easy button

I get a lot of questions on how to succeed in international development. How to make an internship turn into a job, how to use a bad job to get a good job. I give the same answer, every single time. Be easy. More than anything else – more than being skilled, more than being high performing, more even than brilliant – be easy.

This is a small world. You see the same people over and over again over the course of years. Hierarchies turn sideways and upside down in the space of months – every time a new grant gets awarded. My friend Simon has been my boss, my HQ backstop, my subordinate, and my colleague working at another NGO.  If you screw up your relationships with colleagues, you don’t get to leave your job and never think of them again. They’ll pop up in the future – maybe working for the donor that funds you, maybe managing you.

You will work with a limited pool of people. If it’s a good project, you have a big national staff and a small expat staff. Even the largest project is smaller than your average corporation. You need to be able to manage the complexity of the national-expatriate balance. If you can’t manage that, you can’t do your job – no matter what else you have going for you.

That means that when people are hiring, the thought at the front of their minds is, “Will this person be easy to work with?” Because it doesn’t matter how good you are if you’re hard to work with. I remember recommending a colleague for promotion and getting the rapid, muttered response: “We can’t move him up. He doesn’t play well with others.”

I have burned my share of bridges. You can’t be easy all the time. I have ex-colleagues that hate me, I am sure. At least one of them comments on this blog to express his disdain for me. But I do my best to be easy.

Four ways to be easy:

  1. When given a task to do, don’t complain to your boss about it. Just smiled and go do it, even if it’s awful.
  2. You can complain to your colleagues a little, but not all the time. You’re aiming for “this sucks but I can handle it” not “this sucks and I’m miserable.”
  3. This part is kind of awful: you can complain to your expat friends a little, but not all the time. Because very often your friends are the ones who tell you about job openings and float your resume around. They’re not going to do that if they think you’re whiny or bad at your job. (Though, honestly, it occurs to me that if you want to complain all the time you probably need a new job better suited to your skills.)
  4. It’s inevitable that your personal and work life will get mixed up, because living overseas does that. Keep them as separate as you can anyway.


Photo credit:  Jason Gulledge

Chosen because I was trying to be a little edgy with the word “Easy,” not over the top.

The bare bones of prepping for an international career

I’ve had several requests lately for career advice and assistance. That makes me think it’s a good time to repeat some basic points. Here are Alanna’s essential five things to have any hope of getting a job in international development:

1. Get an office job while you’re still in school. As I’ve written, most development work is office work. You need to prove you can handle an office every day. Really, the only way to do that is to have an office job. Do it in the summers if you can’t hack it while in school. Office work is not the most profitable way to spend your time, but it will be worth it later.

2. Study something useful at university. For example, technical subjects like nursing and IT are useful. Epidemiology is useful. A master’s degree is more useful than an undergrad degree.

3. Learn to write. I don’t mean you need to be a novelist, but with practice everybody can write a clear, useful report at decent speed. Have writing samples to prove you can do it.

4. Study a second language. You don’t have to get all that good at it, but making the effort demonstrates you are willing to commit yourself to international and intercultural work. If you are already bilingual, you don’t have to learn a third language. People will assume you are good at intercultural navigation.

5. I think this is the hardest one: Have a goal for what you want to do, that’s specific but not too specific. “I am interested in food security and emergency relief” has a good level of specificity. “I want to work for UNDP” is too specific. “I am interested in women’s empowerment, reproductive health, and community development” is too vague. There is kind of an art to this; basically you want to give people a sense of who you are and what you want. Too broad and they don’t have any sense of you. To narrow and you’ve ruled out too many jobs. If you’re having trouble with this, it’s a good thing to talk over with a mentor. (Yes, if you don’t have a mentor, I will help. Within reason.)


(photo credit: foxtongue)

Chosen because it nicely displays the misery of the job hunt. And it was either this or a bone pun.

A manifesto of sorts

Development work is designed to change people’s lives. Its specific goal is impacting human beings and the way they live. Done badly, it does damage. This makes it inherently serious, as serious as practicing law or medicine and it should be treated that way. If you want to practice medicine, you don’t start your own clinic. You go to medical school.

I am not telling you not to get involved. We need good people working in development. We need them desperately. But warm bodies and enthusiasm don’t help people. Good programs help people. And it’s very hard to create good programs if you are starting from scratch. There is an enormous body of knowledge, both academic and practical, on how to improve peoples’ lives. Not taking advantage of that body of knowledge is unfair to everyone involved.

Reader Question – Can you share some of your experiences in which inexperienced nonprofits did more harm than good?

Dear Alanna,

I too am starting up a very small nonprofit, and I admit that I am not comfortable with all of the issues you raised in your blog on November 8th.

Can you share some of your experiences in which inexperienced nonprofits did more harm than good?


Dear DR,

Here are four ways that a small (or large) NGO can unintentionally do harm to the community it’s trying to serve.

1) You can waste the time and effort of a community by initiating projects which have little chance of success. It’s hard to identify a good project for a small community. Community buy-in is no guarantee of success; possessing deep local knowledge doesn’t make a person omniscient. Projects that have little chance of success include vocational training in sewing and handicrafts, beekeeping, and raising chickens. If you waste a year of the community’s time on a broiler chicken project that never makes a profit, that’s a year of time and effort which could have gone to real income generation or looking after children.

2) You can leave communities convinced that they need outsiders to solve their problems. If you raise $3000 for a backhoe to clear irrigation ditches, then what happens next time the ditches silt up? The farmers’ cooperative will never realize they could have cleared it with hand shovels, or raised the money by charging a membership fee.

3) You can damage beneficial community structures, or solidify harmful structures. Your choice of community intermediary elevates that person or group, by putting them in control (real or perceived control) of valuable assets. If you work with existing power structures, you can support and entrench inequalities, such as sexism or racism, which are already present. If you chose partners who are not part of the current elite, you can destabilize delicate community balances, and erode resilience.

4) You can construct a building and then not provide funds for maintenance or staffing. A school needs a teacher. A clinic needs a doctor or nurse. All buildings need upkeep – painting and repairs at the very least. A building with not funds for maintenance is a drain on community resources in perpetuity, or an eyesore.

I recommend reading Michael Maren’s book The Road to Hell; it has its flaws but it is very sincere and brings up a lot to think about.



Readers – if anyone has case studies or examples, please comment.

Edited to add – 1) Check out the fascinating examples in the comments and 2) Owen has two more ways an incompetent NGO can hurt the population it is trying to help.

(Photo Credit: Copyright Glenna Gordon)
She gave it to me as an example of aid with unintended consequences.

The story of FORGE

About two weeks ago, something fascinating happened. Kjerstin Erickson, the director of FORGE, a small NGO that works with refugees in Zambia, posted on her blog at Social Edge. She said that FORGE was in major financial trouble and might have to shut down. The story has unfolded from there. A major philanthropy blogger wrote about FORGE on his blog, lauding their transparency. Consultants have been stepping up to help FORGE find a way to carry on. It’s become an opportunity to have some fascinating conversations about transparency, accountability, and what makes an NGO “deserve” to exist.

For something of such interest, this is getting no attention on Twitter; there is also surprisingly little attention from the web at large. I think this is because FORGE’s web presence is limited to the FORGE site and the Social Edge blog maintained by Kjerstin. Both of these are a good start but to create buzz you need to be all over the place. FORGE does not seem to have buzz.

FORGE needs a Twitter account immediately, as well as a friend feed account, and a Flickr pool. I know they have a very small staff, but they could work with a consultant to get the ball rolling (yes, I have contacted Kjerstin and offered to donate my services on this), and even some of the ongoing stuff could be done by a committed and well-informed volunteer. Their fundraising model – many small donations – is well suited to microblogging. So is their commitment to transparency. I’d love to see Kjerstin with a Twitter account, as well as someone in the field. Epic Change‘s use of social media would be a great model for FORGE.

Where is their board in all this? Sara Hall from New Philanthropy Advisors makes this point well. Why doesn’t their board care enough to give? And if they cannot give, why are they not out foraging for donations? FORGE can’t really overhaul their board now, but your board is not just a source of guidance or a required technicality. They should stand ready to open their pockets, call their friends, and do media on your behalf. The Nonprofiteer has some great writing on what your board should be doing for your non-profit.

Another thing: I hate to say this, but I don’t like the FORGE website. I think the writing is jargon-heavy, and obscures the power of their model and their message. I also think that the color and design is unwelcoming. In general, it feels very academic to me. It feels like something I am supposed to read about, not something I am supposed to be involved in.

Finally, I think FORGE is choosing the wrong selling points. Their main website page says “With FORGE, you can help end the cycle of war and poverty in Africa.” That doesn’t make them stand out from the scores of other organizations that work in Africa. They also emphasize that FORGE lets you choose how to support and change lives – again, that’s not very different from what everyone else is saying right now, especially Kiva. It’s all just more of the same. I also suspect that use of the catch-all “Africa,” instead of naming countries, may be off-putting to some people.

What is exciting about FORGE is that it is refugee-driven. Refugees themselves identify their needs, request funding, and implement their projects. FORGE just provides money and gives them tools and support as needed.

FORGE has the community drive and focus of a local NGO, paired with the accountability and transparency of an international organization. That’s exciting. That’s where they should shine their spotlight.

Reader question: When is it okay to start an NGO?

Hi Alanna,

I have been reading your blog for some time. I was particularly struck by your entry on founding NGOs. While in the context you are speaking I completely agree with you, I am curious about your opinion on something:

I am part of a (very) small NGO whose mandate is to help a small village in rural Bolivia. We have one partner in the village and several of us volunteering in the evenings/weekends to raise money in order to fund income generating projects in the village. Our ultimate goal is to develop these projects until they are capable of sustaining themselves as well as a small school that has been built in the village, at which point we would like to walk away. I am curious whether this type of operation even falls under the term NGO as you are using it, and what the feeling of the development world is with regards to these small operations? Does your opinion stand that we would be better off contributing our resources to a larger organization (even though our overhead is approximately zero)?



Dear PB,

I can’t really answer your question without knowing more about your organization. I think, though, there are questions you can think about to decide for yourself:

• Do you have a clear idea of how you’ll measure success, or are you just assuming something good will result from your project?

• Do you have an identified funding source that does not involve applying for grants?

• Are you deeply familiar with the village you work in, and the theory and practice of the work you are doing? And I would not call one or two visits deeply familiar with a place.

• Is there no existing NGO who could do the same work in the same place? If you can commit to ongoing funding, even huge organizations can be willing to run little projects. You can actually go to Save the Children or Mercy Corps and say “I have $20,000 a year, can you support this specific school/clinic/agriculture center for that amount?” They may not be able to, but they will listen, especially if you want to work somewhere that doesn’t get much attention or funding.

• Are you starting a new organization because of ego? Do you think it will be cool/exciting/glamorous/make your mother proud to be head of an NGO? Do you actually know enough to do this well or are you just convinced in your heart you’ll do a better job because you are special?

If you feel comfortable with the answers to these questions, you can be pretty sure that your organization is value-added and not just noise.

You’ll notice that there is nothing in there about overhead. People have a problem with overhead costs because they feel that it makes money donated have less impact. But inexperience and mistakes also erode a program’s effectiveness. A skilled organization that spends 15% of the money it raises on accounting, budget transparency, and experienced headquarters oversight may well have just as much impact for every donor dollar as a no-overhead group who ends up doing training that has no impact on actual behavior, or buying supplies that are wrong for the situation.


(photo credit: Alexander Drachmann)
Chosen because I loved the muted colors and the weathered look of the ground and the cement.

Dear everyone who’s ever thought of starting an NGO

Don’t do it. You’re not going to think of a solution no one else has, your approach is not as innovative as you think it is, and raising money is going to be impossible. You will have no economy of scale, your overhead will be disproportionately high, and adding one more tiny NGO to the overburdened international system may well make things worse instead of better.

Now that you’ve ignored me, here’s the rest of my advice:

1) Make your bones. Go work for an existing NGO that addresses the same problem, or one like it. Learn from the existing knowledge in the system so you don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel. If you’re not qualified to work for an existing organization, you’re probably not qualified to run your own.

2) Identify a new funding source. If you’re just going to compete for the same donor RFPs and RFAs that everyone else does, you’re not bringing anything new to the world. If you didn’t get that grant to reduce child mortality in Liberia, another organization would. The children of Liberia benefit equally either way. If you can bring new money in, then you’re having a genuine additional impact.

3) Hire experienced people to work with you. There is a certain charm to a bunch of inexperienced people trying to change the world together, but a group that combines new ideas and actual experience can produce genuine innovation.

4) Your finances are probably the most important part of your NGO. Your donors will want to see your financials before they give. Your projects will require a steady stream of reliable funding to succeed. You can’t do good if you can’t pay your bills.

(photo credit Mosieur J.)