5 Steps to working at an international humanitarian organisation
The earthquake in Haiti. The battlefields of Afghanistan’s valleys. The arid plains of South Sudan. And now, the civil war in Syria. Mercy Corps is present on the ground in each of these places, bringing its passion for “transformative change” and
The $300 million agency is known for its reasonable work-life balance, it’s innovative work, and highly-driven workforce.
“Every day at Mercy Corps I was producing the best work of my life,” says Paul Souders, who spent nearly six years on Mercy Corps’ marketing team. “I probably [produced] 3–4 times as much as I did working [in the private sector], despite which I somehow manage to work 8-hour days… and almost never late nights or weekends (except during a large-scale disaster like the Haiti Earthquake).”
So how do you land a job at the Portland-based agency that has worked in 122 countries since 1979, and currently works with locals in 40 countries worldwide ? To get the inside scoop, I sat down with Lauren Corr, who works at Mercy Corps’ Portland office.
For starters, get the basics right. “So many people misspell Mercy Corps in their cover letter, or they’ll pronounce it incorrectly,” she said. “That immediately shows that you didn’t even take the time to read our website, or learn how Mercy Corps is pronounced.
“The advice I was given was that if I was serious about wanting to work internationally, I needed to get “field-tested”,” says Kristin Pettersen, who spent four years in Mercy Corps’ Seattle office as part of the fundraising team. “The consensus was that studying, volunteering, or traveling abroad for a few months here or there has become common, but these experiences don’t necessarily show you how to adapt and integrate into another country. Getting to know a country by reading about it is incredibly different than actually living and working there.”
Her learning underlines Lauren’s statement: you must have extensive experience abroad in order to be grow within the organisation.
“I think I should just leave my suitcase out all the time,” joked Jana Almeida*, a friend who spent the last six years flitting between Afghanistan, Rwanda, Kenya, and Mali, among other places, when she wasn’t at the Portland headquarters.
“Especially at the leadership level, everyone has spent at least a decade (if not significant chunks of time) abroad,” she said. “And you’ll need to speak at least two languages.”
The reasons are simple: most of Mercy Corps’ work is in highly-challenging locations, and through your work at the organisation, depending on your level of responsibility, you will need to travel, often extensively and with few breaks, to war-torn, resource-poor places where even the locals struggle to eke out a living. Mercy Corps wants to rely on your ability to thrive in these situations, and showing that you’ve “been there, done that” will help.
2. DARE TO BE DIFFERENT.
“[Our people] don’t stay attached to old ways of thinking,” says Mercy Corps HR team.
The agency values innovation; in 2006, Mercy Corps created a team that focused exclusively on social innovation, drawing from various sectors to underline an organisation-wide focus on ways of thinking that have worked in other sectors, and could provide practical solutions to the issues on which Mercy Corps works.
“…to achieve lasting impact, we needed to expand how we view our core disaster assistance, relief and development work— our “business as usual” approach was not going to solve huge, stubborn problems like global poverty in the long term,” says Leesa Shrader, who works for Mercy Corps as a Program Director based in the Philippines.
Your CV will stand out if you can demonstrate a commitment to thinking differently – either through work on a startup, promoting a novel answer to classic development problems, or previous experience designing and implementing your own solution to an issue in your own backyard (irrespective of its relation to international development).
And while the advertised positions might require several years of experience in the field, “don’t let that stop you,” says Rasmus Dahlbom Nielsen, Program Development and Quality Advisor at Mercy Corps.
“You might end up being the exactly the right person for the job,” said Lauren. “Just because you have a degree in art, or a background in chemistry doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply. A different perspective is extremely valuable.”
3. MATCH THEIR VALUES, AND THEIR PERSONALITY.
“I had long admired the agency’s optimism and efforts toward transformational change — a results-based belief that a better world is possible — and I wanted to be a part of it,” says Thomas Patterson, who spent the last two years as ‘Content Asset Specialist’ managing photography and images at Mercy Corp’s Portland office. He began as a volunteer photo and video editor before being hired, two years later, to work full-time on the Creative Team.
“Being based in Portland definitely means we’re very laid back,” said Jana. And Lauren confirmed: “Everyone is extremely smart, and hard-working. But you definitely can’t bulldoze here.”
As is often the case in the NGO world, Mercy Corps makes discussion and consensus-building common practise, ensuring every employee has a chance to make his or her voice heard.
“Sometimes we’ll talk about an issue for six months,” said my friend, so everyone gets a chance to contribute. “And after six months, I say, okay guys, we’ve got to make a decision now. It’s been six months.”
4. MAKE IT ABOUT THE STAKEHOLDERS, AHEM, PEOPLE.
Mercy Corps may be at the forefront of global humanitarian relief, and relatively secure in its funding sources in a time of dollar duress for UN agencies, but despite any excitement about its focus on innovation and the pedigreed backgrounds of many on its leadership team, Mercy Corps is, ultimately, driven by the people they serve and the issues that most deeply impact them.
“In our view, what matters more than definition [of the issues] is [its] impact on people,” says Michael Bowers, who leads Mercy Corps’ global emergency operations.
Because Mercy Corps is a prestigious international organisation, your ability to demonstrate an authentic commitment to improving peoples lives and speaking to this commitment with true feeling will help you stand out, both in the interview, and at work.
5. DEMONSTRATE LONG-TERM THINKING.
“Poverty doesn’t know Left from Right. It knows weak governance, conflict, corruption and exclusion,” says Simon O’Connell, Executive Director at Mercy Corps Europe.
“Someone [at Mercy Corps] said that we’re like a bunch of entrepreneurs all working under the same roof,” Lauren told me, referring to the agency’s focus on innovative solutions and openness to new ideas. In seeking to be an innovative organisation, they don’t simply hold themselves to standards of bandaging the problem.
But perhaps you’re wondering whether you can this before you’ve actually been hired. “How can I tell them what I think when they don’t even know I exist?!” you might be wondering, and its a fair question. But an organisation’s perception of you begins before you submit your CV, and starts with your mindset while selecting a job to which to apply, and writing your CV. Are you a fan of traditional solutions or eager to build disruptive solutions to the ancient problems of poverty and inequality?
“We can’t act in the short-term without being mindful of the long-term challenges,” says Neal Keny-Guyer, Mercy Corps’ CEO. “How can we move the needle toward stability and build long-term resilience?”
You can demonstrate a similar commitment to driving progress towards big-picture goals by connecting all of the achievements on your CV and the duties of your previous jobs or internships to their impact (either on the issues, the organisation, or population), and relating your tasks to the top issues of international development.
Would you like to work for Mercy Corps? What other humanitarian organisations do you apply to? Let me know in the comments below.
*Name changed to protect privacy. Mercy Corps logo in the first image for illustrative purposes only; InternationalNGOJobs.com has no affiliation with Mercy Corps and this article is not sponsored by the organisation.