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How to break into the international development sector

Written by: Lynn Cadman
Published on: 9 Dec 2013


It can be frustrating as a finance professional trying to break into the international development sector. You’ve taken the time to write a covering letter, you’re fully qualified, with 10 years’ experience and yet your applications still aren’t getting acknowledged. This tends to be because these organisations do not have the finances to make the wrong employment decision. Even though you may be the right decision; the safe option is for the organisation to employ someone with a CV that reflects the values it holds. This means previous, relevant experience.

As is often the case with most jobs, even more so in international development; recent relevant experience is highly desirable. Employers within the sector look at this to ensure you have the correct personality.

Helen Ord, Finance Director at War Child, says you need to be able to demonstrate certain social skills that are associated with international development to stand out. These include: “a willingness to work long hours in potentially lonely environments with limited resources, both in the available time and capacity of local finance teams and partners.”

Whilst you might have these attributes, it’s hard to express it on your CV without having worked in the sector previously. But, how do you get that experience in the charity sector without being given the initial opportunity?

One proven method of breaking into a new sector is to show your commitment to the cause by volunteering. This shows that you can work in different environments, submerge yourself in new cultures and adapt to foreign countries.

Accounting for International Development (AfID) gives small charities a rare opportunity to work with experienced, qualified accountants and build their financial capacity, whilst at the same time it provides accountants with invaluable experience that will add elements to their CVs which can’t be attained working in the city.

Neil Jennings, founder of AfID, believes accountants increase their employability within the International Development sector after a volunteer placement:

“I might be wrong but, from my experience talking to charities and many past volunteers now working in the sector, without relevant experience you will find it almost impossible to even get an interview. You need to demonstrate you are able to adapt your technical skills to a wide variety of new environments; you will need to prove you have finely honed social skills, the commitment and patience to work in under resourced location AND; you may need to do this just on your CV"!

“You can’t beat practical hands on experience and there is really only one way to get this – volunteering. Yes they’ll be sacrifices but the return is enormous.”

But don’t simply take Neil Jennings’ advice on this. Finance professionals who have swapped the hustle and bustle of city life for a more exotic location think their voluntary experience aided them significantly.

Timea Szeteiova, an ACCA qualified accountant, decided upon a voluntary assignment in Cambodia as a career break. After swapping South-East London for South-East Asia, Timea decided she wanted to pursue a career in international development. Whilst it was a hard market to break, she found her voluntary experience invaluable.

“I came back to London and I was looking for a role in an NGO, but as I did not have previous experience in this sector it was hard. Although my AfID assignment was only for three-months, it really helped me to find a role in an NGO."

“I think without this experience I would have not been able to secure my current role."

Another volunteer who broke into the international development sector following her experience was Sarah Broad, an ICAEW member, whose two-week placement was enough to aid her application for a Managing Director’s position at an international charity.

Sarah believes volunteering was beneficial to her career in two ways:

“First, my placement helped me to decide that I wanted to move into the charity sector on a permanent basis. Second, my time as a volunteer helped to demonstrate my commitment to moving into the charity sector during the job application and interview process.”

As Sarah mentioned, the benefit of volunteering does not just exemplify your commitment to the international development. It is a chance to prove you can work with limit resources in what are often highly pressured environments.

Working abroad for a charity isn’t a walk in park though. Helen Ord describes it as “likely to be one of the toughest professional experiences of your working life."

Whilst the thought of working for a Women’s refuge in Cambodia, a health clinic in Kenya or a grassroots organisation In Guatemala may seem appealing; it’s not always fun and games. That is why previous experience within the charity sector is highly desirable. Employers’ not only want the make sure you’re the right fit for the charity, but they want you to be sure this is the right career for you. Something that only hands-on experience really provides you with.  

David Woodbine, Finance Director at ActionAid, believes there are invaluable benefits that volunteering can provide for individuals who are considering a career in international development.

“Volunteering provides a rare opportunity to experience the real challenges of making change happen ‘on the ground’. Most people find being in the international development sector very rewarding – contributing to a cause they are passionate about – but it’s not without its challenges and frustrations. Volunteering can give you a real insight and determine whether it’s right for you before making a long term commitment.”

The benefits of volunteering are not exclusive to those accountants that wish gather the experience essential for a move into the Development sector, many of our volunteers have seen a positive impact on their careers when they return to their day jobs. 

Adrian Storey, an Internal Auditor at Shell, did exactly this. His head of department, Dominic Osborne, said volunteering had “resulted in a more committed and motivated colleague in the audit team” and “widened the perspective of the whole team”.

Similarly, David Adair, Head of Community Affairs at PwC, an organisation that has had over 40 employees volunteer with AfID, said “volunteering with AfID has had a huge impact on the personal development of all the individual staff involved.”

The impact on an individual’s personal development is something that is reflected in the feedback of many volunteers. Of those asked, 90% said they had developed more patience, 94% said they felt more confident and 97% said they were more resourceful, more comfortable with unfamiliar situations and more culturally sensitive after their volunteering experience.

Whilst volunteers use their experience to develop the skills of local people, 80% still felt they had acquired new skills whilst volunteering that benefited them in their current roles and 92% said that they had developed existing skills resulting in an improvement in their performance.

Many volunteers find the idea of working in a challenging environment with limited resources and cultural differences hugely appealing and as a result 87% said they now felt better equipped to manage change in their own workplace and 96% were confident they could adapt to a varied and challenging environment better than before they volunteered.   

The first step of pursuing a career in international development is ensuring it is the right path for you. Volunteering is one way of doing this, while at the same time providing invaluable hands-on experience which will definitely enhance your career prospects whether you are looking to climb the ladder in your current role, or if you are looking to move into the charity sector permanently. For so many reasons volunteering can be a defining moment in one’s career or life and should not be missed.