12/06/2013 07:51 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

So You Want To Save The World? Part 1 - First, Ask Yourself the Right Questions

I get asked this all the time, by students, recent graduates, young professionals and even recently a seasoned partner at a consulting firm: 'How can I get a job in international development?'

In most cases when I prod for more detail about what type of role or organization, the answer will be vague: 'policy' (my favorite answer), 'a NGO or foundation', 'human rights' etc. As if, when you asked someone for more specificity about their desire to work in fashion, they would not be able to tell you whether they wanted to be a model, fashion designer, marketer, or seamstress; whether they want to work for Chanel or for Abercrombie, a big powerhouse or start something from scratch for themselves. There seems to be a view that wanting to do something good is enough.

So my first piece of advice to anyone who wants to start their career in the non-profit world or switch from the private to non-profit sector is to ask yourself the right questions:

1. Would I enjoy spending a year or more in Pakistan / Afghanistan / the DRC / a refugee camp ?

Firstly, it worries me a great deal when a 22-year old tells me they want to work in international development but actually they're only looking for jobs in the US. That tells me they probably should not work in this sector if they are not willing to go work in the places where the work is done, no matter how uncomfortable or even dangerous it may be. By no means do you have to start in Pakistan, but at some point in your career, it's both hugely valuable and necessary to spend some time in the field. Better do it young when you have the energy and don't have 2 kids in tow (although I've met many NGO professionals who bring their kids up in a different country every 4 years).

Secondly, this is where most of the money is spent - thus, this is where most of the jobs are, especially more junior ones. Much easier to get a job there than in the plush midtown headquarters. And while I don't necessarily recommend packing your bags immediately for Africa, I know plenty of people who did and got a role pretty quickly writing proposals because they knew a few relevant languages and could write English palatably. If the DRC is too hardcore, you can go something a level up - there's still plenty of work in Kenya, Uganda, etc.

2. What unique skills or value add can I bring to the table?

The non-profit sector is hugely competitive, just like film or fashion - you will only be successful if you're talented, if you're lucky, or if you're well connected; often you'll need all three.

The talent part goes to realizing that there are so many different roles you could play in the non-profit world - fundraising or marketing, communications or advocacy, human resources or finance, legal or operations, policy or grant management, monitoring and evaluation etc. Within that, you need to find what you enjoy and you're good at. Almost all of these require specialized skills and training. Often a NGO won't be able or willing to train you for this - to be an accountant or lawyer in a NGO, a NGO would clearly expect a relevant degree as well a few years prior experience, usually in the private sector. The same will be true of almost any type of role, except those like policy or monitoring and evaluation which are fairly specific to the non-profit world. Here though, you might very well need a PhD.

Entry-level jobs - when they are available - are super competitive, pay generally very badly (think $30-40k in New York), and are mostly administrative. And in all honesty, it's not necessarily clear where the progression lies. So you get a job for a big NGO doing data entry or booking important people's hotels and airfares? It's not like your doing a great job there means you can write a policy paper on gender equality in the Middle East (in fact I imagine being amazing at one of those jobs probably by default makes you rubbish at the other).

Conclusion: You want to work in the non-profit sector? Go get some useful skills or go to Africa.