How to find and leverage volunteer and internship opportunities

Kate Warren, executive vice president at Devex, highlights some of the top points to consider when looking for internships or volunteering opportunities.

It is almost impossible to land a job in global development without some relevant work experience. This can be one of the biggest challenges for recent graduates and professionals transitioning from other sectors who lack that development-specific experience.

Internships and volunteering work can be a great way to get over this hurdle. In addition to bulking up your resume, these experiences can help you figure out where your interests fit within the sector, said Kate Warren, executive vice president at Devex.

Here are three key things to think about as you look for ways to gain experience in the sector.

Consider the type of work

In seeking out internship and volunteering experience, it’s important to look for opportunities that can provide you with “really substantive, hands-on experience,” Warren said.

Some internships involve a lot of administrative tasks, she explained, which can be valuable as many entry-level jobs in the sector are administrative. However, Warren recommended looking for opportunities to work in the field or on technical projects, adding that these experiences can allow you to build on your existing knowledge and will be more impressive to employers.

Be selective when it comes to looking for volunteering work too, Warren recommended. While there are a lot of opportunities to give back through volunteering, these won’t necessarily use your skills and expertise in a way that demonstrates a growth and value add to an employer, she explained.

Prepare your pitch  

In recent years, the sector has seen a trend toward paid internship opportunities and, as a result, organizations are thinking more strategically about how they structure these programs, Warren explained.

However, this may mean fewer intern positions are created, and with smaller organizations already less likely to have formal intern programs, don’t just stick to those positions that are advertised, Warren said. Instead, she recommended reaching out directly to department heads or staff to see where there might be opportunities for you to contribute.

The key is to highlight what you can bring to their organization, she explained. You should be prepared to tell them how your research project could align with their work, or how you could help them put together a marketing or fundraising plan, for example.

Showing organizations how you can contribute to their mission through project-based work will make them more likely to bring you on board, she added.

Focus on growing your networks

Make sure you are not just focused on the work at hand but also the networking advantages that come with these experiences, Warren said.

“Be really intentional about building that network during an internship or volunteer experience, whether it’s the people that you are working with in an organization, or stakeholders,“ she said.

Working in development often involves partnering with other organizations, funders, or donors and you should consider all of them as part of your growing network, Warren added. This network will be valuable when it comes to looking for referrals, references, or setting up informational interviews.

Devex, with financial support from our partner 2U, is exploring the skills and education development sector professionals will need for the future. Visit the Focus on: DevPros 2030 page for more.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.