Category Archives: Career

Can Salaries Be Too High In The Non-Profit Sector?

The general public; fundraisers, tax payers and donating individuals have been asking a certain question for a while now. Can salaries be too high in the non-profit sector? International development and humanitarian workers receive varied wages depending on the source of funding and the type of work being done. Some receive atrocious salaries for the long hours and risky conditions, others are quite well paid to sit in nice offices, make trips to the field and earn nice tidy per diem rates. Foundations which depend on fundraisers and individuals tend to pay more conservatively while bilaterals and multi-laterals pay higher salaries. Summarily though, the bigger the nonprofit is, the better its salary usually. Charities like Oxfam, Restless Development, VSO, Merlin, Save the Children, War Child, Water Aid will pay anything between $29,000-$35,000 to Project Coordinators living and working in developing countries while executives at the HQ or Country Directors at the field level can earn up to $80,000 depending on the skills set, qualifications and experience.

UN Meeting
Photo source:

For private contractors such as JSI, RTI, FHI 360, Chemonics, implementing projects for bilateral agencies such as the USAID, EU and DFID, project advisors may earn anything from $40,000-$60,000 while a head of project may earn as much as $100,000 and above. Indeed one finds that executives working for private companies implementing international development through bilateral agency funding may earn bonuses equivalent of one month’s salary or more per year. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, In 2010, one-third of nonprofits surveyed provided bonuses to their well-paid executives, and the median bonus was over $50,000. More than 20 nonprofit groups paid top executives more than $1 million a year in 2010 and 2011..

The multilateral agencies such as the UN, World bank and the corporate social responsibility branches of for profits (chiefly oil companies) are by far some of the highest paying agencies. Mid-level professionals working for these agencies would expect to earn as much or more than a university professor or a specialist in medicine in government regulated health services. The benefits tend to be great as well and may include health insurance and education for dependents amongst others. The range of salaries in nonprofit really depends on size of the organisation, funding stream, and how large its income is.

Brainstorming session
Photo source: apps4africa

I read an interesting blog post recently where the question of how these organisations got their funding and what got to the frontline eventually was asked, and it stayed with me. Development, humanitarian assistance, charity work have all gone beyond ladling soup at the homeless shelter, or painting the walls of an oprhanage. These are great acts of kindness, and are still needed in the world today. However, the issues of disease, response to natural disasters, poverty, conflict, economic development and systems strengthening, democracy and governance are much more complicated. These need to be tackled through consistent planning and strategy before implementation. The work has become increasingly technical in a bid to meet the MDGs and whatever indicators the donor has set in conjunction with the host country’s government.

Angelina Jolie in DRC with William Hague
Photo source:

As Dan Pallotta; activist and fundraiser argues in his Ted talk video, is frugality equal to morality? These charities set big goals and work very hard at meeting those accomplishments, should they be rewarded for it? Not to take away from the awareness that they have raised about the issues, but sustainable development cannot be achieved by a 3 day trip to the Congo by Angelina Jolie or Ben Affleck, neither will a cure for cancer be found because a well meaning teenager stands in the drizzle in Edinburgh asking for change in a cancer research rain coat. Of course it all helps.

But eventually, we have to ask questions about the 55 yr old guy with a PhD in public health travelling from one health facility to another in the DRC to ensure that the malaria Diagnosis specialists in those facilities are using the rapid diagnostic testing appropriately, or that variations between microscopy and RDTs are recorded, all towards the prevention and control of malaria. One should ask about the researchers spending hours and hours working on potential cure for cancer, practically putting their lives on hold. What about those workers who dedicate their careers towards the management of HIV/AIDS, or finding a vaccine, or dealing with lead poisoning in rural communities where mining activities are not regulated? It’s really quite complex. Shouldn’t governments be taking more responsibility with regulations and integrity issues (more on this another post).

How should the nonprofit sector determine its salaries and benefits? What sort of people do we want running these foundations and multimillion dollar nonprofits organizations? Should nonprofits be discouraged from becoming so large?
But at the end of the day, as human beings, is it possible to think about these salaries though, and not wonder if anybody deserves to live so lavishly off the generosity of others? Should anyone working in aid and development whine so much (as I have seen daily in this sector) about perceived low salaries, or comparatively low salaries (when compared to organization A or B). Will the notion of nonprofit and its complexities be ever understood as non-for-conventional-profit? How much work and impact have these nonprofits achieved? Has charity been used as a tax evasion tactic by donors and nonprofit workers alike?

I personally, am quite ambivalent about so many of these issues. What are you thoughts? On giving to nonprofits or working in the sector?

How VSO and Volunteering Changed my Life

In the early years of my career as a young graduate, I honestly was not sure where to begin. I knew that I wanted to work in International Development, I read about the various agencies and NGOs, I picked up some french, but that was all I had. Until I heard about Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). VSO is an international development charity whose volunteers work with local organisations that serve poor people. VSO also works with young people on different programmes to expand their horizon and encourage them to become active citizens in their communities.

I got involved with VSO primarily because I wanted to do something different. I had spent a very fulfilling year teaching English as a Second Language (ESP) at a Secondary School for most of 2005 as part of the National Youth Service Corps.

However, I felt that I could have spent more time volunteering in a hands-on manner within a host community.

I applied to be part of the Global Xchange; a 6 month long opportunity to volunteer in a different culture and live in cross-cultural pairs, within host communities, was the start really to what I do today.

During the first 3 months of the exchange in Calabar Nigeria, I was placed in a Faith Based Organisation called Justice Development and Peace Commission JDPC. This placement gave me the opportunity to witness community development first hand. I acquired varied skills from community mapping to baseline survey of small communities that needed portable drinking water, access roads and schools for children. The experience has helped me tremendously as I have gone on to work on various community based programs including the United Nations Development Program’s Local Development Project dedicated to alleviating poverty and providing basic infrastructure in the once troubled Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

In the last 3 months of the exchange in Edinburgh Scotland, I volunteered at a wonderful organisation called Shakti Women’s Aid. Shakti offers information & support to black minority ethnic women, children & young people facing domestic abuse, forced marriage & other gender-based abuse.

My First Taste of Haggis tattis
My First Taste of Haggis Tattis
The briefings I received and the insight I got into the management of social and or violent domestic situations have been very useful. I have worked on donor funded Projects which provide palliative care, psychosocial support/counselling to People Living with HIV/AIDS and Income Generating Activities to the affected families.

As an individual, I learnt to work with my initiative and also as part of large and diverse teams, understanding and even appreciating the various cultures and perspectives of the other volunteers and the host communities. During those six months, I learnt so much more than I would have if I had spent that time in a formal classroom. I understood and used my skills while celebrating those of others. On GX, the various activities exposed me to global issues and offered me a platform for positive learning and change, challenging my attitudes and assumptions.

This experience has made me even more appreciative of the foundation and cultural richness of our world and inspired me to celebrate us. But it has also made me aware of the failings and weaknesses of who we are. This is why I would like to be a part of creating that needed change.

I was Fr. Christmas
Yours truly as Fr Christmas at Shakti. Children poked my belly and asked “Did you have a bad year?”
GX inspired me to do a little one day at a time, bit by bit using the network, skills, learning and experiences I acquired on the exchange to create positive change in my immediate community and beyond.

When I was selected to be a part of the global xchange, I didn’t quite know what to expect. The narratives of some returned volunteers and the introductory training courses gave me an idea that it would be demanding yet fun; but it didn’t quite prepare me for the life changing experience that GX was.

During those six months, no day was exactly the same.

There was always something different to see, to explore, to share and to learn. If I had to change my life, GX would remain exactly where and when it happened.

Thanks to it, today I have worked on the Programme and Operations Management of several projects from infrastructure development, capacity building and institutional strengthening, to care and support for children orphaned by AIDS. Today I work on a 5 year malaria prevention and control Project. Malaria prevention through the distribution of long lasting insecticidal nets and intermittent preventive treatment of malaria in pregnancy, Malaria control through appropriate diagnosis and case management using ACTs.

It certainly expanded my horizon and gave me the itch to achieve greater things. Amongst other things, it has made a global citizen of me.

To challenge yourself, make a difference in our world, and/or break into International Development, learn more about the amazing work VSO does and make a decision today to be a young active citizen and volunteer for 6 months, or volunteer abroad for more than one year using your skills to make the much needed difference.

How To Find An International Development Job: Steps To Take

I met two VSO volunteers today, one came from Scotland and the other from Boston and it brought some wonderful memories back. From my undergrad days all those years ago, before VSO, I knew what I wanted to do. It was only a question of how to get in there. I wanted to work in development; I declared and spoke it as often as I could albeit being unprepared at the time. Eventually I realised that if I wanted to get in there, I needed to do my research; and I did. However, I wish I knew what I know now. it would have made the journey smoother and quicker. If you are even the least bit interested in this area, it is truly worthwhile to pursue; there is nothing else I would rather do (except maybe travel writing and photography, which am now exploring).

To follow a career in International Development, it is important that you strategise and do your homework because it hardly happens by chance. These are the pieces of information that every potential development worker needs to have:

  1. Have a clear understanding of Development

You want to read the history, the need, the various schools of thought around development. You want to gain an insight into the various issues plaguing the developing world. That is why this sector exists in the first place; those issues.  

Understand the various kinds of Development

In development work, all organisations and goals are not the same. The work done varies, from ethics and compensation, to rules of engagement and streams of funding. There is relief work which involves a lot of disaster response; and then there is Peace Building which has to do with a lot of post-war reconstruction. Then there is the Development Aid which is more long term and is done by a wide variety of organisations; this involves intervention in a host of different areas in developing countries.

Understand the various kinds of Development Organisations

This sector has a lot of players. There are the Multilaterals which include the UNDP and the World Bank. There are also the Bilaterals which include Aid arms of Governments including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), DFID(or UK AID) Department of International Development, CIDA Canadian International Development Agency. There are Commercial Organisations which are for profit and are involved in some aid development work. Research Institutions are also huge and these include Universities. Last but not the least are Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) which are the commonest and are found everywhere; in the donor countries and in the developing countries where the implementation happens. These include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Save the Children, PLAN and hundreds more.

Start saving

Now that you understand who your potential employees are, it is time to start saving money. It is important to prepare for the possibility of funding your dream, for a while at least. It is possible that you will not find a job immediately you start looking; it is also possible that you may have to fly out to the field just for the added advantage of being on ground. Save everything that you can. It can be difficult with all the debt and student loans that are unpaid still, but a little here and a little there over one year can make a huge difference.  

Familiarise yourself with the needs of the Sector

People always say that they “want to help people” and would like to visit the field and be”hands-on”. While that is a really good goal and thought, it’s time to realise that “more and more of the hands-on work is casual labour “. Even more shocking to some people is the fact that “most development work is office work”.  This is a career path, so just because it is called development aid, or humanitarian work does not mean that it is not run by professionals. It is. The areas of intervention are increasingly requiring specialists. This is no longer about helping orphanages or digging a well for clean water. It is now about systems strengthening for sustainability, capacity building and integrated supportive supervision. There is still the odd distribution of condoms to health facilities and/or most at risk populations, or Long Lasting Insecticidal Nets to household with communities, but those are done by casual labour really, while the experts do the tracking using datasent in from the facilities. Thus find out through “devex”, and “reliefweb”, to start with; what the needs of the sector are.  There are always some people who will have the opportunity to learn on the job, but there are others who will get in the door quicker just for the specific skills set which they possess. You want to be one of those. Just like every other profession, there are so many skills set required; from Public Health, to HR, to Democracy and Governance, Finance and Accounting, Operations, Procurement, Logistics, Communication, IT, Project Management, to Security, etc.

Develop your skills to speak to some of the needs above

For my undergrad degree, I went with English Literature because I was passionate about books and creative writing. That was my passion as a mid-teen. Then I realised what sector I was interested in, and quickly picked up a second language and invested in Project Management skills. Find out what your interests are and how they translate into an International Development job, hopefully it is something that you are already studying (or studied) and it fits into existing development needs. This makes it much easier for you to break in. Remember to develop some “across the board” skills like report writing and public speaking.

Start knocking on those doors

It is time to explore fellowships, internships and volunteering opportunities (in that order). Usually for those opportunities to count as something, in order for you to make an impact and vice-versa, it needs to be at least six months long. Start from your home country and keep at it, give yourself a timeline to break in. You may consider moving to the city that has the highest number of Development Organisations. Sign up for surveys, attend free lectures on Health, War, Social Reform, Aid Effectiveness, anything that you can, in order to put yourself in the same space with Development people. Express your intention to intern or volunteer, read everything that you can on the region in which you are interested. It is likely that someone will see your hunger and give you a break; albeit unpaid, to start with.

Take the Bulls by the Horns: Fly out

Find out more about the developing country and the region that you are most interested in; Asia, Africa, the Middle East, etc. Make contact with a local NGO or an International one and fund your trip out. A lot of organisations will agree to take you in as long as it is at no cost to them and you will be of added value.

Finally, the key is really to read widely, work hard at improving yourself, and network. Attend parties, attend meetings, take notes (if you are already inside as an F, V or I), and offer to work extra, show that you are hungry for it and willing to put in the work. Try not to be too “in-your-face though, nobody wants a hounding job-seeker on their back. Focus on forging lasting friendships and people will be willing to put in a good word for you and opportunities for paid work will turn up.

Most importantly for people going to the field, be aware that your soft-skills are being evaluated, nobody wants conflict or rabble rousers on their team, so try to be amicable (be aware that the locals may  have a problem with you). I have heard local staff say that expatriates come from the “home country” as wet-behind-the-ears-volunteers, those same locals teach them the ropes because they know how it works, have more experience and have been doing the job for a while, and before they know it, the kid takes their jobs or the kid becomes their manager. Be aware of these feelings as you navigate the waters. Also, do not be a people pleaser, take work which you are not interested in, chances are that you will be stuck with that line of work as that is the experience you have garnered. Nobody wants to do work that they are unhappy with.

I have not covered all the steps to getting an international Development job. If you wish to add more, by all means do. Please add a few more, we can have numbers 9 and 10. Or more.