Imagine you’re working in Cambodia with an organization that partners with a local orphanage to teach and play with the kids there. But when you come home to the U.S., you see an article in the news that the orphanage is corrupt, the children weren’t actually orphans, and the organization was siphoning donor money.
It comes as a complete shock to you—and you wonder how this happened, what signs you missed, and if anything could have been done to stop it.
In the social good industry, it’s easy to assume that every organization has good intentions and follows through with its work, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Many colleagues and students have asked me how they can start working in the international development field and which organizations need their help. This is a challenging question, because it’s not just about offering help or expertise, but about understanding if the organization is a fit for you and if you’re a good fit for the organization.
Before you get a job with or donate your time to any social good organization, it’s important to thoroughly vet it—to ensure you’ll be happy there, that the organization is actually doing the work it says it is, and that you can offer your skills effectively. Here are a few key ways to do that.
1. Research the Organization’s Track Record
In the social good world, organizations aren’t always what they seem, so to understand an opportunity, you need to do some investigating. Start by researching the organization’s track record, successes and failures, and public image, both from a domestic and an international perspective.
To see how the organization is perceived, don’t look at public relations materials from the organization itself; instead, look for media clips, op-eds, and client testimonies. You can also review the organization’s annual report (which is usually sent to donors and members or can be found on the organization’s website) to understand its budget and expenditures over the past year. Does the way the organization spends money make sense? (For example, is money going directly to programs or to an unreasonable amount of marketing?)
For smaller organizations or startup nonprofits just getting off the ground, have an honest conversation with staff about its budget and programs. Are the goals realistic? Find out the organization’s 501c3 status (which means it is an official tax-exempt organization), where it finds donors, and where it gets funding. Watch out for red flags—like if the organization’s reported impact seems too successful despite funding challenges or there is no official documentation of 501c3 status.
2. Find Out What it’s Really Like to Work or Volunteer There
Everything may look perfect from the outside, but like any company, an insider’s perspective may paint a different picture.
To make sure it’s really what it appears to be, talk to former employees or volunteers (try connecting with them on social media) to find out what it’s really like to work there. Ask about the office culture, what it’s like during really stressful situations, and the dynamics of the staff and management.
It’s also important to explore management at a higher level—like whether the organization has a board of directors or advisory board that makes major growth decisions. If you can’t talk to staff directly, check out Glassdoor.com for honest reviews.
3. Understand the Impact Potential
What does impact mean to the organization you want to work with? Is it about delivering goods to people in need (and do the recipients actually need those goods?), offering services and educational resources, or managing larger advocacy campaigns?
Once you know how the organization impacts others, think about if and how you can describe that later in your career (e.g., during job interviews, networking, or connecting with donors). Will there be measurable ways to evaluate and describe your work, or will you have to rely on anecdotes? How will you provide evidence that this organization really affects change?
Even if you ultimately feel transformed by your work experience, that doesn’t always translate to successful impact. If you were part of launching a fair trade basket weaving enterprise, but the artisans you worked with had no venue to sell their baskets—and therefore no results—it’s going to be hard to provide evidence of how great the initiative was. It’s a much better sign if the organization is able to talk about its failures and successes in realistic and measurable terms.
4. Know How the Organization Represents its Work
Social good organizations have to market their work like any other company—but as someone who will work with the organization, its important to make sure those representations are accurate, not exploitative.
Some organizations, for example, try to make a big impact with pictures and stories of gruesome poverty or trauma, hoping to appeal to the emotional side of donors. But in international development circles, this is known as “poverty porn”—and it has become a hotly contested issue.
Consider whether the organization is mass marketing survivor stories. You want to make sure that it is doing in in a way that is empowering those survivors—not re-traumatizing or stigmatizing them. Rarely are people defined by one story, yet many organizations fall into the trap of labeling them by one experience or event. If the organization is engaging in the poverty-porn style of selling its work, see if there’s a way you can help it engage in better practices. If not, you may want to consider working with a different organization.
5. Be Aware of How the Experience Will Affect You in the Long Run
Finally, consider how your potential affiliation with the organization will impact you personally and professionally in the future. If you’re working in international crisis response or conflict zones, consider how the work will change your outlook—on life, on politics, or on your personal life in general. Also consider how the organizational brand may be perceived on your resume if you go into a different career field at some point in the future.
If you plan on staying with the organization long-term, make sure to think about what opportunities this position can bring and whether there is a potential career ladder. If there’s a high risk for burnout or limited opportunity to advance, it may not be the right fit for you and your career.
Aspiring to a career or volunteer position with a social good organization is an admirable goal, but in a world where anyone can start a charity or organization, you have to commit to researching and vetting organizations properly. By engaging with these issues, you can make the most of your time—and make the greatest impact possible.