Working in a foreign country can be stressful, and is often compounded by pollution, frequent travel to project sites, and just trying to find your bearings. How do you find time to look after your skin? And where do you begin to look for products that are similar to what you used back home? You run out of the preciously-conserved supply you brought with you, with months to go before your next trip back, and you’re left scrambling.
Here’s an opportunity to see how the UN works, on the inside, without spending six long months doing an unpaid internship there, AND it’s a chance to meet some of the people employed by UN agencies around the world. You should apply if you’ve got […]
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.
This time last year, I was in the mountains of Guatemala eating lunch with a man named Ovidio who spent 10 years working for WorldVision. It’s a prestigious international NGO that spends millions doing a variety of different projects all over the developing world.
Wondering how to get started working in the field? Struggling with not enough experience but eager to cut your teeth at a premier international organisation? The “Get that Gig” series explores unadvertised positions at international institutions around the world, with tips from those who’ve already […]
Back when I’d first moved to Bonn, I was pretty sure I was going to become a photographer. So I bought a DSLR, made my family pose for hundreds of photographs, and spent hours playing around on LightRoom, trying in vain to become a pro with the Adobe Suite.
It was during this photo-frenzy that I met Katrina. She wanted to get rid of her telephoto lens, and I was under the impression that the more lenses I had, the better of a photographer I would be.
We met one evening just after a 6pm drizzle, and, standing in the cobblestoned city centre, discovered we had lots more in common that a love of beautiful images and the gadgets that make them. Months later, when I changed jobs and moved to an office that was five minutes from Katrina’s building, we met for lunch. She was in a rush that day, but still found time to share lots of smiles AND paid for my meal. I figured we’d see each other soon, and I’d repay the favour, but a couple of years went by and we never met up. I started working from home, Katrina had a baby, we lost touch.
Two weeks ago, she called me.
“Malaika, I’m really struggling. I can’t stand my job, everyone just talks about money, money, money, I’m ready to quit and do something new, but everyone is telling me I’m crazy.”
Katrina, you’re not crazy, I told her. “It’s completely reasonable to want to do something you’re truly passionate about, and it’s part of what makes life really good. So why shouldn’t you have that?”
“Yes, I know,” she said, sounding morose. She sounded pretty down, and when I asked her what was getting to her, here’s what she said:
“But everyone around me talks only about money, benefits, security, etc. I can’t find like-minded people who are not all about that, and therefore -I actually don’t think that I have any appropriate connections. Not just to find a good job, but rather people who are on the same page as me, who will not stare at me with a blank face while I explain why I have decided to quit a job that provides me with a lot of money, benefits and security. Honestly, I am tired of explaining it already. And of that face telling me – YOU MUST BE CRAZY!”
“Katrina,” I wanted to tell her, “There are hundreds of people in the world who don’t talk ONLY about money, benefits, security. You’ve just got to go out there and meet them!”
“I am sure you have a lot of acquaintances who are like-minded,” she said. “I would love to become a part of a community that maybe shares ideas, or works on joint projects to make a difference in people’s lives, environmental issues, social projects, etc. How do I meet them?”
Here’s what I told her about where to get started:
Because so many NGO workers are expats, and vice versa, you’ll always find opportunities to discuss social issues among others who have come to your city from another country. Worried about living in too-small a town? Even the tiniest villages have expats, or Peace Corps Volunteers, or recent graduates teaching English. Some of my closest friends in Madagascar were French agronomists working in the tiny town of Ambatondrazaka, where I lived, and though we were just five foreigners, when they offered to host dinner parties, I invited the local Peace Corps Volunteers, and suddenly we were a group of ten people passionately discussing climate change and the sustainability of rice farming. Expat groups tend to be inclusive, friendly, and treasure troves of connections when you are job-hunting.
Although my least-favourite way to meet people (since most of their events seem to revolve around alchohol and attract many with poor social skills, Internations exists in nearly every capital city, hosts well-attended events, and exists for the express purpose of bringing locals and expats together. Many people tell me that the crowd Internations attracts varies enormously by city. You can try attending at least one event, and give yourself the goal of talking for at least 15 minutes with at least one person. The last time I did that, I met a Rwandan refugee who spoke perfect Spanish, an Australian surfer and his Dutch-Chinese-Singaporean girlfriend, and an American economist, all of whom have since become close friends.
Back when I first moved to Paris, I was considering doing a consultancy at the OECD, a job I’d long salivated over. A friend invited me to an after-work event organised for the “young” people who come from all of the OECD’s member countries to intern there, or those who work at the OECD and don’t already have a Paris-based friend circle. The first time I went, to a dark bar in the 15th arrondissement, I spotted a girl wearing a bright red dress that fit her perfectly, and began a conversation about clothes from Zara. Besides being wise and beautiful and super-smart, she was gentle, and had kind eyes. I liked her so much, I got her number and we met the next week to have Saturday brunch. Despite her crazy schedule and the fact that we lived on opposite sides of Paris, a friendship blossomed, and though we’d met at a networking event, we never talked about work. But when she did talk about education policy, her brown eyes alit with true passion for the topic, I could relate, and she listened without judgment to my career and personal worries. Paris has the OECD and UNESCO, but you can find people of all ages passionate about policy and global issues wherever there is a major UN agency. Bonn has its group, Geneva has the massive UNING community, New York has its UN interns. Many of them also hang out at Internations 🙂
Besides being a way to host people, CouchSurfing attracts every brand of crunchy granola former hippies, many of whom are passionate about environmental conservation, and will happily join you for an Al Gore book club or show you how to start composting. Simply using the ‘Events’ feature to create an event around a topic of your interest, or look for the group nearest your geographic area and write a post inviting people who are equally passionate about sustainable fashion or refugee relocation to get in touch.
Many of us first got introduced to human rights and social justice work at university. And universities that offer international development degrees often host events to foster networking, increase awareness, and sometimes even raise funds for a particular issue. International development degrees are not specific to global capitals; BYU in Utah has a thriving programme, as does Dhaka, Perth, and Santiago. Look for the major universities in your town or city, and pencil the events on their website – many of which are free and open to the public – into your calendar.
Do you have any suggestions for Katrina on how to meet like-minded people? Where have you met your best friends?