How to overcome strict foreign aid job requirements

Last week, I discussed the importance of carefully reviewing the qualifications in job postings before deciding to apply. But what do you do when you do not see any jobs for which you are qualified?

Gabe A. wrote: “You say minimum years is often less negotiable, but I’ve had other people tell me otherwise. I have an advanced degree but only two years of relevant professional experience. My frustration comes from many seemingly entry-level positions that require five years of experience. I’ve generally applied for those positions anyways, but my zero success rate leads me to think that you might be correct. What do you suggest?”

To break down the many facets of this issue, I think it’s important to examine why organizations have these strict requirements and then look at how to overcome them.

Reason 1: Requirements passed down by funding agencies

NGOs and consulting firms which implement projects on behalf of a funding agency like the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.K. Department for International Development or European Commission tend to use selection criteria passed on to them by their donor: The donor releases terms of reference and the implementers must find someone who ticks all the boxes. If a project is at the proposal stage, organizations vying to implement the project risk losing out to a competitor if the personnel they propose does not precisely match the criteria.

This can be frustrating for employers as well as they often feel like they are recruiting the best resume to secure funding rather than the best individual to implement the project. Recruiters I talk to say this is starting to change, but in the meantime, many positions have such precise years-of-experience requirements that they count it down to the month.

What you can do: For someone starting out in their career or lacking years of experience, I recommend they focus not on project-funded positions. These are positions where the funding agency will likely have strict criteria in place and the implementing organization will have little flexibility in veering away from them, particularly at the proposal stage. Instead, look at positions that are funded by overhead, typically those in a home or regional office and not tied directly to one specific project.

Reason 2: Efficiency and objectivity

Larger agencies like those which are part of the United Nations system typically have very strict qualifications for their positions as well, for several practical reasons. First is the sheer number of applications they receive. With sometimes thousands of people applying per vacancy, imposing strict job requirements becomes an efficient way to narrow down the field of applicants. Requiring minimum years of experience or other quantifiable qualifications is one way of doing so.

A second reason is objectivity. U.N. institutions are funded with public money from many different constituencies all pressuring for citizens of their country to be hired. Their hiring procedure must or at least appear to be transparent and objective. (I will let you all debate in the comments whether or not that is the case!)

What you can do: If you do not meet the minimum requirements in a posting from a large agency, they are unlikely to be flexible in this criteria. Look for their entry-level, junior or young professionals programs as a port of entry. However, these are also highly competitive and selective.

If you want to work with a large institution like the United Nations, it is important to network. Many consultants are hired through informal channels instead of formal recruitment procedures.

Reason 3: Limiting risk

Any organization working in international development may impose strict hiring criteria in order to limit risk. Foreign aid projects have tight budgets, quick turnaround times and very ambitious goals, and they are typically not set up to absorb a lot of risk. If a hire who has never worked in the field quits midway because it was not what they expected, or because their lack of experience results in them making a poor decision, it can dramatically compromise the impact of a project.

I’m not saying that experienced professionals will not leave midproject or not make mistakes, and certainly employers may be missing out on some great new talent, but they feel a greater level of confidence with someone who has already proven they can succeed working in a similar context.

What you can do: This is a reason why so many people recommend volunteering or interning as a way to kickstart your career. It allows an employer to “test drive” the candidate and the candidate to prove themselves to the employer.

READ:More advice on volunteering

Reason 4: Lack of training resources and incentives

Another reason why some employers impose strict selection criteria is their lack of resources and built-in incentives for training. Again because of tight budgets, many organizations cannot afford to train staff, so they need to hire people “pre-trained” and ready to go. If they are working in a crisis, post-disaster or other time-sensitive contexts, they may not have the time to train. And given the project-based nature of aid work, there is a lot of turnover. An aid worker may work for one NGO this year but when that project ends, will move on to another consultancy next year. So an employer investing in that staff member will not be able to reap the benefits of this investment like, say, a firm where people spend their careers in one place.

What you can do: Larger institutions like the United Nations provide more training since staff typically stay longer than in NGOs or consulting firms, where work is more project-based. Many of the donor agencies offer entry-level programs for people with minimum qualifications where rigorous training is often provided as part of the program. You can also look into taking practical training courses relevant to your area of interest on your own dime to boost your expertise. But first, talk to professionals in your line of work to see what training is important and valuable to employers before you invest your own time and money.

I encourage you to leave a comment below with your tips and experiences dealing with the minimum qualifications challenge. Next week, I will address the challenge of being over-qualified.

Have any tips for our members on getting that first job in the field? Please leave them as comments below. Tweet me your career questions at @DevexCareers — your question may just be the focus of an upcoming Career Matters blog post. You can also subscribe to my video blog on YouTube.

About the author

  • 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.