NGO Cover Letter (Ultimate Guide)

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When you apply for a job with an NGO, a key part of your application will be a cover letter, alongside submitting a CV. A cover letter is a formal letter explaining why you are a strong candidate for a job. NGO recruiters will review your cover letter and decide if they should short-list you for an interview. Therefore, your cover letter needs to demonstrate you have the skills and experience, as well as the passion, to work at the NGO you are applying to.

We’ve put together this guide to help you write a great cover letter for an NGO job. It goes over thirteen crucial steps you should follow when writing your NGO cover letter. Follow the steps in this guide and see what you should, and shouldn’t, put in your cover letter for that NGO job…

Your Cover Letter Should Be Just One Page

The first thing you need to understand when writing a cover letter for an NGO job application is that it should never be more than one page long.

Your cover letter for an NGO job needs to catch the recruiter’s attention. NGO jobs are highly competitive. Some openings at top NGOs will get hundreds of applicants. NGO recruiters simply aren’t going to read really long cover letters. Keep it to one page to make sure it’s actually read.

Because NGO recruiters have to sift through so many applications, they usually only give each one a brief glance. It’s a shame because you put a lot of work into your application, however, it’s the truth. Therefore, you need to capture the hiring managers attention. One way to do this is to keep your cover letter to less than a single page.

A good length for an NGO cover letter is between 350 and 500 words. Make sure you write in font size 12. This means your cover letter will come out at about three quarters of a page. This is a good length as it allows you to include enough key details, without being too long to lose the NGO recruiters attention.

A cover letter for a job at an NGO that is longer than 500 words or so will have a higher chance of not being read. This means your application will be passed over and you’ll lose the opportunity to join the NGO you want in the role you applied for.

If you write a cover letter for an NGO job that’s less than about 500 words, it will simply be too short to include enough details, and may give the wrong impression to the hiring manager.

Make Sure Your Cover Letter Is Well Written

The second thing you must consider for a cover letter for an NGO job is that it must be well written.

Your cover letter is a key part of your job application for an NGO. Before you reach the interview stage, all the hiring manager knows about you is what you put in your CV and cover letter. Therefore, it is vital that you give the right impression. Making sure your NGO cover letter is written professionally is vital to this.

Start your cover letter with Dear Sir/Madam. This is the correct formal way to address a letter to someone who you do not know the name of. Your cover letter should close with ‘yours faithfully’ – again, the correct formal way to end a letter to someone you do not know.

When writing a cover letter for an NGO job, make sure you break your text down into clear paragraphs. Each paragraph should address a different topic, such as previous work experience, education, soft skills or why you want this role or to work for this particular NGO.

The way you write in your cover letter should be clear, and professional. Never use slang, and write in complete sentences. Good grammar is also hugely important. If you struggle with writing clearly, and correctly, run your cover letter through a spell-checker or a tool such as Grammerly.

If you are unsure whether your cover letter is well written and makes your points clearly, have a friend or family member read it and ask them to assess if it making your points directly enough.

Tailor Your Cover Letter For Each Job Application

Probably one of the most important things you need to do when writing your cover letter for an NGO job is ensure that you are tailoring it for each application that you send.

Don’t write a generic cover letter and send it to every job. NGO recruiters will be reviewing your cover letter to assess how well you fit for the particular role they are hiring for. Editing your cover letter so that it is tailored to the role you are applying for is key.

Tailoring your cover letter for the job you are applying for allows you to clearly demonstrate how well you fit the role. It also lets you demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the NGO and the specific position.

NGO jobs are highly competitive. You will need to send a lot of applications, especially if you are early in your career, to land an NGO role. Therefore, writing an entirely new cover letter for each job application you send will take too much time. You need to have a cover letter that acts as a template, and then have key sections that you can quickly edit for each job you apply for…

For example, parts of the cover letter covering trainings, education and soft skills will likely not change much between jobs. However, sections such as how your previous professional experience makes you qualified for the role, need to change slightly for each application. The section explaining why you want to work for that organisation also needs to be edited for each NGO that you apply to.

Remember, save all the cover letters you send to NGOs. This mean if you apply to the same organisation again, or to a similar role, you can go back to older version and tailor them more easily.

Your Cover Letter Must Capture The Recruiters Attention

A vital aspect of your NGO cover letter is that it must capture the recruiter’s attention.

As we said, NGO job openings can get hundreds of applications – your cover letter needs to stand out. Often NGO recruiters will only take a quick glance over a cover letter before deciding whether to shortlist that candidate for interview. Therefore, you need to ensure that even with a quick look, your cover letter conveys that you are right person for that NGO job.

After your opening of ‘Dear Sir/Madam’, its often good to include a line that confirms the role you are applying for – something like ‘I wish to apply for the position of… with…’ NGO.  This just ensures that the recruiter is aware of the role you are a candidate for.

The next line of your cover letter, usually the opening of your first full paragraph, should highlight your most recent and most relevant work experience. Something along the lines of ‘I am currently employed as…’, or ‘I have experience in a similar role as…’. This instantly tells the NGO recruiter that you are a highly relevant candidate.

Now that you’ve got the recruiters attention, use that paragraph to describe how that position is relevant to the job you are applying for. Again, be direct and concise here, but the aim is to show that your current, or most recent, professional experience is as closely linked to the NGO job you are applying to as you can.

Be Sure To Expand On Your Professional Experiences

Once you have caught the hiring manager’s attention, and demonstrated that your most recent, or most relevant role, is closely linked to the NGO job you are applying for, the next step in writing your cover letter is to expand on your professional experiences.

You should now move to another paragraph, and here you should highlight, briefly, any other relevant work experience you have. If you have a lot of related experience, especially if you have worked for NGOs before, choose some roles that are most closely linked to the position you are applying for.

The aim here is to further show the NGO recruiter that you have professional experience that would provide you the knowledge and skills needed to do the job. You do not need to list all your jobs here, but you should provide details on the relevant positions.

If you are new to the NGO sector, or applying for entry-level roles, instead of including other professional experiences you could expand more on the experience you do have. For example, here you could detail internships or volunteer postings you have done. However, only include them if they are relevant to the NGO job you are applying for.

Make Sure Your Cover Letter Links To The Exact Job Description

As we’ve discussed briefly already, it’s really important that your NGO cover letter directly links to the job you are applying for. One of the best ways to do this is to review the job description posted in the job advert by the NGO, and address the key points in it in your cover letter.

Directly addressing the key points in the job description in your cover letter tells the NGO recruiter directly that you have the required skills and experience to do the job.

Your cover letter should be less than one page – ideally around 500 words. This means you cannot link your previous work experience to every point in the job description. Therefore, you need to pick the most important points only. Often these are the main sub-headings, but make sure to read the job advert to see if the NGO includes any particular challenges or transitions that the role may face.

It’s important in the part of the cover letter not to just repeat your CV. Remember, the NGO recruiter has a copy of your CV and will be reviewing that as well. Your aim here is to briefly describe how your professional experience means you have the skills and competencies listed in the job description.

NGO hiring managers will be looking to recruit the person with the most relevant skills – this is your chance to show them it’s you!

Outline Your Training and Education

After giving a brief overview of your professional experience in your NGO cover letter, you should now include your education and training. This should be the start of another paragraph.

Begin by explaining your most recent university degree. Almost all NGO jobs require at least a bachelors, and usually a masters, and so it is important to highlight that you have these to the recruiter.

After including your degree, you should then go on to list any other qualifications you have. However, only include qualifications that are highly relevant. If you have a masters related to NGO work, but a bachelors that is not, then leave it out. Remember – the aim in your cover letter is to be concise and clear.

Once you have listed your qualifications in your cover letter, next you should put a single sentence explaining how these are relevant to the NGO job you are applying for. You do not need to include a sentence linking each of your qualifications, a single line covering all of them will suffice.

As well as including your qualifications, in this paragraph of the cover letter you can also include any training courses you have completed. You can either include a following sentence also describing how these give you the skills and experience needed to do the job, or you can include them and then have one sentence linking both your university qualifications and training to the role.

Don’t list all the trainings you have done. The aim is to include the most relevant ones to the NGO job you are applying for. The most important thing is to explain how these make you qualified for the position. Again, remember the hiring manager will have your CV as well – it’s there that you can list more of your trainings.

NGO Online Courses

If you are looking to work for an NGO, we highly recommend the online course International Humanitarian and Development Careers. We think it provides one of the best overviews of the NGO sector and gives a clear breakdown of the skills needed to get an NGO job. It also provides valuable information on how to successfully apply for positions within NGOs. Click the link to be taken to the course’s page.

We also think the online course Introduction to NGO Management is a must for anyone wanting to work for an NGO. It goes over how NGOs operate and introduces students to the unique aspects of the NGO sector they will need to know in order to land a job. Follow the link for more information.

Another online course we highly recommend for those wanting to join the NGO sector is How To Design and Fund International Development NGO Projects. Anyone working for an NGO needs a basic understanding of how NGO projects are set-up, and how to input to funding proposals. This course is a must for those wanting to work for an NGO. Click the link to get more information on the course.

Include Descriptions Of Your Soft Skills

Now that you’ve outlined your professional experience, formal qualifications and trainings – essentially the ‘hard’ skills you have, next in your cover letter you need to briefly go over the inter-personal skills you have – your ‘soft’ skills.

When NGOs post a job advert, they almost always include the competencies they are looking for the role. These can be soft skills such as team work, problem solving, initiative taking and leadership. They can also be more closely aligned to the NGOs own mission and values – and include things like inclusion, accountability, neutrality and fairness.

It’s important you address the soft skills listed in the job advert. Start a new paragraph of your cover letter and briefly explain which inter-personal skills you have. If you have space, also include a sentence on how you acquired these skills, such as that your previous work experience, volunteer postings or education meant that you built the specific soft skills the NGO is looking for role.

Remember, the aim of your cover letter is to expand on your CV, not repeat it. Including your soft skills in your NGO cover letter is ideal as these should not be included in your CV.

As always, keep this part of your cover letter short and to-the-point. Also, ensure that you are including the competencies included in the job description, but, if possible, do not copy them word-for-word.

Highlight Your Computer Skills In Your Cover Letter

Almost all modern jobs require IT skills – NGO jobs are no different. It’s important in your cover letter that you highlight that you have the computer skills relevant to the job.

Include a single sentence stating that you are computer literate and understand how to use the specific programmes the job requires.

Pretty much every NGO job will require you to have moderate-to-strong abilities in Microsoft Word and Excel, so be sure to include these in your cover letter. PowerPoint is also commonly used so it can be beneficial to list this as well.

Some specific NGO roles may require the use of additional computer programmes. For example, finance roles are likely to require experience in accounting software such as QuickBooks. If you know the NGO uses a certain software, or is likely to use a similar programme for the position you are applying for, be sure to mention it in your cover letter.

You should keep this section of your cover letter focusing on your IT skills to a minimum. One, or maximum two, sentences is enough to convey to the NGO hiring manager that you understand the level of computer work needed to do the job.

Explain Why You Want This Job

So, you’ve explained in your cover letter your professional and educational background, as well as the soft skills you have that are relevant to the NGO job you are applying for. You’ve also included a short section covering your IT skills. Now, you need to show your passion for the role!

There are two main things you should do when explaining to an NGO in your cover letter why you want the job. The first is the specific reason why the role excites you. Be genuine here. Look for real reasons why this job is the perfect role for you. However, ensure you remain relevant to the job– avoid general terms about why you want to work in the NGO sector. Instead, explain why the particulars of this role made you apply.

The second thing you need to do here in your cover letter is explain what the job will do for you. How does it build on your current professional or educational experience. Avoid saying that the role is just a stepping stone to another job – this will make the hiring manager think you’ll leave the job as soon as a better one comes up. Instead, focus on how the job relates to your wider, and more general, career goals.

Again, be honest and passionate about why you want the job so that the NGO recruiter can see you are excited by the position.

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Describe Why You Want to Work For This NGO

The last part of your NGO cover letter should explain why you want to work for that organisation.

Each NGO is unique and they are often proud of their histories and the work they do. NGO’s also look to recruit people whose values and passions align with their mission. Therefore, is it vital to include a sentence about why working for this particular NGO interests you.

Note – here you need to be specific about the NGO. Don’t say why you want to work for NGOs generally. Do some research on the organisation you are applying to and ensure the ending statement of your cover letter relates directly to the organisations work.

One tip is to look at the NGOs mission statement. These can almost always be found on the NGOs website. Don’t repeat their exact words back to them – but do say that this mission excites you and makes you want to work for the organization.

If an NGO doesn’t have a mission statement on their website, take a quick look over their areas of programming they do and highlight why these interest you.

As always, keep it direct and to-the-point. One sentence here should be enough.

Don’t Include Start Date or Salary Expectation

Unless a NGO’s job advert explicitly asks you to include a date of when you can start in the role, or your salary expectations, don’t.

Generally, it’s good to leave this information out unless you have to include it. These details are best discussed at the interview stage where you can provide more detail and context.

The only time you should include your start date in an NGO cover letter is if you can start work immediately. This can be in your favour as NGO recruitments are often urgent and including that you can start in the position right away can actually help your application.

If an NGO explicitly says they want applicants to include a start date in their cover letter, it is best to include a rough date, or better, something like ‘available with one months’ notice’ – or whatever your current jobs notice period is.

Don’t Include A Photograph

A final point to note when writing your cover letter for an NGO job is that you shouldn’t put a photograph of yourself.

Although in some countries putting a photograph on your job application is more common, generally it is best not to. Putting a photograph rarely adds to the quality of an application. Almost no NGOs require applicants to include photographs when they apply for a job.

A good rule to follow is to only give information in your cover letter that will directly help you get the job. Essentially, if an NGO recruiter doesn’t need a piece of information, don’t give it to them. Your cover letter is a key tool in convincing the NGO hiring manager that you are a strong candidate for the job, and that they should short-list you for an interview. Putting a photograph does not help with this argument, and therefore it shouldn’t be included.

If, on the very rare occasion, an NGO does ask you to include a photograph in your application. Ensure it is professional and clear. Don’t use a passport photo… everyone looks bad in passport photos!

If you want to know more about how to get a job with an NGO, as well as application tips, check out our page on the top NGO online courses here.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.