5 reasons to work in business development

By Kate Warren 12 May 2015

Representatives from research and donor agencies, members of private enterprises and scientists come together to work on designing sustainable agriculture and livestock strategies for smallholders in Ethiopia. Photo by: ILRI / CC BY-NC-SA 

When aspiring aid workers think of a career in international development, it’s rare they envision spending their days scouting requests for proposals, writing key personnel sections or developing a Gantt chart work plan.

In fact, business development — or what nonprofits often refer to as program development — is a career path few intentionally seek out.

Yet it comprises a hefty percentage of jobs in the sector and is critical to many organizations engaged in global development work.

International development implementers can only do good if they have the funds to do so. Aside from traditional fundraising tactics, a vast percentage of funding comes from bilateral or multilateral agencies like the U.K. Department for International Development, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the U.S. Agency for International Development or the World Bank in the form of grants and contracts. These awards are competitive — and it’s common that dozens of organizations are vying for the same money. With millions, and even billions, of funding dollars at stake, global development organizations employ teams dedicated to responding and winning these proposals.

Business development positions tend to be based in the home office of international organizations, where you will be closer to the source of funding. You’lll find most of them in places like Brussels, Canberra, London or Washington, D.C., though international travel is typically a part of the job.

There are a variety of roles at all career levels, including proposal coordination, recruitment of key personnel, cost proposal development, proposal writing, research and business intelligence gathering.

For those looking to break into global development, or find their next challenge in this sector, here are five reasons why working in business development can be a good career move.

1.   It provides a crash course in technical areas

Building up a specific technical expertise is a challenge many early career professionals face.

“How can I become a technical expert when all of the technical roles require you to already be one?” is a question you might be asking.

Working in business development can be an effective way to break this chicken-or-the-egg scenario. When you work on a proposal, typically a four- to six-week effort, you’re expected to quickly become an expert in the subject area. The pressure-cooker environment of proposal work requires you to dive deep to understand the latest innovations, newest technologies and best practice approaches to specific issues. Working alongside senior technical experts, who may have the expertise but need your guidance on how to package it into a compelling proposal, provides an opportunity to learn from the best.

If you work for an organization that focuses on a specific sector, you’ll start to build up an arsenal of knowledge that can help you better execute on those projects in the future. If you work for an organization that engages with a wide range of sectors, say working on a food security proposal this month and a conflict mitigation program next, the wide range of experience can help you hone in on a specific sector you want to pursue later.

Many veteran business development professionals say the experience provided better technical training than entry-level program management positions.  

2.  You’ll work closely with leadership and senior experts

Working closely with the leadership of an organization not only provides an opportunity to learn from the brightest but also an opportunity to get noticed by those making hiring and career advancement decisions. It’s not uncommon for business development professionals to move more quickly up an organization’s ranks when they impress their superiors with their work ethic, creative solutions or ability to tackle a challenging project.

The network of experienced professionals you build both within and outside of your organization during the proposal process can be valuable when looking to make moves later in your career.

3. It’s a valuable skill that will be marketable for the rest of your career

Employers highly value business development experience because it is so critical to their organization’s livelihood. It’s rare for someone to work with an implementing development organization and never have to work on a proposal. Even if you later pursue a project management or technical role, you’ll undoubtedly need to get involved in business development in some capacity. Already having some exposure will make you a more competitive candidate for many different types of jobs.

Read more exclusive Devex analysis on winning funding from top global development funders.:

Doing business with DfID: A procurement process guide 
Doing business with USAID: A competitive process guide
EuropeAid Framework Contracts: What you need to know 

Writing concisely and persuasively, creating realistic budgets, developing partnerships and working collaboratively with diverse teams are also skills business development professionals gain and can later use in a wide range of roles.

4. Positions can be less competitive, with higher salaries

Perhaps because it isn’t what most people envision when pursuing a career in international development, business development roles often receive fewer applications than program-focused roles at the same career level.

If you aren’t getting a response to your program officer or coordinator position applications, consider pursuing a business development associate or proposal coordinator position instead. In fact, recruiters tell Devex that business development roles are some of the most difficult positions to fill.

Business development is one of the more measurable roles when it comes to impact on an organization. It is easier to prove your value when you can show you helped bring in, for example, $10 million in funding. As a result, salaries in this function tend to be one of the highest paying in the sector. While most people do not choose a career in international development to make a big wage, if this is an important criteria to you to say, pay off student loans, it is something to consider when weighing career options.

5. It can open up a wide range of future career options

Starting a career in business development doesn’t mean you have to spend the entirety of your career in this role, although you certainly can. Business development can be a springboard to many different roles in international development work. The exposure to many technical areas, visibility of working alongside senior staff, and marketability of business development skills means these positions can open doors to a wide range of opportunities.

It’s not uncommon for an organization to move someone from their business development team to the project start-up team when they win a project. After all, they will be more intimately acquainted with the program more than anyone. Working on proposals is a demanding and often stressful role. Many employers reward those who put in their time by helping them transition to other areas of the company rather than lose them to burnout.

If you happen to be someone who thrives in this role, there are opportunities at all stages of your career to advance to the highest levels of an organization.

Do you, or have you, worked in a business development position? Why would you recommend — or not recommend — this career path to others? Please leave your comments below.

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About the author

Warren kate 1
Kate Warren@DevexCareers

Kate Warren is the senior director and editor of careers and recruiting content at Devex. With more than a decade of international development recruitment experience working with international NGOs, consulting firms and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.

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