How to get around donor inexperience

Members gather during the opening ceremony of a USAID and Chevron-sponsored project in the Ahal region of Turkmenistan. Photo by: USAID Central Asian Republics / CC BY-ND

Most international development work is funded by a large bilateral or multilateral donor. Each donor has their own unique requirements and bureaucracy that can affect everything from budgeting to reporting to project deliverables.

While many international development organizations are trying to diversify their donor base, most firms and NGOs typically rely on one main funder for a majority of their projects. Each donor and the implementing partners that work with them can become their own microcosm within global development, and understanding the ins and outs of how they work is critical to success as well as to getting a job.

One Devex member recently posed the following question about working with USAID contractors:

“One question that I have seen asked many times, but have not really seen a good answer to, is how an experienced international development professional fills a USAID contractor role without USAID experience. In my situation, I have been working for international nonprofits for many years in senior positions, but have been told by most of the contracting companies (DAI, ChemonicsPACT, etc.) that they cannot hire me for international or senior-level U.S. postings because USAID contracting officials require someone with USAID contracting experience.”

This question is a little unique to others I have addressed in the past on this blog. In this case, the reader does have significant experience in global development — but not with a specific donor that funds a majority of the employers in his area. I won’t pretend to have any easy answers, but here are six points for this professional or others in his situation to consider during their job search:

1. The requirements are passed down from the donor

While contractors typically prefer hiring someone who has experience working with their main donor, this strict requirement usually does not come from them, but directly from their donor. If you read the requirements of key personnel for a USAID-funded project, you will most likely see that one of them is previous experience working on a USAID-funded project. So even when a contractor may be willing to give you a shot, their hands can be tied by the donor.

2. International development can be risk-averse

Understanding how a specific donor works — their procurement regulations, reporting requirements and all — and being able to read between the lines when coordinating with donor officials is often critical to the success of a project. Most projects have pretty tight deadlines with ambitious goals and deliverables. Many employers do not have the time to invest in training someone to learn these rules and regulations on the job — they need a team that can hit the ground running. International development work is risk-averse by nature, so employers are hesitant to take on additional risk by hiring someone without this specific experience.

3. You need to bring something to the table they can’t find elsewhere

Employers are willing to take a risk on hiring people without specific donor experience when they can offer a unique skill set they cannot find elsewhere. This can be a technical skill or in-depth knowledge of a specific country or language. The times I’ve seen people successfully get hired to a USAID contract without previous USAID experience is when it was for a position where technical expertise or country experience was more important, and the employer couldn’t find anyone with these skills and previous USAID experience.

4. Take USAID contracting training classes

While it will not make up for actual work experience with USAID, you can help fill this gap with training courses on USAID contracting. Organizations like InsideNGO offer one- and two-day trainings on USAID grants and contracting to help you get up to speed on reporting, budgeting and procurement requirements. While this likely will not be enough to break into a USAID contractor job on its own, it can give you a better understanding of working with this donor, including the vocabulary to speak intelligently on the subject with a prospective employer.

5. Look for roles on existing projects, not proposed or new ones

Previous USAID experience is at its most important when a project is at the proposal phase. When a contractor is bidding on a USAID contract, they are scored on their proposed personnel, with previous USAID experience being part of that scoring. If they propose someone without this experience, they will likely be docked points and risk losing the project. But a project that has been a well-running machine for a while might be willing to take a risk on someone without USAID experience provided you have the core technical and functional experience required. Also, positions that are deemed as key personnel on a project typically require USAID approval for anyone hired. Since USAID often requires previous USAID experience, you will have a better shot at jobs that are not classified as key personnel.

6. Look for roles at international nonprofits that only do some work with USAID

There are nonprofits and contractors that only do a small portion of their work with USAID. You could try finding a job with one of these organizations, where having USAID experience will likely not be as important. However, if they do some USAID-funded work, you could gain experience that can help round out your resume for a more USAID-specific position in the future. Career Account members can search the Devex organization directory to find employers by the funders they work with.

Got any advice on how a job seeker can overcome the challenge of having little to no previous USAID experience? Leave your insights in the comments below, and tweet me your questions at @DevexCareers.

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.