What Qualifications Do You Need To Work For An NGO? We Explain

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Working for an NGO can be a fantastic career. Not only do you get to work for an organisation whose objective is to help people experiencing crises, conflicts, and disasters around the world; but you also often get an exciting role in a dynamic organisation, working alongside other highly motivated and passionate people.

However, NGO jobs are highly competitive. So, if you’re thinking about a career in the NGO sector, what qualifications should you study to increase your chances of landing an NGO job? Let us explain…

Overview: What You Should Study To Do NGO Work

If you want to work for an NGO, you will almost always need to have a university degree. Most NGOs require applicants to have a relevant masters in order to apply. You should aim to complete your university studies before applying to work for an NGO.

…with that said, in order to choose what you should study if working for an NGO is your aim, you need to understand how the NGO sector is structured. Different roles within the not-for-profit industry require different qualifications. This guide will explain more.

Jobs in the NGO sector can be broadly divided into two groups. These are known as ‘generalist’ roles, and ‘technical’ roles. The main distinction between these two types of jobs is that for technical roles you will require a specific qualification in order to do the job. For generalist roles, the criteria are generally less stringent. It is possible to move into a generalist NGO role with a broader university degree, or if you just have the relevant skills and experience.

Qualifications Needed For Generalist NGO Roles

Generalist roles in the NGO sector cover areas such as management, coordination, finance, human resources and in some cases logistics and supply chain management. Grants, project monitoring and security are also often considered generalist roles.

Firstly, it is important to note that having a relevant qualification, ideally a degree to master’s level, in one of these areas, will help you get a job within an NGO even in a generalist role. Hiring managers within NGOs seek to recruit the most qualified and knowledgeable staff they can, so having a related degree will definitely increase your chances of landing a generalist role in the NGO sector.

However, although having a relevant degree will increase your chances of getting a generalist role with an NGO, you can still secure a position by proving you have the skills and experience needed to do the job. Significant experience in a similar role, perhaps in the private or public sector, could negate the need to have a relevant degree.

…with that said, if you are early in your career, or choosing what to study, and want to work for an NGO in a generalist role, consider choosing a relevant degree as this will increase your chances of securing a position.

Relevant Degree For NGO Generalist Roles

Although not an exhaustive list, below we’ve put a table detailing some of the relevant degrees you could study if you want to work in different generalist positions within the NGO sector.

NGO Generalist AreaRelevant Qualifications
Management and CoordinationHumanitarian Action
International Development
Refugee and Migration Studies
Emergency Management
Disaster Management
LogisticsLogistics Management
Supply Chain Management
Humanitarian Logistics
Warehouse Management
Fleet Management
Human ResourcesHuman Resource Management
Business Administration
Organisational Management
FinanceFinance Accounting
Monitoring and EvaluationProject Management
Data Science
NGO Management
Project Management
SecuritySecurity Management
Global Security

Qualifications You Should Have For Technical NGO Positions

Technical roles are the other main category of jobs within the NGO sector. These positions focus on areas such as:

  • Medical aid
  • Mental health
  • Emergency nutrition
  • Shelter
  • Protection
  • Water and sanitation
  • Food security and livelihoods
  • Mine action

In many NGOs, technical roles are either directly involved in running frontline programmes, or are in advisory roles providing backstop support to programme managers.

If you want to work for an NGO in a technical role, you will need the formal qualifications required to practice in that area. This means you will almost certainly need a university degree, usually to master’s level, as well as sometimes professional certificates or membership of a professional body.

NGO Online Courses

If you want to know more about working for NGOs, we highly recommend the online course Introduction to NGO Management. It goes over how NGOs operate and introduces students to the unique aspects of the NGO sector. Follow the link for more information.

Another online course we highly recommend for those wanting to work in 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. Click the link to get more information on the course.

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.

Relevant Degree For NGO Technical Roles

Below is a breakdown of the types of qualifications you might need in order to work in different technical areas within the NGO sector. As above, this is not an exhaustive list and different NGOs may have specific criteria.

NGO Technical FunctionRelevant Qualifications
Medical AidPublic health Medicine Humanitarian Healthcare Nursing Paramedic Health Management
Mental HealthPsychology Counselling Mental Health and Wellbeing
Emergency NutritionPublic Health Human Nutrition Emergency Nutrition
ShelterStructural Engineering Architecture Humanitarian Engineering
EducationEducation in Emergencies International Development and Education
ProtectionSocial Work Protection in Humanitarian Action International Law Refugee and Migration Studies
Water And SanitationWater Sanitation Engineering Humanitarian Engineering Environmental Engineering
Food Security and LivelihoodsEconomic Development Community Development Finance and Development Agriculture Engineering Mircofinance
Mine ActionExplosive Ordinance Risk Education Mine Action and Explosive Hazard Management Humanitarian Mine Action Medic Training

Why You Need A Degree To Work For An NGO

If are looking through job postings for positions in NGOs, you will likely see that almost every position requires you to have university degree. Even entry-level and junior positions in the NGO sector ask for candidates to have completed university. There are two main reasons for this…

The first reason why NGOs almost always ask for you to have a degree before applying to work for them is because they need staff who are highly qualified.

NGO jobs often require specific skills, such as finance, logistics, healthcare or nutrition and degree courses teach the technical aspects of areas such as these. NGO’s also need staff with a theoretical understanding of humanitarian and development work, meaning degrees such as humanitarian action and international development are also sought by NGOs.

As well as providing students with theories relevant to NGO work, degrees are highly sought after in the NGO sector because they teach students vital skills that NGO workers need. Critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and initiative taking are all developed on degree courses, and this is why university level education is such as an important qualification to have if you want to work for an NGO.

A second, and perhaps more pessimistic, reason why NGO’s almost always ask applicants to be qualified to degree level is because it is an easy way to filter out candidates.

NGO jobs are very competitive. This is especially true of entry level and junior positions. NGO’s can receive dozens, or even hundreds, of applications for jobs. With so many candidates to review and short-list, many NGOs begin by using simple criteria to eliminate applications. Asking for a university diploma, or even a master’s degree, means that NGO recruiters can remove applicants who don’t meet this requirement.

Although it is definitely possible to get into NGO work without a degree, it will be challenging. If you want to build a career within the NGO sector, we highly recommend you to go university.

Do You Need A Masters To Work For An NGO?

Look at many adverts for jobs with NGOs and you’ll see that most ask for a master’s degree. In fact, many will require a relevant post-graduate education. This means they are asking for a master’s degree in an area directly linked to the job – so a finance masters for a finance job, or a master’s in architecture for a position managing shelter programmes.

So, do you really need a masters to work for an NGO? The short answer is no – although almost all NGO positions do ask for a masters, it is definitely possible, if you have the highly relevant skills and experience, that NGO recruiters will ignore this requirement and hire you anyway…

…however, if you are aiming for a career working with NGO, you will be better placed to have completed a master’s degree than if you haven’t.

If you want to work in a technical area, focus on masters’ courses related to that technical function. If you want to work in a generalist role in an NGO, for example in management or coordination, some relevant masters you could take include:

  • Humanitarian Action
  • International Development
  • Disaster Management
  • Refugee and Migration Studies
  • Peace and Conflict Studies

As we said, you do not definitely need a masters to work for an NGO, even if almost all the job adverts you see say the role requires one. However, you will land an NGO job more easily if you complete a relevant post-graduate qualification.

Short Course Qualifications For NGO Work

Although many NGO jobs ask for a degree, in fact there are many short course qualifications that can be great to do if you want to work for an NGO.

Not all skills in the NGO sector require a degree to acquire. There are short courses that can be taken both online and in-person in many areas of NGO work. These short courses range from technical diplomas you can complete in a few months, to online short courses you can do in a few hours.

Taking a short course is a great way to boost your CV before applying for NGO jobs, even if you have a degree. Explore short course options, including on this site, to see which courses are available in the areas of NGO work you wish to focus on.

If you want to know more about what you should study to work with NGOs, explore 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.