Working for an NGO: Tips to secure a placement in an accessible yet elusive industry

By Laura Jane Henderson, Guest Writer. Image by Damir Kopezhanov on Unsplash

NGOs can be defined as “a group that functions independently of any government.”. Typically, they are non-profit and rely on funding from different sources such as private donations and grants.

Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are present across all industry sectors. Known for championing positive change and helping those who often need it most, they are one of the most effective ways for social actors to interact with governments and institutions. Some of the top NGOs in the world right now include Mercy Corps, BRAC, and the Danish Refugee Council. Whilst these NGOs are well known, many operate within spaces we would not immediately think to find them. This article will give you an insight into working in a local NGO and tips to help you gain experience.

My name is Laura Jane, and I am now in my final year studying International Relations and Spanish. During the summer of 2021, I had the privilege of working for an NGO in Madrid, Spain. I saved up from working part-time in Starbucks and joined a paid internship programme called The Intern Group. My goal was to improve my Spanish and gain an understanding of how NGOs operate as well as learn about the working culture in another country. The Intern Group works across the globe to help people of all ages find an internship in a country they want to live in and in a sector of their choice. They are a reputable organisation who have been featured in newspapers like The Financial Times and can help connect you to a range of employers such as Santander, Make a Wish, and Marie Keating Foundation. I recognise I was in a privileged position to be able to save up and afford to pay for this, however, it has opened so many doors for me and the 6-week placement really changed my life. It helped improve my language skills, allowed me to work on an EU Tender, and to meet so many incredible people along the way.

The NGO I interned for were called Fundación Woman Forward and specialised in improving gender equity for women in business. They focused primarily on relations within the Community of Madrid but were also looking to widen their reach and collaborate with international organisations. I spent most of my time translating a gender index but also conducted research for the organisation. It was inherently valuable and an opportunity I feel I would have struggled to obtain without the help of a larger organisation. 

This is one of the main problems for young students trying to find experience working for an NGO: where do we even begin searching and is it plausible given most NGO work is unpaid? Below are my insights and tips for finding opportunities.

  1. Start Searching Locally
  • Whilst my internship was abroad, I would advise looking for local NGOs near your hometown or where you are studying. As mentioned, a lot of NGOs take on students as volunteers or unpaid interns, so unless you can be unpaid the opportunities out there can be sparse. Hence, searching for one in your local area makes it more accessible and means you can save on costs by either living at home or in your student accommodation. Additionally, many NGOs are likely to hire previous volunteers for their paid positions. Therefore, it is a good way to make an impression and secure future employment.
  1. Take Part in an Internship Programme specialised in NGOs (paid or unpaid (if you can afford it))
  • Finding an internship with an NGO can be difficult, finding one that is paid even more so. As mentioned, I saved up my own money to pay for a customised internship with The Intern Group. I completed this in the summer of my second year and COVID-19 did help me in a way to save up more money, as my internship was postponed by a year. Looking back, I am so glad I spent my savings the way I did. My internship in 2021 has helped me gain a paid internship with Entrepreneurial Scotland, helped me find a graduate job, and equipped me with business connections I continue to utilise today. 

Also, I recommend searching for paid NGO internships with larger organisations. There are more and more becoming available as employers realise it is unattainable to ask students to work for free. Click here for an article with Human Rights Careers to find out more about paid NGO internship opportunities.

  1. Be flexible and showcase your transferable skills!
  • When searching for any kind of internship it is vital to remain open and explore avenues that maybe aren’t your ‘go to’. Competition for internships is at an all-time high and it is now more beneficial to apply to a wide range of placements in different areas. I have interned in roles which do not directly relate to my degree such as marketing and business development. This shows to employers you are adaptable, can pull from a range of experiences, and are open to learning as well as approaching new challenges. If you want the chance to work for an NGO, cast a wide net when looking for placements and do not be discouraged if you have more success in an area, which you primarily thought would not suit you. Any experience is experience, and who knows you might discover a new passion!
  1. Show genuine and honest passion
  • When applying to NGO internships make sure you stand out from the crowd, do your research, and know what drives you to want to create positive change. When you set out on your search ensure you know why you want this experience. If you cannot identify that then it is probably not for you, and that is totally okay! Do not waste your own time or that of employers.
  1. Network! Use NGO job boards and your University Careers Centre.
  • Networking is an extremely valuable tool, not only for meeting like minded individuals but also building self-confidence. Connect with previous alumni who work in NGOs through university programmes, reach out to people on LinkedIn, and attend open events run by the organisations you are interested in. Furthermore, look at specific NGO job boards and the opportunities on the Careers Centre website. Below you can find some links which may be helpful.

Here are just a few of my tips for finding NGO work experience opportunities. Remember to stay optimistic and try not to let rejections get you down. It is so much easier said than done but everyone will face rejection at some point, it allows you to showcase your strength and to learn from mistakes. If you have any questions or want to chat more about anything mentioned above, feel free to email me at 

Good luck!

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