What it’s like to… work in an NGO

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I feel I’ve not done such a good job at giving intros each Wednesday to my careers posts. Each time people keep thinking that it’s me talking, as I forget that people can’t read my mine. This is my bad.

I asked my friends to complete careers surveys, so I could find out what it is that they do. I’ve had some really amazing responses – and today’s is really special. I met this friend when I was at uni, and she is a really spirited person. She always had such a good heart, so it’s not a surprise at all that she’s gone to work in an NGO. Her photos on Facebook are ALWAYS epic, and she’s really humble about it all – not like these people who pose with orphans for selfies.

So, what’s it like to work in an NGO?

What is your job title?

Project Coordinator

What does that actually involve? What do you spend most of your workday doing?

I am leading an important conservation and livelihood project in Cambodia, which is funded by USAID. The project supports forest governance and better livelihoods for indigenous communities in order to decrease deforestation in two forests in Cambodia.

On a daily basis I meet with the team, coordinate their tasks and expenditures from the project, prepare reporting and monitor that the project is meeting its targets, meet with my donors, revise the budget, adapt unproductive activities with better ones, build the capacity of the team, follow-up on grants and consultancies within the project. A lot of multiple tasks which, if you work as one team can lead to the environment betterment 🙂

Did you always want to do this as a job? If not, why did you come to do it?

At university I started by studying foreign languages and political science for my Bachelor and when the time came to choose a Master I got very attracted by international project management. Something in me always made me want to work abroad and in something meaningful (the definition of meaningful is of course different for everyone). I decided I wanted to work for the UN and was lucky enough to do my internships in two different UN agencies. I then realised I would prefer to work for NGOs. The field of conservation/environment is more of a personal interest. I think it is the most pressing issue of our century and fighting to protect it, protect the nature is very dear to me.

How did you get to do your job? For example, did you train? Do internships? Did you take exams? What did you have to study at school/uni to do your job?

I have two masters, one in development project management and one in international relations. I interned for UNOPS, UNDP and the French Agency for Development, volunteered for a small NGO in India. So my studies were directing me to work in an NGO. Once I finished studying and started looking for my first job, I was told that no one in Europe would hire me as I had no “experience” in developing countries and that I should volunteer. We have a scheme in my country very similar to VSO (Volunteer Services Overseas) which is supported by the State. So I applied, specifying that I wanted to be in Asia (special fondness of mine and continent that I love) and I passed the interview process. I was then offered a position for two years as the Fundraising Coordinator for a local Cambodian NGO based in rural Cambodia. And thus began my journey into this beautiful country and doing a job I love. I ended up working for the organisation for three years leading the fundraising department and following-up on projects.
In case you don’t know about it, the volunteering scheme means that the organisation pays for your house, social security, flights back and forth, visa, insurance so you are fully covered. On top of that you receive an allowance which allows you to live correctly in rural Cambodia. So just to mention that you aren’t rich that’s for sure but you don’t work for free for three years 🙂
Few months ago as I was getting ready to move on and was about to start looking for opportunities in other Asian countries, a friend forwarded me the job description of my current position and I had to apply! It was all I wanted to do (managing projects in conservation) and I am still amazed I got the job !!

I am not saying I don’t deserve it as my bosses are satisfied with my work but me and my peers do get the feeling that you are granted with more opportunities sooner in developing countries that you could have in Europe. As long as you can do it people trust you and grant you responsibilities. I find it a real enabling environment professionally.

If you wanted to, where could you move to from this job? What could you progress to?

I could manage bigger projects, or several projects at once, work at the regional level.

Being honest, what’s the worst part of your job? What’s the best?

I would say the worst part would be to work with people who don’t have enough capacity and are hindering the project instead of supporting it. Of course the working in another culture is always a significant challenge but so far it has only made my experience richer 🙂 The best part is being able to be in the field, walk the forest, meet the communities, see that your actions have results.

How is the work/life balance? Do you often have to do overtime?

I was a bit worried about it when I started as the field of conservation is well-known for having people dedicating their lives to the job, sometimes at the expense of they personal well-being and it has always been very clear to me that I don’t want that. After half a year at the job, I manage to get a pretty good work/life balance and just came back from a week holiday abroad without checking my emails once !

How would you describe the kind of people who are in the same field as you? Are they a good bunch to work alongside?

We all have a strong passion for protecting the environment and are pretty worried for the future ! But also people who are very open, keen to work with other cultures, funny, party people 🙂

On a scale of 1 – 10, how would you rate the salary and benefits that come from your job? (1 being the worst and 10 being amazing)

Finally, what advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

A good masters is important but what is going to be most valued is your personality, are you easy-going, adventurous, ready to tackle challenges. Do not hesitate to go and live abroad for some time. I was once told that we can’t help people or a cause unless we have lived in their country, their culture. This is oh so true. I learned the culture, the language, the codes and the reasons behind the behaviours and this will change the way you envision your work. Also, if working in a big organisation can teach a lot, the work in the field, often with local organisations will make you a great professional.

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