The First Step to Working in Human Rights
After the question, “How do I make an impact?” the next question I often get from professionals looking to incorporate human rights into their careers is, “How do I get a job or internship with a human rights or development organization?”
After working within different human rights organizations for over 10 years, I can say that there’s no secret formula to getting a job in this industry. But, a good first step is to identify the organizations that are the right fit for you. Here are some questions you should ask yourself as you start your search.
What is My Mission?
We always hear about organizational mission statements, but have you ever considered your own personal mission statement?
A mission statement includes your aim, your purpose, and the value that you can bring to the field. Your mission statement should be no longer than three sentences, and it should explain what you want do you do with your work and your end goal.
This simple exercise will give you a foundation to start with when you are seeking out organizations. For example, if your purpose is to provide access to healthcare in remote or conflict areas, you could look at organizations like Doctors Without Borders, or if you are passionate about overall public health, your mission might align with an organization like Partners in Health or Physicians for Human Rights.
Once you find an organization that looks interesting, look at its overall vision. Does it have a five- to 10-year plan in place? How does the organization ensure sustainability and growth? Is this going to be a comfortable place for you to grow along with the organization?
Also consider how the organization might evolve with a shifting political and social landscape. If it decides to take on certain issues or a new route, could you see yourself sticking with it, or would you have to move on? Some organizations have had to broaden their scope and mission to appeal to a wider audience, stay relevant, and increase their impact—for example, instead of working in a particular country, they expand to a whole continent. Note what your "deal breakers" are, like an organization getting too “celeb-studded” or taking on the wrong direction with fundraising. You have to know what you would be OK with and what you’d be willing to stand up for.
Is the Organization a Cultural Fit?
There are some human rights and development organizations that run like startups, while some industry heavy hitters run from a very traditional top-down model (almost like a corporation). Still others work from the grassroots on up. So, think about which organizational culture will work for you and where you’ll feel most comfortable. Do ideas and strategies come from the staff level, or do they come from management on down? Do people feel listened to, or do they just do their work quietly? What are work politics like?
To start to uncover this, hit up organizations’ websites and forums full force, and join their LinkedIn groups and listservs to stay up to date on what they’re working on. Also, see how well each organization does on Charity Navigator (which shows how the organization can spend money, how much it uses for fundraising, and if it delivers on its promises), and look up estimated salaries on sites like Glassdoor.
But don’t look only online. See if you can connect with different staff members for an informational interview and see what it's like to work there, or start attending organizational events to network and ask good questions.
(Note: One of the best ways to connect and set yourself apart is to learn the organizational acronyms. No joke, some development organizations I’ve worked with used over 50 acronyms to describe different leadership roles—sometimes it can seem like you are learning a new language. But this knowledge can actually be a great way to learn the context of an organization and stay in the loop when insiders are discussing the work.)
What Are Daily Operations Like?
Yes, your dream organization may be working on rural education issues or environmental justice or women’s rights, but how does that translate to daily life in the office?
Whether you are looking to work in human rights or development at home or abroad, know that the work isn’t always glamorous, and that a lot of your outcomes depend on the organization's behind-the-scenes operations. In some organizations, staffers get to travel a large portion of the year and oversee different projects in the field, but at others, you’ll be doing your share of administrative work, too, like organizing conference calls, taking minutes, and drafting meeting agendas.
Big or small, each task fits into the larger picture of the work the organization is doing, but it’s important to understand what you’re getting into ahead of time.
Do I Stay Home or Go Abroad?
A lot of people think that work abroad is more exciting, or that if they go abroad, they will get the perfect development post, but that's not always the case. For one, there are a number of great organizations locally that do incredible and high impact work. What’s more, even if you are abroad, you may find yourself in an office as well—working away at a computer desk with little time in the field. The office culture at some major international organizations can be extremely bureaucratic, especially at “sub-offices” of bigger organizations.
Going abroad doesn’t mean you will instantly make an impact, either, and you may have to deal with challenging issues and skepticism from the community you are working in. There is a saying I’ve heard in certain countries that translates to, “She who runs the biggest NGO drives the biggest Mercedes,” which reflects the sentiment that development is, indeed, viewed as an industry like any other. In addition, the development sector is a very crowded space, so recognize that even abroad you will be competing for funds, resources, and attention with everyone else trying to do good in the world.
Finally, consider that going abroad should come with a time commitment. The “hit and run” style job posts where you work a little while and leave can be really detrimental to the organization and country you are working with, so I recommend being prepared to sign on for any post abroad for at least one to two years.
Can I Make the Most of My Skills in This Organization?
How do you envision your impact within the organization and field you are in? You’ll want to make sure that your skills, whether negotiation, communication, or design, will be put to good use in any organization that you join.
Also, think about the growth potential available to you. Is the organization a place where people stay for one to two years before moving on, or is it a place where you can grow into a leadership role? Which is more appealing to you?
A lot of times in the nonprofit world, staying in the same organization can mean working in lateral positions for many years (so many people hop from one organization to another until they reach higher positions), but in the international development world, there tends to be more room for growth and promotions internally. I know heads of UN branches who have stayed with their organizations for 20 years and are now at the top level in their respective countries. They often say they stayed on both because they love the work and because they grew into their position over time.
Related: How to Break Into Nonprofit Work
Once you’ve narrowed down the right organizations (or type of organizations) for you, browse jobs at Idealist, AWID, Devnetjobs, or UNjobs. I would also recommend Profellow to anyone interested in researching or conducting a fellowship alongside an organization abroad.
Working in human rights, the work is tough, and the learning curve is high. But I can’t imagine doing anything more rewarding. If it’s something you’re interested in, get out there and start your search to find the organization that’s a right fit for you.
Photo courtesy of Richard Potts.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author