Internships in the NGO sector: What to expect?
The NGO sector is an extremely awarding sector in which to work, one which can involve a lot of interesting and challenging work. However, due to the nature of the sector, recruitment is generally at low levels compared to the amount of graduates hoping to work in the sector.
This means internships are an invaluable asset, although even with this experience, those hoping to work full-time in this sector will have a challenge to secure employment.
“It doesn’t hurt to have an internship, but it’s not something we are actively looking for”, says Christina Meehan, the internship coordinator at Plan in Dublin. “It’s all about the competition. If of course there’s a vacancy at that time, the internee can apply for it, but there’s no job planned in advance of the internship finishing”.
Plan, which is one of the biggest NGOs in the world, focuses on helping children in over 50 developing world countries and has 25 full-time staff in its Dublin offices. It has good conversion rates from internships into full-time work according to Christina. “I for example started out as an intern”, she says.
“As well as that, there’s a lot of NGOs that recruit graduates after internships with Plan because we are seen as a learning organisation”, she adds.
NGO offices in a developed country like Ireland are typically fundraising offices, so the roles for interns are administrative with tasks ranging from proofreading to graphic design and updating social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, depending on the team the intern is assigned to.
In Plan, for example, they have four departments; fundraising, marketing, finance and programmes. They recruit interns for each department with every section “all hands-on-deck for interns” according to Christina.
“We want our interns to be active because they are given a lot of responsibility. In our programme sector we recently had two interns travel to West Africa and Pakistan, so there’s no doubt they are given lot of responsibility”, she says.
The internship at Plan, like most in the sector, is expenses only, while each internship lasts a minimum of six months with most lasting nine months.
The application process is straight-forward in that it is simply emailing the line manager with your CV for an advertised position and this is followed by a two-stage interview process.
It’s generally assumed that those who study Arts/Humanities degrees see their degrees as a stepping stone into the NGO sector but in reality, considering the nature of developmental work, the “more technical the degree the better”, says Christina.
“We get a lot of applications from graduates with degrees in politics, political science, or history but we would say that economics or engineering degree graduates would be at an advantage in terms of the skills we’re looking for”, adds Christina.
A degree, or perhaps a masters, is considered a requirement by NGOs, while “you definitely have to show a passion for the sector”, says Christina, and a track record of volunteering and active involvement in the sector.
Rossa O’Donnell, a former intern at Plan Ireland, discusses his internship with the NGO.
When an internship at Plan became available, Rossa O’Donnell was in no doubt this was a great chance to make an impact and upskill. “It was an opportunity to work with one of the largest NGOs in the world which helps people in over 50 countries”, he says.
The 27 year-old graduate of Sports Science and Health in DCU and a Global Health masters in Trinity had a strong NGO background with roles in Ireland, Switzerland and France before working at Plan.
The role involved working on grant acquisition, applications and reports for the NGO which Rossa says meant “you could really see the input you were putting in”.
“Originally I was carving out a very niche career in the NGO sector so with Plan I was trying to broaden that and upskill”.
Rossa considers his past experience and his willingness to upskill were the deciding factors in why he was chosen for the much sought-after position
Despite being an internship, it carried a lot of responsibility. For example, Rossa travelled to Guinea-Bissau in west Africa to help the Plan team there put together two funding applications.
Another incentive from the internship was that Plan provides its interns with as much training as possible. As a result, he took classes to improve his French which were provided for by the NGO as part of the internship. Other internships were able to train themselves in grant proposal writing.
As the job was expenses only, Rossa worked in a bar on weekends to fund himself during the internship. With that situation in mind, he advises all those that aim to do internships within the NGO sector to accept that there’s no job waiting at the end of it because it can affect motivation if halfway through they realise no job will be offered when the internship ends. “It’s not possible that all the internship roles can turn into full-time work. It’s something you have to be aware of”.
As for tips for those aspiring to gain work in the NGO sector? “You need to have good report and proposal writing skills. Also, you need to be very efficient and be able to take on heavy workloads. Of course as well, it’s important that you are in it for the right reasons”, says Rossa.