Top global development NGOs in London: A primer

By Glenda Cooper 06 June 2011

A march held by Christian Aid in London. The organization is just one of the many international NGOs found in the city. Photo by: Church Mission Society / CC BY-NC-ND

Taking a job at an international NGO usually conjures up visions of working out in the field – in difficult conditions far away from family and friends. Yet that’s far from the whole story. Some of the most dynamic and interesting work for aid agencies can be based in cities where changing the world doesn’t mean going to the ends of the earth.

One of the most exciting places to be working at the moment is London, thanks to its vibrant research and advocacy community and multiple international NGO headquarters.

At a time when funding is tight in many countries, there is a very real debate going on about how to make development aid more effective and transparent. The British government of Prime Minister David Cameron, while cutting funding to almost every other department, has ring-fenced the Department for International Development’s budget, which will grow to £11.5bn by the year 2014-15 – or 0.7 percent of gross national income. DfID is just one major donor located in London; others include CDC, the U.K.’s development finance institution, as well as the Commonwealth Secretariat and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. They all partner with many of the NGOs based in London.

For those considering an NGO career, the quality of life in London can be fantastic. Of course it’s not cheap – the most recent Economic Intelligence Unit survey puts London as the sixth most expensive city in the world. But it is a place that offers access to diverse cultures and communities.

Aid agencies are based in two parts of London in the main, clustered around fashionable Farringdon in the central east part (home to Save the Children, MSF, Action Aid, Merlin and the British Red Cross) and just south of the River Thames in Waterloo/Westminster, handy for its proximity to the British Parliament. This is where Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and CARE International are based, with CAFOD slightly further down the road in Stockwell.

Farringdon is a much sought-after place to work with its myriad coffee shops, proximity to the east London artistic community, pop-up shops and only a quick Tube or bus ride away from central London – or the 2012 Olympic site. There’s a real sense of community amongst the agencies here, with NGOs being only streets apart.

Waterloo, apart from its closeness to Parliament, also benefits from highly recommended restaurants, the South Bank complex (including the Royal Festival Hall) and the Old Vic theater currently under the artistic direction of Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey.

“Being based in the buzz of the city and all that London has to offer ensures we keep our finger on the pulse and gives staff a great work-life balance and experience,” Jon Summerson of the British Red Cross suggested.

“You get a fantastic overview of all the work, and get to interact with colleagues as far apart as Afghanistan and the U.S.,” Anjali Kwatra of Action Aid said. “And it works particularly well for coalitions because we are so close together – things like Make Poverty History. You couldn’t do that anywhere other than London.”

Here’s a look at some of London’s main development NGOs. To find the latest vacancies, search the Devex website, which hosts the largest jobs board in international development.

Action Aid GB

Founded: 1972
Executive director: Richard Miller
Annual budget: £64 million ($104 million)
Staff: 220 in London, a further 30 in Somerset
Activities: program management, fundraising, communications, IT, advocacy, finance, HR, event organization, school outreach

Action Aid was started in the U.K. when 88 supporters sponsored 88 children in India and Kenya – primarily with a focus on education. Today, it helps over 13 million in 42 countries worldwide. Action Aid’s international secretariat moved to Johannesburg a few years ago to break the mold of a development charity where decisions are being made in donor countries without much input from recipients. The London office remains a vibrant place to be, however, not least because international fundraising is still being coordinated from here. according to staff.

“People may think they want to work abroad, but what is interesting in London is that you get to know the people who give you money, whether individuals or organizations,” says one staff. “Often, people don’t think about who their donors are and I think it’s amazing to get to meet them and talk.”

British Council

Founded: 1934
Chairman: Sir Vernon Ellis
Annual budget: £705 million ($1.154 million)
Staff: 400
Activities: arts, English, education and society programs

The British Council works in over 100 countries worldwide to “build opportunity and trust for the U.K. through the exchange of knowledge and ideas between people.” Its programs reached over 650 million people around the world in 2010, according to the council, which describes itself as a “non-political organization which operates at arm’s length” from the U.K. government, collaborating with governments, businesses, NGOs and cultural institutions.

British Red Cross

Founded: 1870
Chief executive: Sir Nicholas Young
Annual budget: £200 million ($327 million)
Staff: 531 in London
Activities: finance, HR, communications, fundraising, volunteering, first aid, humanitarian education

Work for the Red Cross and you are at the forefront of the world’s largest humanitarian organization with a prestigious history that stretches back more than a century. The Red Cross exists to help people in crisis, whoever or wherever they are, enabling vulnerable people to prepare for and respond to emergencies. It played a vital role in both the first and the second world wars and since 1945, has provided relief in situations as diverse as the Colombian earthquake and the Lockerbie air disaster. Apart from emergency response, it also is strong on advocacy.


Founded: 1960
Director: Chris Bain
Annual budget: £49 million ($80 million)
Staff: 250
Activities: programs in Asia, Africa and Latin America; policy, advocacy, media, marketing and communications, finance, fundraising, IT, human resources, facilities services

CAFOD is the official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales – although it is keen to say it works with people of all faiths and none. The agency now has programs in more than 40 countries and works to end poverty and injustice. Their three foci are sustainable development, disaster response, and advocacy and campaigning. Recently, it spoke out on the G-8 and the worsening drought in East Africa. Those who work in London often go on to work elsewhere in CAFOD, according to staff.

“It is not unusual for program staff (and some from other departments) to go on to work in our overseas offices or out into one of the 21 offices we have based around England and Wales,” one told Devex.

CARE International

Founded: 1945
Chief executive: Geoffrey Dennis
Annual budget: £32.5 million ($53 million)
Staff: 100 in London
Activities: programs, marketing and resources; teams focusing on trusts and major donor fundraising, challenge events, communications and campaigns, finance, HR, IT, direct marketing, regions, conflicts, governance, emergencies, contract management, private sector engagement

CARE is one of the largest aid agencies worldwide, working in 87 countries and reaching more than 82 million people. Its mission is to “create lasting change in poor communities” and it works across a range of services such as clean water, teacher training and health care. But it also believes strongly that there is only so much programs can do, and it is vital to influence policymakers in the developed and developing world – which makes its London office a key one.

Those who work there say: “London is a great city to live and work for an iNGO, there are multiple other iNGOs with headquarters in London, and we are geographically well-placed to travel easily to most parts of the world as and when necessary. London is also a good place for networking with leading relevant academic and research institutions.”

Christian Aid

Founded: 1945
Director: Loretta Minghella
Annual budget: £104.6 million ($171 million)
Staff: 346
Activities: humanitarian relief, media, communications, advocacy and campaigns

Christian Aid was formed by 40 British and Irish churches; it concentrates, as they put it, on exposing the “scandal” of poverty and help in practical ways to root it out. It is leading worldwide campaigns on trade justice, climate change and debt relief. Their high-profile communications team is based in London, as are advocacy and campaigns staff.

Doctors Without Borders U.K.

Founded: 1993
Executive director: Marc DuBois
Annual budget: £21 million ($34 million)
Staff: 50 staff, 40 volunteers
Activities: fundraising, communications, finance & IT, HR, programs, medical

Médecins Sans Frontières was founded after the Biafran secession with the belief that all have the right to medical care regardless of race, religion, politics or creed. The organization dates back to 1971 (although its London office only opened a couple of decades later) and won the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize for its members’ continuous efforts to provide medical care in acute crises. MSF U.K. is one of the organization’s 13 “non-operational” centers, which means that it concentrates on recruiting volunteers, raising funds and advocacy. There are opportunities for volunteers and interns – details available on the website.

This is what people have said they enjoy about working in the London office: “The atmosphere in the office, collegial feeling, lots of support.” – “Trusted to do your job and liked the management style.” – “Variety of jobs and the nice office atmosphere.”

International Planned Parenthood Federation

Founded: 1952
President: Dr. Jacqueline Sharpe (also head of volunteers)
Director-general: Dr. Gill Greer
Annual budget: $121 million worldwide
Staff: 300 in central/regional offices; more than 1 million volunteers
Activities: a global service provider and advocate for sexual and reproductive health rights for all; work includes counseling, gynecological care, comprehensive sexuality education, HIV-related services, mother and child health, family planning, contraception and abortion-related services

IPPF is a federation of 153 national organizations working in 170 countries. Staff tend to work for IPPF because they feel strongly about sexual and reproductive health. While service provision is done at the national level, the six regional offices and the Central Office in London provide global advocacy, communications and advice on program development, and conduct accreditation, oversees monitoring and evaluation.

Staff say they enjoy working in London because the IPPF headquarters is here and London is one of the best cities for international development as there are many other NGOs working here and the U.K. government is open to working with civil society.

Islamic Relief Worldwide

Founded: 1984
U.K. director: Jehangir Malik
Annual budget: £51 million ($83.5 million)
Staff: 79
Activities: support (including accounts, HR, ICT), communications (external relations, website and new media, media relations, development education), fundraising & supporter care (community fundraising, supporter care, call center, donation processing, major & corporate donors), programs (global desk communications, U.K. community projects)

Islamic Relief Worldwide is based in Birmingham, but the group’s U.K. headquarters is in London. It is one of the first IR offices, as well as the busiest one. Many London staff began their careers at Islamic Relief as volunteers, either working in the fundraising department or at the call center, but have gone on to develop their careers long-term with the charity.

IR says of working in the London office: “Staff can work on a variety of projects from fundraising, volunteer development, community development, producing educational literature, taking part in international and state policy discussions to producing innovative new media campaigns and developing internal strategies, policies and procedures and much more.”

Marie Stopes International

Founded: 1993
CEO: Dana Hovig
Annual budget: ca. £140 million ($227 million)
Staff: approximately 200 in London, more than 8.000 elsewhere
Activities: family planning, sexual and reproductive health services; advocacy; telephone helpline

MSI estimates that in 2010, it prevented 4.8 million unintended pregnancies, 13,600 maternal deaths and 1.3 million unsafe abortions. Much of the group’s impact occurs in the developing world, particularly in South Asia.


Founded: 1993
Chief executive: Carolyn Miller
Annual budget: £60 million ($98 million)
Staff: 70
Internship: up to 10 interns every six months who spend six months in London and six in the field
Activities: human resources, international programs (including the emergency Merlin Response Team), logistics, health & policy, monitoring and evaluation, marketing & communications

Merlin was set up by three Britons who decided to create a specialist charity to send medical teams to disaster zones; its first mission was a convoy to Bosnia with £1m of essential food and medicine. Since then it has grown into a charity that specializes in responding to natural disasters and humanitarian agencies. It has worked in 40 countries and runs the international campaign “Hands Up for Health Workers,” which points out the international shortage of such workers.

Those who work in the London office say: “You have a great overview of every Merlin program, as well as policy direction – rather than being limited to one country. From a communications viewpoint, we know more about what’s happening on the ground throughout our countries than just about anyone. It’s excellent grounding too for emergency responses, which are almost always led from the Merlin response team based out of London.”

ONE Campaign

Founded: 2004
Co-founder and executive director: Jamie Drummond
Annual budget: $34 million
Staff: 23
Activities: campaigns, new media, government relations, policy development, media relations

ONE was set up by 11 non-profit and humanitarian advocacy organizations including World Vision, Oxfam America and Save the Children U.S., and it is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others. It campaigns against extreme poverty and global diseases and has been at the forefront of using celebrities and social media to bring attention to issues; ONE was, after all, co-founded by the Bono, frontman of the rock band U2. London is the main European office, so the administrative and HR staff work for all European offices as well as the Europe director.

One person working here said: “ONE sees London as a hub for the global development community, so those working for them can be completely plugged in to new thinking and important debates. And as a transport hub, being in London means that colleagues and friends often pass through, which means staff get lots of face time with people based in different parts of the world.”

Overseas Development Institute

Founded: 1960
Director: Alison Evans
Annual budget: above £10 million ($16 million)
Staff: approximately 150
Activities: research on Africa, Asia and Latin America; subjects include agriculture, aid, business and the private sector, childhood and youth, chronic poverty, climate change and the environment, conflict and security, economic growth, food, natural disasters water and sanitation; support by program officers, communications, finance, HR

ODI is a leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues. Its mission is to inspire policy and practice which lead to the reduction of poverty, the alleviation of suffering and the achievement of sustainable livelihoods in developing countries. ODI is proud of its independence, which it says means staff are able to challenge donor thinking and policy and the wider development consensus, and all partners are treated fairly and with respect. Transparency, accountability and sustainability are also central to the think tank’s work. There is open reporting on the use of public funds, with full communication of ODI work to donors, research subjects and partners.


Founded: 1986
Executive director: Mark Wilson
Annual budget: £4 million ($6.5 million)
Staff: 20
Activities: international development, communications

Celebrating its quarter century anniversary, Panos London promotes the participation of poor and marginalized people in national and international development debates through media and communication projects. The organization looks in particular at areas such as HIV/AIDS, the environment, climate change and trade. Current projects look at women with HIV in South Asia and support up-and-coming journalists in southern countries. It also has carried out consultancies for the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Save the Children U.K. and Minority Rights Group. Those who work for Panos say they find the chance to work on long and short-term projects particularly inspiring and working in London is exciting because of the vibrant media and development community here.

Save the Children

Founded: 1919
Chief executive: Justin Forsyth
Annual budget: £291.5 million ($477 million)
Staff: 550
Activities: programs, fundraising, marketing & communications, support services, advocacy

Save the Children has come a long way since its beginnings in the last days of the First World War when founder Eglantyne Jebb decided to take action to alleviate the famine caused by the Allied blockade. Today Save the Children alliance members around the world work in 120 countries and it is one of the biggest, best-known and most respected NGOs. Current campaigns include EVERY ONE, a campaign focused on tackling infant and child survival rates. Headquarters of the Save the Children Alliance, led up by Jasmine Whitbread, are also based in London now. Why work for Save the Children U.K.?

“In general terms,” says one staff, “as a leading NGO, we would hope to provide the necessary support for people to develop and progress and some transfer to our overseas programs.”

Further NGOs based in London and beyond

Did we forget any major development NGOs in London? Please let us know by leaving a comment below!

Read more on London’s international development scene:

Read more international development news.

About the author

Glenda cooper pic 1
Glenda Cooper

Glenda Cooper is based in London, where she covers U.K. aid reform and the vibrant NGO sector for Devex. Glenda has worked for the Washington Post and several other publications, as well as for Save the Children as the U.K. team's media manager. She has spent a year's fellowship at Oxford University researching the relationship between aid agencies and the media, and has since been pursuing a doctorate examining how new media is changing the reporting of disasters.

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