a common interest or goal, such as addressing social, environmental or humanitarian issues. They often work to advocate for specific causes, provide needed services, conduct research and raise awareness about issues. The scope of NGOs will vary wildly, from local grass-roots community organizations to national and international NGOs. The World Bank defines two categories of NGOs:

  • Operational NGOs design and implement development-related projects.
  • Advocacy NGOs defend or promote a specific cause and seek to influence policies and practices.

NGOs are not part of any government, but they may overlap with functions of some government agencies, such as providing disaster relief or supporting economic development. Unlike governmental organizations, NGOs have greater flexibility and autonomy in their decision-making processes and are not directly governed by state authorities. Because they are independent from any government, NGOs rely on various sources of funding, including donations, grants and fundraising efforts to support their operations and activities.

Because the definition of NGOs is so broad, there is some controversy about the use of the term, as it may be applied to volunteer organizations, faith-based organizations, interest groups, pressure groups, lobby groups and even trade unions. The NGO classification may even be co-opted by government entities looking to conceal their activity, as with the government-sponsored non-governmental organizations (GONGOs)

If you’re interested in joining a particular NGO, be sure to properly research the organization to review its mission statement, history and operations to be sure it aligns with your interests.

What do NGOs do?

Because the definition of an NGO is broad, NGOs can be formed in service of almost any cause. For the most part, they are geared toward benefiting society at large, assisting communities and providing aid. You can find NGOs in operation across many sectors and practices, such as:

Regardless of the specific cause, most NGOs operate in a similar manner, and will undertake the following activities:

  • Communicate their mission and raise awareness: NGOs will advocate governments for policy changes and work to raise general awareness about their chosen issues. They may lobby governments, organize campaigns and engage in public outreach to drive change.
  • Provide support and services: NGOs may mobilize to provide services directly to communities in need. This can include immediate support, such as healthcare, food and water, human rights protection and volunteer labor. It can also involve providing training, skills development and education to empower people.
  • Conduct research and analysis: NGOs support causes by collecting data, studying trends and generating evidence to inform programs, policies and advocacy efforts.
  • Offer humanitarian assistance: NGOs can provide immediate relief and support during emergencies or crises. They offer assistance such as food, shelter, medical aid and psychological support to affected populations.
  • Network and collaborate with other organizations: NGOs can coordinate their efforts with other organizations, including governments, international bodies and civil society groups. They may work to form partnerships to maximize their impact, share resources and achieve common goals.
  • Secure funding: NGOs are considered nonprofit organizations, and so must support themselves (and their cause) by accepting donations from private individuals, for-profit companies, charitable foundations and governments. They may also charge membership dues or sell goods and services to raise funds.

How do NGOs differ from nonprofits?

At a glance, NGOs and nonprofits organizations (NPOs) are interchangeable. Both are organizations that do not distribute their income to owners or shareholders, but instead reinvest income into the organization to manage expenses and meet larger social goals. Both NGOs and NPOs can apply for charitable status with the Internal Revenue Service within the U.S. as well as with the state they’re registered in.  

In some countries, they’re considered one in the same. However, if there is a distinction it’s largely around the scope of work. 

NPOs may be formed to promote cultural, recreational, professional or religious objects and so may be affiliated with churches, sports clubs, recreational organizations, boys and girls clubs and alumni associations. NPOs are also — generally — smaller and more focused in their operations, working to promote a very specific cause or assist a single community.

An NGO, on the other hand, will have a broader footprint and an international scope that operates across borders. It can be helpful to think that, while most NGOs are nonprofit organizations, only some nonprofits operate as NGOs.

Potential careers you can build at an NGO

NGOs operate just like any other business. Aside from the work they do on the ground (field work) they also need people to handle accounting, marketing, project management, fundraising and operations (office work). Depending on your position, the requirement for an NGO job may not be any different from working for a private company or for-profit organization. 

If you’re curious if NGOs pay well, understand that because they rely on fundraising, NGO salaries tend to be lower than similar positions in private industry jobs. A comparison by Payscale of nonprofit workers and for-profit workers with the same job title found that nonprofit workers earned “between 4% and 8% less than their counterparts.” However, exact differences in pay will vary depending on job market, position, location and seniority and overall, career opportunities in NGOs will pay competitive salaries. 

As for the availability of open positions, it will depend on the size of the organization. While smaller NGOs may need a few positions filled, the large international NGOs have whole departments dedicated to marketing, human resources, legal matters, business development and more. Here’s an overview of major career positions within NGOs, with updated salary values, as collected by Indeed.

  • Fundraising Specialist — These professionals oversee all donation and fundraising activities, manage the NGO’s relationships with donors, network to find new donors and maintain records of all fundraising activities. 

National average salary of $51,488.

  • Finance Associate — Professionals who manage the NGO’s accounts, from recording transactions to creating budget and auditing finances. They may oversee the NGO’s financial policies to ensure compliance with local laws and regulations. 

National average salary of $57,814

  • Operations Manager — Professionals who manage high-level human resources duties such as hiring and training employees. They’re responsible for increasing the NGO’s operational efficiency while maintaining budgets, supporting the needs of stakeholders and complying with all laws and regulations. 

National average salary of $67,687

  • Policy Analyst — Professionals responsible for ensuring that an NGO’s processes and policies align with the stated goals and all legal regulations. They review data, analyze reports and collaborate with stakeholders to determine if any policies need to be updated or changed.

National average salary of $79,181

  • Program Manager — Professionals responsible for creating and managing an NGO’s programs and oversee its personnel. They’re expected to create and manage budgets, schedule events and oversee project managers to ensure that all projects are in alignment with the NGO’s larger goals.

National average salary of $67,128

  • Research Associate — Professionals that research and organize information relevant to the NGO, usually by collecting community data, interviewing people and reading published articles. They analyze the data and present the findings to suggest ways the NGO can better achieve its goals. 

National average salary of $55,612

  • Social Media Manager — These communication professionals oversee all social media accounts for the NGO and direct its online communication strategy. They’re responsible for analyzing demographic data and reviewing different social media sites to determine the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and how to increase engagement.

National average salary of $60,051 

  • Solutions Engineer — A technical professional that works to determine the best technology solutions for a company and helps to implement them. They’re responsible for understanding the NGO’s goals, needs and challenges and to research appropriate technical solutions, select the best ones, successfully implement them and ensure that all personnel are trained.

National average salary of $109,268

  • Web Developer — Technology professionals that design, code, develop and maintain websites for the NGO. They ensure that the website is fully functional and secure, will update the website as needed and collaborate with designers and copywriters on uploading new content. 

National average salary of $68,682

These are only a sample of the possible positions within an NGO. Other common positions can include administrative assistants, office managers, canvassers and marketing managers. Whatever your specializations, skills and experience there’s a way to apply them at an NGO.

How to start a job at an NGO

Like any other job, you’ll need to meet some essential requirements to be eligible for certain positions. Most young professionals start their NGO careers by earning a specific degree, volunteering or joining an internship program. Established professionals may be able to enter high-level positions based on their prior work experience. If you’d like to work at an NGO, here are some helpful tips and advice:

  • Know what you are passionate about. While Payscale notes that nonprofit positions earn less than their for-profit counterparts, their other finding is that nonprofit work feels more fulfilling and provides more meaning for employees. Working at an NGO isn’t just about the job responsibilities, but also the larger goals that the organization is working toward. It’s important to first understand what you believe in and what you’re willing to dedicate your time and effort to. 
  • Do your research. Because the NGO term is so broadly applied, some organizations may function differently than adverstised. Once you know what you want to work toward, research different NGOs active in that area, review their mission statements, organizational goals and history. Look for reviews from other workers — both current and former — to get an understanding of which organizations you want to work with, and which you’d rather not. 
  • Utilize available resources. While a general web search can get the ball rolling, you want to do more pointed research on sites within the NGO space. Research available jobs using NGO job boards to answer your general questions, such as:
    • What kinds of positions are available? 
    • What are NGOs looking for in candidates? 
    • What are the general job requirements? 

Here’s a helpful list of resources to get you started:

  • Obtain an advanced degree. If you’re looking for a career instead of a part time job, earning a master’s degree in a relevant field of study can make you a stronger candidate for higher-level positions. Master’s degree programs can expand your network of contacts, offer mentorship and expose you to new opportunities — all of which can put you on the right path in finding the right NGO to work with. 
  • Complete any relevant training. Depending on the position you’re looking for, consider any training or relevant certifications that will shore up your resume. If you’re applying for technical positions, do you have certifications in data science, business analytics or cybersecurity? If you’re looking for project or program management positions, do you have certifications in business analysis, team leadership or popular business-related platforms like Salesforce or Hubspot? What about certifications in diversity, equity and inclusion? There are even specific certification programs for NGO management. 
  • Learning a relevant language. Many NGOs operate on an international scale, so while learning multiple languages might not be necessary, it is a great asset. Even if you’re not interested in working outside of your home country, being able to communicate in a second language can make you a stronger candidate for a position with an NGO. Even if you’re not (yet) fluent, showing the willingness to learn will only help your career aspirations.
  • Tailor your resume/cover letter. Like with any position, you’ll want to revise your resume and cover letter to be specific to the NGO and its cause. Don’t just focus on your technical abilities or professional skills, speak to your larger passions and articulate why it’s so important for you to be a part of this organization.

Build your skills and experience with like minded professionals

No matter your background, employment history or level of experience, if you’re passionate about the work then you can find a career position at an NGO. One of the best ways to build up your skills and experience is to work with, collaborate alongside and learn from other professionals from many different fields who are just as passionate as you are.

That’s why it’s helpful to adopt a transdisciplinary point of view which allows you to account for and work with many different perspectives.

That same desire for positive social change is what drives the University of San Diego’s Master of Engineering for Sustainability and Health (MESH) program. MESH is fueled by the same passion for positive social change that drives individuals to work at NGOs. The program offers a transdisciplinary approach, connecting you with a diverse network of professionals, all united in addressing pressing global challenges such as inequity, health crises and climate change. 

Through its carefully crafted curriculum, MESH prepares graduates to collaboratively co-create innovative solutions that integrate various disciplines, leading to more comprehensive and impactful outcomes. If you’re seeking to make a meaningful difference and effect lasting change in our world, we invite you to see what our program has to offer.

It may even encourage you to start up your own NGO!

Looking to Support Justice and Sustainability?

Start with our eBook, Meeting the Planet’s Most Urgent Challenges, to see where and how you can make a difference.

Meeting the planet's most urgent challenges ebook cover