Breaking Into – and Surviving In – the Global NGO Sector: Part 2
Category : PROspective
From alum Roice Fulton (GLEPI, 2014)
Observe, Infer, and Engage
I’m an almost willfully naïve person, for reasons better explained over pints somewhere within a few tube stops of CEPI’s London office. What matters for this post is how that naivete seems to underpin my career strategy: at every turn, it forces me to ask the most basic of questions, and think critically about how the answers affect my understanding of my own place in the public health world.
Case in point: I’d long held this picture of the global NGO community as some distant, impenetrable entity. What do they all actually do? How do they work together? I’m totally new to this scene – how do I fit in?
For years, the barrier to entry seemed prohibitive. Entry-level posts at places like Gavi were sparse, incredibly competitive, seemed only loosely matched to my new epi skillset, and took months of screening and interviews to get through. And at 30, I wasn’t keen on taking up an internship somewhere to try and get a foot in the door.
A few factors would change the whole equation. One was my introduction to the world of independent consulting, which began with a short-term remote contract to conduct a systematic review for the WHO post-graduation. Another was learning that global NGOs sometimes use independent consultants to cover line work when they can’t hire full staff (which happens more often than they’re willing to admit).
A third factor was understanding just how quickly NGOs’ needs can change – and figuring out how to identify and seize work opportunities as new needs arose. In my case, that naivete I mentioned required me to build a picture of the immunization NGO scene from the ground up in order to understand my potential role in it.
I’d love to lay out everything I’ve learned, including the full history of the global immunization NGOs and their evolution toward the current landscape. But it’s not appropriate here, and it’s less than useful for those of you not interested in vaccines. Suffice to say that organizations such as Gavi and CEPI are mission-driven, highly impactful, and brimming with brilliant people whom I am incredibly lucky to count as colleagues.
What I will do is try to distill my experiences into a set of guidelines, to help you bridge the divide between your skills and the emergent needs of the global NGO community – or really, any employer. As it turns out, it’s an extension of an approach I took in grad school: observe, infer, and engage.
Ask fundamental questions about their mission, vision, and strategy – why does this organization exist? – then anchor your mindset to the world they work in. If you can, ask those questions to current employees – you’re bound to get some insightful answers informed by their personal experiences.
Apply inductive reasoning to what you learn about the organization. Your observations about what the NGO is doing, where, with whom, and why, will create a mental picture from which you can quickly infer organizational needs that may map to your skills.
Now, allow yourself to think big for a moment. Without targeting a specific job posting or title, think about what your ideal job in this organization would look like, both now and in five years. Be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do now – but consider your full range of skills and experiences, not only those associated directly with epi. Make a list of the skills you lack but want to develop. This exercise helps shape your career trajectory into a practical narrative to share in an interview.
Finally, the hard part: identify opportunities to slot in. This is where you channel your big-picture ambition into a concrete career progression, with your target NGO as the first major step.
Unfortunately, most job postings won’t often immediately suggest a role for you; there wasn’t a single mention of epi skills in the first contract I took at Gavi. But if you parse job descriptions with an open mind, and think laterally about how to translate your epi background into adjacent fields or in unorthodox ways, you might suddenly find yourself screaming at the monitor: “I can do this!”
It’s all about context – which is why all the observational legwork is essential. If you know innately where an organization is, and where they’re headed and why, you’re already thinking along the lines of what they need and where you fit in.
Whether by traditional job application, introduction via a colleague, or a cold email – or, better yet, all three – put your best foot forward to the organization, and jam it in their door. Your objective is to familiarize your name and reputation for good work with them, one way or another (but always politely!).
Clearing the familiarity hurdle is harder with distant global NGOs than with, say, a state or local organization. But it remains a function of networking, timing, and yes, luck.
Be patient – job hunting is the ultimate test of patience – but utilize all the resources you have. Utilize your mentors; utilize your PIs; utilize your friends; utilize me. Be clear about your availability and adaptability to the needs of the work, and broadcast that to everyone who might help you get noticed.
If you score an interview, get the name of the hiring manager (not just the HR intermediary), and send a direct follow-up email. If you can’t find their address, maybe do what I did and email every permutation of their name you can think of until one gets through.
In the end, it was my thesis advisor who got me in the door at Gavi; a department head was his classmate at Hopkins, and had forwarded him the posting. From there, it was the usual CV/cover letter, then an interview, then that shot-in-the-dark follow-up email – then ten days later, I was packing my bags for Switzerland.
Once you land your first global NGO gig, be it a contract or a full-time job, the process has only begun. Continue to observe, infer, and engage, taking full advantage of your insider knowledge. For short-term contracts, the first thing to find out is whether your role was really intended to be temporary, or if there’s a long-term gap they’re trying to fill (they may not even realize the gap until you point it out).
Act accordingly with what you learn and with what you want from the organization, whether that’s the flexibility of continued short-term consultancies or the security of a full-time position with benefits – or a move to a different organization working in a similar space. Either way, congratulations – you’ve broken through!
In case you missed it, check out Breaking Into – and Surviving In – the Global NGO Sector: Part 1, where I shared my path from GLEPI student graduating at the height of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, to a full-blown career at an unexpected employer.
In Breaking Into – and Surviving In – the Global NGO Sector: Part 3, we’ll look at how cultivating strong leadership and teamwork skills can help you manage the dynamism of life and work at a global NGO, particularly in this time of emergent threats to public health – including, yes, COVID.
Roice Fulton, MPH (GLEPI, 2014) is currently an independent consultant for the London- and Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), where he manages projects in CEPI’s epidemiology portfolio. Roice currently lives and works near Geneva, Switzerland.