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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Skills You (Really) Need to Work With Nonprofits

I am always thrilled to see the way students and volunteers push themselves when they go abroad or engage in community service—and for good reason: Working to provide aid can build great experience, skills, and new networks and make a critical impact on the ground.

But I’m also often struck by the number of people who seem to think they’re ready to build a house, assemble a plumbing system, or even install electricity without any training at all.

And that goes for management, too: No accounting experience? Perhaps volunteering abroad is the way to get some! The same can be said for teaching, human resources, strategic planning, and countless other positions. No matter the role, people volunteer for responsibilities in developing countries they simply don’t have the skills for—the backpacker turned teacher, the business student turned head of finance, the two-week volunteer turned program manager—and can end up being a great risk to the community or organization.

Yes, it’s important to gain experience, and working abroad is a great opportunity to do so. But at what cost are you mastering that learning curve? The reality is, it’s going to take a lot more than a tool belt and excitement to benefit anyone and make change happen. Would you let a contractor work on your apartment if he had no training whatsoever—even if was free labor? Probably not. And this shouldn’t be acceptable in international development and social good work either.

I’m ready to start the conversation: How can we bridge the space between gaining valuable experience and being effective on the ground? In the years I’ve spent working in nonprofits and development abroad, here’s what I’ve learned about understanding and recognizing the importance of training, skills, and accountability in international development work—and how you can stay ahead of the curve.

Get the Skills You Need Now

When you apply for any job, there’s a constant battle between wanting to gain valuable experience through the position and having enough experience to actually apply. And that’s particularly true in international work, where job postings are demanding—requesting, for example, applicants with fluency in two to three languages, interview and documentation experience, and project management—and easily filter out recent grads. At the same time, there’s a large supply of grads taking gap years, who want to travel and learn while making an impact.

But to actually benefit the organization or community, it’s imperative you have the skills necessary to help your assigned projects succeed—before you head to the field. If you’re in school, choose electives in nonprofit management or development. If you can’t take classes, read and research on sites like WhyDev, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, or BoardSource, or see if your company offers any professional development classes that could help you develop the right competencies.

The bottom line is that you need to make sure your skills are a fit for the organization. You can’t expect to solely use the role to gain experience—you need to offer the organization something, too.

Ask Important Questions Ahead of Time

We’ve talked about how to put the “good” in social good—and a big part of that is knowing exactly what you’re getting into and being realistic about what you can actually accomplish on the ground.

To do this, ask the hiring manager of the organization if you can connect with people who are already in the field via Skype or email. Make sure you ask about some of the challenges they’re facing or weaknesses of the program, so you know exactly what to expect. Most importantly, ask yourself (and be honest about) how long you’re willing to commit to this position, the benefit to you, and the benefit to the community. Going in with these answers and clear expectations will help you better understand what needs to be delivered on the ground—instead of just flying by the seat of your pants when you get there.

Go in With Resources if Have Them, Be Honest When You Don’t

Recently, I was talking with my colleague who also works for the UN, and I cracked a bad joke about having to wait an eternity for the United Nations to actually do something in the world. And while I was quick to admit it was in poor taste, he set me straight. “Look, the United Nations is an underfunded institution, and based on what it has, it’s doing its very best.”

It made me realize that if the UN is struggling to make things happen—and being open about it—then we in the field should also be honest about when we have resources and backing to impact change and when we don’t.

Passion and determination alone aren’t going to see a project through. I’ve talked about avoiding rusty playground syndrome in the past, referring to a playground that volunteers started—but never finished—building out of tree trunks, metal sheets, and tires, which is now rusty and forgotten. You don’t want something similar to happen to your project if you run out of resources or leave. And that’s a simple playground—think about the resources needed for ongoing projects like aid and food delivery.

The sad reality is that sometimes there aren’t enough resources to go around, and when that happens, projects and operations have to cease. So, from the beginning, be very clear about what resources you have to offer, both in the short term and in the long run.

Be Realistic if the Position is Not a Fit

One big concern I often hear from friends in the field is that their job or volunteer gig isn’t exactly what they thought it would be, and they have difficulty understanding their position and what they’re supposed to be doing.

It may be surprising (and contrary to a lot of career advice you may hear), but my recommendation is that if a role doesn’t feel like a fit and you don’t think you can adapt, don’t stick it out. It won’t benefit you or the community you’re working in, especially if you’ve already started to forge relationships and those people are counting on you to deliver what you said you would. Most organizations are used to a rotating band of foreigners and won’t be broken-hearted if you leave.

If your skills don’t match up or the position isn’t what you expected, you don’t have to navigate the field blindly—ask about other positions that might better utilize your skill set. If you do decide to leave, see if you can help find a strong replacement so the work can continue without interruption.

Be Accountable

Staying accountable and being able to admit failure is a valued skill in any career track, but in development, where so many things can go wrong, it’s especially important. If you set up the clinic in the wrong place, for example, or need to modify the curriculum you developed, it’s OK to change it.

If you build it or break it, you’re also responsible for fixing it and making it sustainable. Leaving it as is or pulling out of the project early may be a time or money saver for you, but the community feels the impact in a much bigger—and more negative—way.

The development culture won’t be able to sustain itself if we continue to try to balance the need for skills on the ground with “I’m here to offer you whatever I can give” attitudes. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and really think through how we can be most effective and useful on the ground to make sustainable and successful impact.

Photo courtesy of Sandia Labs.