So you want to make the world a better place. You hear the term “international development” and know instinctively that it fits your ambitions to build a career — and life — that matters. You see yourself contributing to the growth of emerging markets, working in an organization that promotes life-improving goods and services, doing anything to help people around the world achieve better lives.
I’m with you. I help run a fast-growing non-profit organization called One Acre Fund, and am really passionate about careers.
The “field” of international development has particularly few defined paths, making it slightly harder to build a good career strategy. I have seen friends wallow in lost potential, hopping between jobs every year or two. They never make much forward career progress, work for organizations with questionable impact, and eventually drift back to “regular” jobs. A friend in South Asia once told me, “I am not sure what I have to show for the last five years, and now I am heading back to start all over in the US.”
On the other hand, I experience real joy when I see people take the right career strategies, and flourish. I have a friend who started as an intern at an organization, and eventually ended up running a multi-ten-million dollar company.
In my organization, we have many people who started off running small trials, and now lead 1,000-person field operations. Time and again, I have seen people start as humble “program associates” and then grow into managers, and then into true leaders.
How? I think successful careers sustain the right amount of stretch for many years — growing constantly, but not breaking. Here are some ideas on how to achieve that.
Start with humility and get as close to your customer as possible
Your first stretch is to learn how to do good, not harm. Serving the “base of the pyramid” requires understanding someone that is probably very different than you. True success comes not from dictating a business model, but rather from spending hours and months listening to them with an open and eager mind.
Learn from the person you wish to serve. Find an organization that puts customer understanding at its core, and ideally find a role that minimizes the physical distance separating you from your customer. My passion is rural development, and I have worked in a rural office for the last ten years. Even when at a desk, I am surrounded by the beating heart of an operation that directly delivers services to farmers. I live within an organization that kneels at the foot of the customer we serve.
If you can’t immediately find a full-time placement at a great organization, good short-term places to get started include Global Health Corps, Kiva Fellows, Acumen Fellows, Princeton in Africa/Asia, and Accountants for International Development.
Try to work somewhere that is growing
In my opinion, an important question missed by most job-seekers is, “Is the organization growing?” Simply put, organization growth creates career opportunities.
For example, One Acre Fund is going to at least double in size in the next two years. That means we need people to grow into managers and eventually leaders. We need people to step up and create whole new departments.
Organization growth means opportunities for bigger roles over time — as well as more lateral jumps, if you want to change your role.
You can see growth at early-stage start-ups; fast-growing mid-size organizations like Living Goods, Root Capital, and GreenLight Planet; and if you look hard enough, you can find fast-growing segments within huge organizations.
Try to work somewhere where everything is running smoothly
Some international development organizations are glued together haphazardly and run by crazy people. This isn’t always easy to see from the outside, but look for tell-tale signs. If most people stay only a year, for example, there is probably a reason for that. All else equal, seek a meritocracy where people are not politicking on top of each other, and where strong performers are rewarded with bigger roles.
Always seek mentorship and an environment committed to careers
It can be difficult to find mission-driven organizations that also put careers first. But whatever your role, you should always seek an environment where career growth matters. As you get nearer to an offer, ask to see a performance review template and ask how often it is administered. Ask your manager about career principles they believe in, as their mentorship will play a major role in helping you stretch. Talk to people who have been one or two years in, and ask them about their experience. Are they doing bigger work than when they first started? Are they growing? Career growth should be built into the DNA of the organization.
Consciously seek a role with either structure or autonomy
Know what you want. Early on, you may benefit from structure. These are roles with a super-clear job description, well-defined responsibilities, and a boss that tells you what to do. You can usually find these jobs at more traditional agencies.
In my opinion, though, the best careers are eventually more entrepreneurial in nature. When you are ready, you may want to seek a role that gives you a higher degree of autonomy to shape projects and determine their workflow, with a boss that mentors your progress, as opposed to dictates your every action. These roles can exist in innovative parts or in senior roles at traditional agencies, but are more common in the rapidly-growing field of “social enterprise.”
Consider supporting roles, not just programmatic ones
Many early-career professionals imagine themselves “on the front lines”: directly teaching, distributing nutritional supplements, selling eyeglasses, etc. There are many roles like that — but a healthy organization will have just as many roles in finance, software, HR, logistics, fundraising, and accounting. It always baffles me that HR for example is stigmatized, as it is the most important function in any business. Hiring, retaining, and developing great people is one of the most rewarding and impactful careers a person can hope to have.
Be patient and proactively seek feedback
Careers are forty years long. If you are an early-career professional, realize that the important thing is not your current job, but rather how fast you are growing. Whatever job is handed to you: destroy it with a smile on your face and ask for how you can do it better next time. Don’t see your current job as a stepping stone — focus on it and annihilate it, and eke every lesson you can from it.
For whatever reason, feedback is oftentimes less forthcoming in international development organizations — but you still need feedback on a daily basis to grow. If you proactively are humble and ask for feedback, you will simply grow faster than the next person.
Favor a longer interview process, and like your colleagues
Choosing your next job is a big step. I think spending anything less than 48 hours interviewing and getting to know a company is absolutely crazy. I suggest that both job seekers and organizations have patience and favor a longer interview process — one that has not only simple interviews, but also simulates the job through “exercises,” includes a visit to your place of work, and ideally exposes you to the kinds of people you are going to be working with. The worst possible outcome is to start in a job, to be surprised, and then leave within a year. This is a big decision for both an organization and a job-seeker, and it takes relatively little time to build a thorough understanding on both sides.
At first, you may have to start in a related field. But as soon as possible, find a cause that jolts you out of bed every morning. Personally, I am doing similar kinds of things that I would if I were working in a “regular” job — having meetings, cranking out excel, making decisions. But because I feel a genuine and deep sense of inspiration about the farmer that I serve, every action I take feels instilled with a genuine meaning and purpose.
In my opinion, the best way to find your belief and passion is not to take a bunch of side-trips, but rather to dive into your chosen passion. Try not to compromise on your passion, and seek out the best possible organization within your field of interest.
Many people in international development organize their work into two-year stints, but I am seriously confused why anybody would work at a place for only two years. I think real career development happens in year three onward. At that point, you have built a deep experiential foundation, along with trust and a reputation within an organization. Year three onward is when you get to truly challenge your soft skills and leadership abilities — when you begin rapidly growing your scope, team, and responsibilities. Perhaps the most common way to build a “string-of-jobs-kinda-career” is to constantly hop from one place to the next. Instead, find a place that is constantly stretching your career, and build a nest.
We live in an exciting era. I believe that our generation will be the one to end extreme poverty, eradicate major disease, and turn the corner on climate. We have tremendous momentum that is growing by the rapid explosion of people interested in international development careers — both from emerging markets and internationally. Join us! And while you are at it, build a career that matters.
The Development Set is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We retain editorial independence.