What do leaders of effective non-profits say about working in non-profits?

Rob Mather – founder and CEO of GiveWell’s top rated charity, Against Malaria Foundation. Photo credit:
Andrew Testa.

What do leaders in GiveWell’s top-recommended charities have to say about working in non-profits as a career choice?

I reached out to leaders at GiveDirectly, Against Malaria Foundation, Deworm the World Initiative (part of Evidence Action), Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Development Media International to ask for their views. Here are their responses.

The main themes I took from these interviews are the following:

  • You should generally try to build skills before working in non-profits.

  • Working at highly selective for-profit companies is a particularly good way of gaining relevant business skills.

  • Experience in marketing seems to be particularly rare. Skills in tech (such as software engineering) and finance are also particularly valuable.

  • Training in a quantitative subject such as economics or statistics, perhaps via further study, is very useful.

  • However, you should also get at least some experience, perhaps gained during vacations, working in poor countries or for other non-profits.

I generally find perspectives from people I respect who have experience in a sector very valuable in shaping how I think about effective careers within that sector. However, please bear in mind that this is only a small sample of opinions so should not be given too much weight, and that the focus is on international development non-profits throughout.

 
Paul Niehaus, cofounder of GiveDirectly:

WM: What sorts of candidates do you generally look to hire, in terms of roles, skills, qualifications, experience?

PN: We look for people who have performed exceptionally well in an elite organization. We don’t necessarily assume this will mean a private-sector organization, but in practice almost all our hires come direct from the private sector — McKinsey, Bridgewater, Cravath, etc. We put a lot of weight on raw learning & problem-solving ability relative to specific experience or skills, though in the future I think we will look more for the ability to hit the ground running in some specific areas like digital marketing. Culturally our top priorities are the traits that drive learning: the ability to give and recent completely frank feedback, to reflect on experience, to recognize when you are wrong. For roles in the field we look for emotional resilience.

WM: Are there any particular talents or skills that you find it particularly hard to hire?

PN: I think finding anyone really good is hard. But specific areas we think are or will be hard are engineering and marketing/communications — the latter because we don’t have deep networks in those areas, the former because it’s just a white-hot market.

WM: Within international development, what skills do you think are particularly lacking, and through which jobs could you get those skills?

I’d focus on the basics. (1) General professional skills (e.g. time management, communication), and (2) general management skills (e.g. recruiting, job design, setting measurable objectives and evaluating performance). The former you can get at any elite organization where people you will be expected/forced to operate efficiently. For the latter I think you get some by being a thoughtful observer of management within your own organisation, but the ideal is to build something yourself — either within an organisation or free-standing. Inheriting management of an established team or process is I think less useful as it can be easier to maintain the status quo without being forced to grapple with each decision.

WM: Suppose you could advise a graduate in the humanities from a good university, who is happy to pursue any career path in the short-term, but would like to work in international development non-profits in the long-term, what concretely would you advise them to do? How does that differ for a graduate in a quantitative subject?

PN: For either person my default advice would be to get an entry-level job in the organisation with the best reputation for performance and mentorship they can, and I’d consider doing a startup if there’s an opportunity to work with exceptional people and take on meaningful responsibility.

For the quantitative person I’d consider finance jobs even if the mentorship was less great, and I’d also consider and graduate school in STEM, economics, or statistics.

For either person I would keep in touch with international development by following results from research (e.g. J-PAL news) and consider vacations in developing countries, and I would talk to people in non-profits about their jobs. I’d also question the premise of looking for work in a non-profit, as I think there’s a very good chance you could be more impactful in a for-profit Bottom of the Pyramid business.

 
Katrin Verclas, Director of Global Communications and Advocacy, Evidence Action

WM: What sorts of candidates do you generally look to hire, in terms of roles, skills, qualifications, experience?

KV: We look for people who are experienced and interested in rigorous and evidence-based programs that improve the lives of people in developing countries. This work has many facets and ranges from evaluating existing research and running randomized controlled trials to developing business models, financial analysis and modeling, to supply chain and logistics management as we scale up interventions that have been proven to work. We have many different roles in the organization and are growing fast so there are always opportunities. We look for people that believe in our values, deliver results, and are happy to constantly improve and evaluate how to do their work better.

WM: Are there any particular talents or skills that you find it particularly hard to hire?

KV: We have had greater difficulty hiring experienced senior staff in the countries we work in. The competition is greater and we are competing with the private sector which typically pays more. We also would love to hire more tech-savvy staff – this is something generally lacking in the entire field.

WM: Do you think you’re representative of international development non-profits in your hiring practices? If not, how do you differ from other non-profits?

KV: We are different in that we hire local staff almost exclusively in the countries where we have programs. This is true for all levels of staff. We have very few expat staff on our team. We find that both leadership and frontline staff is best represented by people from the countries where we work.

WM: Within international development, what skills do you think are particularly lacking, and through which jobs could you get those skills?

KV: We would love to see greater emphasis on rigorous evidence and much more stringent impact evaluations to determine whether programs actually have the impact they claim to have. Typical M&E (monitoring and evaluation) skills could be greatly strengthened in those areas. Greater tech strategy and savvy is something we would love to see more of as well, as well as more rigorous financial analysis to determine how much value certain program bring for the money spent on them.

WM: Suppose you could advise a graduate in the humanities from a good university, who is happy to pursue any career path in the short-term, but would like to work in international development non-profits in the long-term, what concretely would you advise them to do?

KV: Get a graduate degree and hone your hard skills! International development is not for do-gooders, it’s a profession and needs to be taken seriously. Figure out what you want to do and get the skills to do it well and to substantively add to the body of knowledge in the field. Take it seriously.

WM: Suppose you could advise a graduate in a quantitative subject from a good university, who is happy to pursue any career path in the short-term, but would like to work in international development non-profits in the long-term, what concretely would you advise them to do?

KV: Grow your skill set in behavioural economics, business model development and analysis, supply chain and logistics management, water and sanitation, health systems and delivery – whatever the specific issue area is your are interested in. Same as above: Figure out what you want to do and get the skills to do it well and to substantively add to the body of knowledge in the field. Take it seriously!

WM: Under what conditions do you think it’s a good idea for a graduate to work for a non-profit straight out of university?

KV: Undergraduate? By all means, work! There are lots of entry-level jobs in nonprofits though fewer ones with us, generally. Common sense and a strong work ethic will get you far, no matter where you end up.

 
Will Snell, Director of Strategy and Development at Development Media International

WM: What sorts of candidates do you generally look to hire, in terms of roles, skills, qualifications, experience?

WS: We look for a range of backgrounds for different roles:

Most are recruited for international positions, for which we are normally looking for experienced hires with an unusual mixture of skills and experience (typically a combination of media production, campaign management, people/project/financial management, research, business development).

We occasionally hire people to fill gaps in our small London HQ, which are usually functional (finance, research, business development, admin); we generally look for people with at least 5 years of experience in their field, but don’t always require people to have a previous background in international development (especially for finance/admin roles).

WM: Are there any particular talents or skills that you find it particularly hard to hire?

WS: The experienced hires for our international posts who have the unusual
combination of skills and experience outlined above!

WM: Do you think you’re representative of international development non-profits in your hiring practices? If not, how do you differ from other non-profits?

WS: In the UK, yes. Overseas, to a large extent, although some of the media-specific skills that we seek often mean that we advertise for people outside the international development sector (eg TV and radio producers who, while they would need developing country experience, are not primarily ‘development people’). We also have a different approach to hiring local staff in project countries, in that we look to hire and train bright people rather than relying on the small pool of NGO staff with directly relevant experience.

WM: Within international development, what skills do you think are particularly lacking, and through which jobs could you get those skills?

WS: Marketing – I think a stint in a large corporate marketing function (eg P&G, Mars) would be a good starting point. Project and people management – so spending time managing large-ish teams and projects in the private sector would be valuable.

WM: Suppose you could advise a graduate in the humanities from a good university, who is happy to pursue any career path in the short-term, but would like to work in international development non-profits in the long-term, what concretely would you advise them to do?

WS: Spend 3-5 years on of the two paths outlined above.

WM: Suppose you could advise a graduate in a quantitative subject from a good university, who is happy to pursue any career path in the short-term, but would like to work in international development non-profits in the long-term, what concretely would you advise them to do?

WS: If they want to go into financial management roles, spend time in a big four accounting firm. If they want to do research, then probably postgraduate degrees are a better route.

WM: Under what conditions do you think it’s a good idea for a graduate to work for a non-profit straight out of university?

WS: Not very many – I did this and it worked out OK, but in retrospect I would have liked to have spent 4-5 years in the private sector first. There are very few ‘graduate trainee’ schemes in the non-profit sector and I think that these are often incredibly useful experiences (I did one but in the public sector – the Civil Service Fast Stream scheme – after 3 years in the non-profit sector after graduating, and am glad that I did).

 
Alan Fenwick, founder of Schistosomiasis Control Initiative:

WM:
What sorts of candidates do you generally look to hire, in terms of roles, skills, qualifications, experience?

AF: As SCI has expanded we have hired financial people to improve our accountability, we have hired two new biostatisticians to assist the programme managers with their sampling, and for every new country we have hired a new home based scientist with a Masters in Public Health. We have increased our presence in several countries and so have hired local people to manage the programmes in a few selected countries.

WM: Are there any particular talents or skills that you find it particularly hard to hire?

AF: Biostatisticians and health economists.

WM: Do you think you’re representative of international development non-profits in your hiring practices? If not, how do you differ from other non-profits?

AF: We do not (with one exception which is Ethiopia) have expatriate people living in the recipient countries because we like to encourage sustainability and local ownership.

WM: Within international development, what skills do you think are particularly lacking, and through which jobs could you get those skills?

AF: Health economists with an interest in Africa.

WM: Suppose you could advise a graduate in the humanities from a good university, who is happy to pursue any career path in the short-term, but would like to work in international development non-profits in the long-term, what concretely would you advise them to do?

AF: Look for jobs with NGO’s and charities and maybe academic institutions like the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

WM: Suppose you could advise a graduate in a quantitative subject from a good university, who is happy to pursue any career path in the short-term, but would like to work in international development non-profits in the long-term, what concretely would you advise them to do?

AF: A masters degree from the London School of Economics, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine or Imperial would be a good idea.

WM: Under what conditions do you think it’s a good idea for a graduate to work for a non-profit straight out of university?

AF: For me experience is as good as a [Master’s] degree and so if they could get a job and gain overseas experience I would encourage them to do so. If someone can get a job in an effective charity, instead of a Master’s, after one year they are as valuable as someone green with a Master’s in my opinion.

 
Rob Mather, founder of Against Malaria Foundation:

WM: What sorts of candidates do you generally look to hire, in terms of roles, skills, qualifications, experience?

RM: We have not been hiring but in the future we are likely to, especially if we continue to take on new challenges. So at the moment we are not best placed to help with information here. For one potential role we would seek someone with significant experience and a demonstrated track record. For another role we have in mind, we would seek someone with the right skill set (rather than a strong track record in the role) to match the role and a can-do, solution-finding attitude and commitment.

WM: Within international development, what skills do you think are particularly lacking, and through which jobs could you get those skills?

RM: I’d answer a different question: What sort of skills and attitudes do we seek in a colleague? The answers to the questions above will hopefully provide some indication of that. One of the hardest skills to acquire is a balance between pressing forwards with a project and an understanding that in our field it isn’t as simple as pressing a few buttons to make something happen – we are looking for persistence as well as energy and adaptability.

WM: Suppose you could advise a graduate in the humanities from a good university, who is happy to pursue any career path in the short-term, but would like to work in international development non-profits in the long-term, what concretely would you advise them to do? How does that differ for a graduate in a quantitative subject?

RM: I am not sure I would advise humanities and quantitative graduates differently. There are of course many ways to make an impact in the not-for-profit area and many very different paths individuals could follow. I would offer two thoughts. First, it is a good idea to spend some time before starting a career (e.g. university, holidays) or early in a career, in and around a not-for-profit environment of interest to gain an understanding of the sort of work involved, challenges faced and whether you like it. That might be several months working or volunteering in a developing country or in a soup-kitchen or crisis centre closer to home. Second, gaining and honing business skills (e.g. project management, sales, marketing, leadership, effective teamwork, working across cultures) can be important for ‘getting things done’ in the not-for-profit environment and doing so efficiently. Time spent in a ‘traditional’ for-profit career can build key skills that can be a strong basis for a later move into a not-for-profit. Many of the particularly impressive people I have met in the not-for-profit sector have had ten or more years working in the business sector beforehand.

WM: Under what conditions do you think it’s a good idea for a graduate to work for a non-profit straight out of university?

RM: If they really want to. If someone feels particularly drawn to a not-for profit role, and they have thought through carefully why, what they see themselves doing over the next few years (at least 3 to 5), what skills they wish to build, and have spoken to at least half a dozen if not a dozen people (at different stages of their career) in the area they wish to move into to hear views and advice, then I’d say go for it. Not-for profits typically pay less well than for-profits so that has to be considered but everyone’s financial starting point and needs are different. If someone was equally excited about a for-profit or not-for-profit route straight out of university, I’d say for-profit first to build skills in that environment but that is a personal view, not a question of right or wrong.

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