The Pros and Cons of Working for an NGO

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Many people want to work for non-governmental organisations (NGO). NGOs are non-profit organisations that assist people in their communities, or overseas, that have been affected by disaster, conflict or live in poverty. Although many people are attracted to NGO work because they want a rewarding career, less fully understand both the good and bad sides of taking a job with an NGO. Here we break down some of the most commonly sighted pros and cons of doing NGO work…

Positives of Working for an NGONegatives of Working for an NGO
Your work helps people in needSalaries are lower in the NGO sector
You can work with amazing peopleYou sometimes work in dangerous places
You can build a range of skillsIt is not always a stable career
You can work all over the worldNGOs can be very bureaucratic
NGO work can be highly prestigiousIt can be stressful and challenging work

…but that’s just an overview. Let’s look at each of these advantages and disadvantages in turn.

Your Work Helps Less Fortunate People

A first advantage of working for an NGO is that you can dedicate your career to help people in need.

NGOs work to provide assistance to people affected by conflicts, crises and poverty. Everyone who works for an NGO, be it in fundraising, programmes, finance, or logistics, ultimately helps the organisation assist people who are less fortunate than them. This is perhaps one of the best things about working for an NGO.

Many people who take jobs with NGOs say that working towards assisting people in need is one of the things they like most about their work. NGO workers often find their careers highly rewarding. Having a job with an organisation that helps some of the world’s most in need people is a fantastic reason to join an NGO.

Around the world, millions of people live in poverty. There are also millions more affected by conflicts, forced to flee their homes or impacted by disasters. NGOs aim to assist these people. A real advantage of working for an NGO is that you can use your skills to help the organisation better assist those in need.

You Can Work With Amazing People

A second pro of working for an NGO is that you get to work with fantastic people.

NGOs attract talented people from all over the world. People working for an NGO are often highly motivated to make the world a better place. They also often have a wide range of previous experiences, have an adventurous spirit, and are interested in experiencing new things. Being part of a team full of interesting and motivated people can be one of the great things about working for an NGO.

Many NGOs recruit highly diverse teams. This means people who work an NGO often come from many different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. This means by joining an NGO you can work alongside people from all over the world bringing together a range of experiences to help some of the people in the world most in need.

Being part of a diverse team and working with many different types of people is another big advantage of working for an NGO.

You Can Build A Range Of Skills

A third pro of working for an NGO is that you can develop a wide range of skills.

NGOs require staff with many different skill sets. In the NGO sector there is a need for support roles, such as in logistics, finance, HR, security and administration, as well as programme roles, including in project management, monitoring and evaluation and grant management. With so many different positions available in the NGO sector, a great advantage of joining an NGO is that you can build a career in the specialism of your choice.

Another great thing about working for an NGO is that you can often transfer the skills you have developed in your previous career. Many people take jobs with an NGO after working several years in the private or public sector. A major advantage of working for an NGO is that you can continue to develop your career building on the skills you have.

Working in an industry that allows you to build a range of professional skills, and that gives you the opportunity to develop new professional experiences, is one of the best things about working in the NGO sector.

You Can Work All Over The World

One big advantage of getting a job with an NGO is that you can often work abroad.

NGOs have projects all over the world. Large NGOs can work in hundreds of countries. Even smaller and medium size organisations have projects overseas. A great reason to work for an NGO is that you can often take a posting in another country. This is a great way to travel, experience new places and cultures, and get closer to where the NGO is doing their work.

As well as being able to take long-term overseas postings, another real pro of working for an NGO is that you often get to travel on shorter trips abroad. These trips can either be to assess projects or do site visits, or to attend training or events ran by the NGO.

Having a job where you can travel is fantastic. Many NGO workers get to travel often, and this is one of the best things about getting a job with an NGO.

NGO Work Can Be Highly Prestigious

A final pro of working for an NGO is that it actually can be a very prestigious career.

NGOs do great work. They are well-known both nationality in the countries they are based in and in the communities overseas they assist. Many NGOs are famous brands and highly recognisable. Others are smaller but have a devoted following and are well-respected. Working for an NGO is seen a valuable and worthwhile career. This is a great reason to work in the sector.

Many people want a job they can feel proud of. They also want a job that they feel is respected, and which comes with a degree of prestige. Working for a well-known or highly respected NGO offers this, and it is one reason why it can be a great job.

Not all NGO work is glamorous. In fact, many would argue very little about actually working for an NGO is glitzy. However, NGO work is respected and generally thought highly of. This is one of the good things about working for an NGO.

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.

Salaries Are Lower In The NGO Sector

A first disadvantage of working for an NGO is that the salaries can be quite low.

NGO’s raise funds to support their working helping people affected by conflict, crises, and poverty. They need to use as much of this money as possible to assist people in need. Although NGO workers are paid, and salaries in the sector tend to be fair, overall NGO jobs to pay less than those in the private and public sector.

You can definitely earn a reasonable wage working for an NGO. However, you are unlikely to receive extremely high salaries working in the sector. Most people who work for an NGO are happy with their salaries and feel that doing good work and having an exciting career offsets not earning extremely high wages. But, if earning huge amounts of money is important to you, then the comparatively lower wages NGOs pay may be a real con of working for an NGO.

You Sometimes Work In Dangerous Places

A second disadvantage takings a job with an NGO is that you can be sent to work in difficult or dangerous places.

NGO’s deliver projects in places where people are in urgent need of assistance. This includes in active conflict zones, as well as areas recently hit by disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons, floods, and droughts. This means NGO workers must often station themselves in dangerous contexts. There are genuine risks to NGO workers in many of the places they live and work, and this is one major con of taking a job with an NGO.

As well as working in disaster and war zones, NGOs also work in areas of extreme poverty helping to lift people out of destitution. These areas can have tough living conditions and be in remote locations. There are also often high levels of crime in places with extreme poverty. Living and working in very poor communities and remote areas is not easy, especially for extended periods of time and this can be one downside of being part of an NGO.

It Is Not Always A Stable Career

One big con of having a career in the NGO sector is that it is rarely a stable career.

NGO’s hire staff for projects when they need them. As NGO project are often covered by a fixed-term grant, many staff who work for NGOs have a time-limited contract. When the project and grant ends, so does their job. This means people who work for NGOs often move between jobs. This can mean moving to a new position, organisation or even a different country. This can be very destabilizing for their personal lives and is a definitely a downside of taking jobs with NGOs.

Most contracts with NGOs are for a year or sometimes less. Although there are permanent jobs in the sector, in order to move up and become more senior you will need to take different roles. This means it’s common to have several short-term contracts throughout a career. The stress of frequently having to find a new position, as well as sometimes short periods out of work between jobs, is a commonly sighted downside of an NGO career.

NGOs Can Be Very Bureaucratic

Another con of working for an NGO is that the sector can be very bureaucratic.

Many people take jobs with NGOs because they want to help people in need. However, often they find the NGO sector overly bureaucratic. Some feel that NGOs spend too much energy on fundraising, reporting, grant management and administration and not enough focus on delivering quality projects. Generally, this is unfair, and the majority of NGOs focus heavily on helping crises affected people. However, there is a level of bureaucracy that all NGOs must complete, and this can be a frustrating part of doing NGO work.

The majority of NGO projects are funded by external donors. This means other organisations, often governments or the UN, provide an NGO with a specific grant to complete an agreed set of objectives. These grants allow NGOs to do much of their work, however they also require significant administration to monitor, report on and manage.

NGOs must also dedicate significant resources to developing new proposals and applying for future grants. All this means a significant amount of bureaucracy and a distraction from delivering programmes. Having to dedicate a portion of your work towards grant management is definitely a disadvantage of working for an NGO.

It Can Be Stressful and Challenging Work

A final con of working for an NGO is that it can be a stressful and difficult job.

NGOs work in some of the most challenging places in the world delivering aid to some of the most desperate and vulnerable people. NGOs are also often working to tight budgets, with limited staff and without all the resources they need. These factors combined can make working for an NGO extremely stressful. This can be a be a real downside of doing an NGO job.

Although many people who work for NGOs find their jobs highly rewarding, most would also say there are frequent challenges in their work, and that they are often under pressure.

As well often having a stressful and challenging job, NGO workers can also be faced with distressing and traumatic experiences. Working in disaster and conflict zones means that NGO workers come face-to-face with death, injury, destruction, and misery. Working in areas of extreme poverty can also mean NGO workers encounter extremely difficult situations. Bearing witness to human suffering can take a large toll on NGO workers. It’s one of the major negatives of taking a job with an NGO.

If you want more information on what its like working for an NGO, explore our list of 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.