Cover letters: How to avoid the mistake that could offend your potential employer

A good cover letter can help you stand out from other job seekers, but make sure to avoid one common mistake. Photo by: wwworks / CC BY 

Most recruiters say they place more importance on the CV than the cover letter when evaluating candidates for global development positions. With tough competition among job seekers and strict requirements passed on by donors, recruiters first want to make sure you have the necessary qualifications before taking the time to read a cover letter.

Read more tips on creating cover letters:

The truth about cover letters
What recruiters look for in a cover letter

However, degrees and years of experience aren’t the only criteria mission-driven employers in global development seek. They also want to hire professionals who identify with their values and will fit in with their culture. While a resume can help them check the boxes on a long list of technical and management requirements, a cover letter is where employers get to know you, your motivations and why you are uniquely positioned to help them achieve their goals. If a CV is your opening statement, a cover letter is your closing argument. And there is little debate that a poorly written cover letter can land an otherwise strong application in the garbage bin.  

A sensitivity unique to the global development industry is how you refer to an employer in a cover letter. You want to make sure you get the employer’s name right — you would be surprised how many times I and other recruiters receive cover letters that name a different employer. But, less obvious is how you describe the employer. Are you applying to an NGO, a consulting firm or foundation? What about a government agency or development bank? If you start a cover letter for a position at an NGO stating you admire their company, rather than organization, it would be a red flag that you don’t truly understand how they work. A consulting firm or private sector company may see your use of the term organization as a clue that you won’t fit in with their more business-minded structure. This is especially true if you’re trying to transition from another sector and there will already be some skepticism as to whether you can easily fit in.

So that you don’t make this common mistake, here is a quick cheat sheet for some of the employer types in global development and how you should refer to them:

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About the author

  • Warren kate 1

    Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising 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.