The NGO World – Through the Lens of Mercy Corps
Chef’s Table is a new section on Ramen IR that provides readers insight into various professions related to international affairs and foreign policy. Authors share their experiences, offering an inside perspective of their respective fields. Ultimately, the mission of Chef’s Table is to better equip young professionals and students to break into the field of international affairs through lessons learned, career testimonies, and advice from experienced practitioners.
Be the change you wish to see in the world. This, Gandhi’s most famous quote, is the slogan for the large international NGO, Mercy Corps (MC). It implores humanitarians and philanthropists to support their work around the world and beckons bright-eyed, driven, young graduates, full of hope and the desire to help others, to join their ranks. Based out of Portland, Oregon, this humanitarian nonprofit organization boasts over 4,000 employees internationally and currently works in around 47 countries across Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, the former Soviet Bloc, and Asia.
Getting your foot in the door
I was one of the afore-mentioned bright-eyed, driven, young professionals. Shortly after graduating from college, I discovered a job posting at MC with their international Disaster Action Team in DC. I started researching the team and found the location of their office, the name of the team leader and an article they had written about Rwanda a few years prior. Everyone advising me on job application strategies had told me I needed to find a way to stand out from the hundreds of other applications that would likely roll through their system, as this was 2009 and a fairly desperate time in the job market. I decided to write a personal note to the team leader.
The letter described what made me qualified for the position, my professional history with the Marine Reserves and other NGOs, and what could best be described as a personal manifesto describing my immense passion to not only work with Mercy Corps, but to help others in their most desperate times, after disasters. I snail-mailed this letter to the Mercy Corps DC office, paid for ‘signature upon delivery,’ in an attempt to ensure the team leader received it, personally. Though possibly bold, or annoying, it appears to have worked. I interviewed for the position and made it to the final round, along with one other internal candidate. Little did I know they had more than five years of work experience on me, and being internal made them a shoe-in for the position. I like to think I made the decision difficult, however, as it took the team leader nearly a month to make the final decision and get back to us. Following the interview, the HR rep told me, if I ever were to apply again, to let her know personally and she would make sure my application was on the top of the stack.
Fortunately, a position opened up in the Seattle office not long after, this time for the Major Gifts Team (fundraising). Although I knew this wasn’t the specific sector I wanted to work in, it was still a good opportunity and a way to get my foot in the door. I applied, contacted the HR representative, and a few interviews later, was offered the position.
Don’t be afraid to think small
Mercy Corps headquarters hosts a few hundred employees. The Seattle office however, had a modest 7 team members when I started in 2010. It was a small, tight knit group representing a wide range of teams – fundraising, communications (PR), microfinance, social innovation, and the founder himself. Though I sometimes wished I could have worked at the bustling headquarters in Portland, where international programming was based, I gained invaluable experience due to the size of the Seattle office. For this reason I highly recommend two things: don’t discount small NGOs, and don’t discount jobs that are slightly ‘off-track’ from your goal.
Being in a small office, although granted still part of a large organization, was an amazing experience and helped me build a wide repertoire of skills I would never have otherwise had the opportunity to obtain. With the Major Gifts Team, I assisted with a variety of fundraising tasks. I learned the ins and outs of cultivating large individual donors, assisted in disseminating program information, and was in charge of organizing local events to raise awareness and help build the MC brand. With the Corporate and Foundations sub-team, I researched corporate social responsibility and produced reports making recommendations on new corporate partnership prospects. Then, there was the big miscellaneous category, lumped under my secondary title of Seattle Office Manager. In this role I created and managed budgets and local volunteers, I was the sole local ‘tech-support,’ I helped edit pieces for the Communications/PR team, and I attended internationally-focused events in the local area on behalf of MC, as a representative and spokesperson.
During my time at Mercy Corps with the Major Gifts Team, I learned critical background information that everyone should know if they want to enter into the nonprofit world. First and foremost, fundraising strategy is the lifeblood of all NGOs. All employees MUST understand the fundraising strategy and it is critical to have everyone from the CEO, to the programming staff, to the actual fundraising teams involved in the process.
Secondly, I learned that brand management is important. Who your organization aligns with speaks to what your organization stands for. Taking anyone’s money just because it’s offered can lead you down a dangerous path of potential PR chaos as the Nature Conservancy found out in 2010.
Thirdly, NGOs should really not be shamed as much as they are for having high overhead costs. Administrative costs cover fundraising efforts, research and development of new programming, some staff wages, and more. Since the public at large doesn’t understand this, you’ll need to be prepared to be an advocate for this new model of thinking, while also obeying the sad limits of the current archaic structure.
Final note – Get “field-tested”
I left Mercy Corps to serve in the Peace Corps in southern Africa in 2011. I had been interested in joining for a while, but many of my MC colleagues further encouraged it, having served in the Peace Corps themselves. The advice I was given was that if I was serious about wanting to work internationally, I needed to get “field-tested.” The consensus was that studying, volunteering, or traveling abroad for a few months here or there has become common, but these experiences don’t necessarily show you how to adapt and integrate into another country. Getting to know a country by reading about it is incredibly different than actually living and working there. Media coverage is biased, you generally only understand one, maybe two perspectives that exist (out of hundreds if not thousands), and you do not fully appreciate the complexities of everything and everyone involved in what happens there.
Organizations do not want to hire someone if they are not sure you will be able to overcome these societal, cultural and language barriers. Additionally, failing is an inevitable part of integrating into another country and culture. You are bound to make mistakes, and your ideas and projects are bound to fail at some point. Being able to pick yourself up, create a plan B, C, D… is something that is not learned easily, and some people are just not cut out for it. Organizations don’t want to be your ‘guinea pig’ when it comes to working abroad. They want to know that, even in the face of extreme challenges, you will find a way to push forward and succeed in their mission.
Thus, in order to advance in my career, I needed to get significant international experience. For this reason, I said goodbye to my amazing colleagues and an organization I believed in more than any other, and joined the Peace Corps – over two years of living in a village, with little contact or support from familiar support structures. I’m glad I did, but also hope to one day rejoin the Mercy Corps ranks in some capacity as I will always be driven to ‘be the change I wish to see in the world.’
Kristin Pettersen is a second-year MA candidate in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program, focusing on international stability operations, and currently serving as a board chair for the Georgetown Student Veterans Association (GUSVA). Her views are solely her own and do not necessarily represent the views of Mercy Corps, Ramen IR, other authors, or any of their organizations or affiliations.