How volunteering can jumpstart your global development career

By Emma Smith 20 March 2017

An EU aid volunteer talks to local residents. Photo by: Leah Cowan / European Commission DG ECHO / CC BY-ND

When it comes to global development jobs, entry-level positions, and even internships, are highly competitive and there are often hundreds of applications for any one position. If you are new to the job market — or transitioning from another sector — your lack of relevant work experience may hold you back. Additionally, you may still be trying to decide what kind of global development positions are best for you.

Volunteering can help jumpstart your global development career. Not only can you gain the experience and skills to better stand out against other applicants, but you can also learn more about the different roles within the sector.

Deciding where you fit in well in global development

While you may have decided that you want to work in global development and in a role that will allow you to have a positive impact on the people and communities you work with, you might not have figured out yet exactly where you fit into the sector. Many global development jobs involve extensive travel or lengthy stints in the field. Volunteering, particularly spending time overseas, can help you discover if this is something you are suited to or if you are better placed supporting field staff from home offices.

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Tania Bernath, a veteran humanitarian aid worker, says that volunteering is critical for a couple of reasons, but primarily for the person to figure out their interests and what kind of work they will enjoy. For example, Bernath believes fieldwork is the crux of humanitarian aid. If you want to pursue this path, significant time in the field will likely be necessary.

“Everything is centred around the field, basically, so I think it's important to be honest with yourself by getting the field work through volunteering. And do it early on in your interest in the field so you know whether or not that's really something you want to spend a lot of time pursuing,” Bernath advises.

However, volunteering doesn’t necessarily mean spending time overseas. Bernath noted that in addition to field work not being for everyone, there are also jobs where it doesn’t harm you to have field experience, but it is certainly not a requirement — for example, fundraising for a humanitarian agency in New York. Think about the type of work you are interested in; it could be more useful for you to volunteer with the local office of an international NGO or agency than to spend time with an overseas volunteering program.

Many international organizations have headquarters and regional offices across the U.S. or Europe, which focus more on fundraising, marketing, advocacy, campaigns and proposal writing to support the wider work of their organizations. If you see yourself in ones of these roles, your time might be better spent volunteering specifically with these departments. Bernath cited Amnesty International as an example of an organization where you could volunteer while still in school to learn more about their lobbying efforts at the United Nations.

Amy Mulcahy, a global development consultant who previously spent three years volunteering in Nepal, agreed job seekers should learn more about what organizations are doing in their home country, in addition to work overseas, and how they can help. She also advised job seekers to volunteer for the organizations they actually want to work for as it can be a great way to get your foot in the door. The organization “gets to know you, they get to see that you’re a good worker, and they get to see that you would fit the team. They get to see your dedication,” she explained.

Boosting your CV

Whether it’s through a school program or with an NGO, having voluntary experience can help make up for a lack of relevant work experience on your CV. It demonstrates your commitment to a cause and willingness to give up your time.

Many hiring managers and recruiters look precisely for this experience when evaluating entry-level candidates. Particularly if the people hiring also got their start by volunteering, they may even prefer candidates who did the same program as themselves.

Many volunteer programs have an active alumni network, which can be a great resource to tap into when you are ready to hit the job market.

Gaining and sharing your skills

Volunteering can be a chance for you to make a difference to an organization or community, but you should also look for opportunities where you can learn something and develop your skills.

Certain roles with local organizations and NGOs could allow you to hone in on your proposal writing skills, for example, or allow you to work on fundraising campaigns while learning about the functions of different departments, roles and donors in global development.

Try to choose volunteering opportunities that will allow you to gain skills in the areas you hope to pursue in the future or to apply skills you learned in school within a real world context.

Things to consider

Potential employers may well expect to see some volunteering experience on your CV, but not all volunteer experience is viewed the same. Mulcahy suggested that when it comes to employers assessing volunteering work, “how technical it is, the length of time and who it’s with is going to be make a big difference.”

“The timeline that you were there makes a big difference because saying you worked in a school for two weeks, you basically went on holidays for two weeks and you visited the school, verus ‘I worked in the middle of nowhere for two years with the school, I worked with the local teachers, I worked with the communities, I worked with the parents associations.’ That would be very valuable in the sense that you clearly understand local contexts. Even though they are sort of the same roles, that longevity and the length of time... I would assume makes a big difference.”

Bernath also agreed that two week volunteering stints are not the most beneficial, and while every experience is valuable, it is better to commit to “at least a couple of months to six months and up to a year” to get a feel for what the work is really about.

The particular organization you volunteer with could also make a difference when it comes to standing out in the crowd. Time spent with the Peace Corps, for example, or as a volunteer with United Nations Volunteer will be highly valued by any employer. Bernath also recommended thinking outside the box and asking professors to help you through their contacts, or looking to organizations such as Redr, which offers voluntary positions in addition to training for aid workers and humanitarian professionals.

Mulcahy was skeptical, however, of small and grassroots organizations that rely entirely on volunteers. They might be a harder sell to a potential employer if they are not familiar with their work, standards or principles.

Interested in volunteering? Check out these volunteering opportunities on Devex right now.

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About the author

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Emma Smith

Emma Smith is a reporting and communications associate at Devex, based in Barcelona. She focuses on bringing the latest career and hiring trends, tips, and insights to our global development community. Emma has a background in journalism and, in addition to writing for news publications, has worked with organizations focusing on child rights and women’s rights in sustainable development.


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