If you’re a rogue scientist like me (that is, if you pursue your research outside of academia), then non-governmental organizations — or NGOs — are among the most valuable partner organizations you can have.
Normally unaffiliated with academia, NGOs do essential work in many scientific fields and are a key element in bridging the science-policy gap. Their funding is often tied to a donor base or a family trust, and their work is usually centered around a few key priority areas. They range in size from a one-person operation with a $100,000 budget to a massive institution with a multibillion-dollar endowment.
Working with NGOs can be challenging, frustrating, and rewarding — all at the same time. Unfortunately, doctoral programs rarely provide the professional mentorship to prepare students to successfully navigate the NGO-space. NGOs may want a scientist to do the familiar work of primary research or to offer critical reviews of the field. But they may also be looking for experts who can:
- Provide a policy context for the field.
- Do community outreach and engagement.
- Work with stakeholders.
- Develop novel solutions to real-world problems.
Approaching an NGO looking for new contracts and opportunities can be daunting. I offer here a few key guidelines that can help make the process more manageable.
Breaking into the NGO bubble is all about networking. Love it or hate it, networking is the single most effective way to build relationships with key decision-makers at non-governmental organizations. Often, you’re only invited to submit a proposal or a bid to an NGO after someone in a leadership position has decided they want to work with you.
Figure out the names of program directors who work in your specialty — either through the NGO staff directory or through consulting your colleagues. Meet with those directors to learn about their program goals for the next few years. Don’t be afraid to drop them an email: Let them know that you’re just getting into the field, and ask if they’re available for an informational interview.
If an NGO that you want to work with is sponsoring an event — anything from local happy hours to international summits — make sure you attend. Hone your personal pitch, dress professionally and appropriately for the event, and bring your business cards. And be aware, with turnover rates and hiring preferences, there tends to be a lot of jumping between different NGOs, so the junior director you met today may be the senior director of the NGO across the street next year.
Manage your reputation, online and off. It’s not enough just to shake hands with program leaders, you also have to have the reputation to back it up. Transitioning from the academic world, you should have a healthy stack of peer-reviewed publications that you can fall back on. Depending on the kind of work you want to do, that may be enough.
However, to really establish yourself as a leader in your chosen discipline, you should have popular science writing in your portfolio, as well as policy work, good outreach, and earned media coverage of your work. An online presence through your own professional website (here’s mine) and social media can be very beneficial. If you position yourself as the go-to person for your specific discipline, it will be that much easier for NGOs to track you down.
Understand the NGO funding cycle. Every NGO manages its finances differently. Some have rolling contracts based on needs. Others set budgets at the beginning of the year for each program. Still others create large contracts with known entities who then dole out smaller contracts. Some do all of those simultaneously, some do none.
It does you no good to prep and pitch an incredible project in April if your program director sets the NGO’s budget in March. Find out how — and when — an NGO makes financial decisions and tailor your proposals to its schedule.
Be versatile and be accessible. NGOs don’t work on an academic timeline. When they’re running campaigns, they need people who get the job done. By building a diverse portfolio of field and lab work — as well as presentation, outreach, and report writing — you can maximize your value to a specific NGO. A solid, broad range of skills makes you an invaluable contractor and helps you build relationships with multiple departments and programs. Being capable of taking on large projects on short notice will reliably guarantee that you are the one they turn to when they need something done well in a hurry.
You don’t need to limit yourself to a single NGO. In fact, many NGOs don’t want to bring you on as a contractor if a single organization is your primary source of income. Stringing together multiple, small-to-mid-level contracts will help you network, build your reputation, gain a better understanding of how different NGOs operate, and build a robust and diverse portfolio. Besides, if they really want you full time, they should hire you.