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Our definitive guide on how to find your first job in development

Whether you’re just back from ICS and want that first job in the sector or already have a career underway – we show you how to make your move into international development.

The sign of the red cross sits on top of a building
© travelview /
Whether your passion is healthcare or housing, international development has a variety of roles

Getting started in international development

You could use your creative side to campaign for climate action, your logistical flair to get aid to humanitarian teams or your persuasive talents to recruit volunteers for programmes like ICS.

There’s a lot to take in, as the competition for jobs in NGOs (non-governmental organisations) is tough, salaries vary enormously, and it’s a bewilderingly broad sector with a huge range of job roles and organisations. But that does mean there’s plenty of options.

Entry into this field will often start with your first volunteering experience (great move doing ICS!). But you’ll need to be proactive immediately. NGOs rarely run graduate or training programmes, and opportunities will often only be open to those with postgraduate experience.

Getting there will take a lot of hard work (don’t expect to land a role at the UN just after finishing ICS!) but with determination and some networking you’ll achieve what you set out to do.

A Red Cross volunteer erects a tent
© ChameleonsEye /
Humanitarian roles might be the first to come to mind - but there's many different jobs on offer

What jobs could I do?

Broadly, jobs in international development fall into four categories:

  • Practitioner – these are the jobs relating to the actual ‘on the ground’ work of the organisation – like project management and implementation in the field
  • Policy/advisory – the research and evaluation part; this develops recommendations for policies to be used inside and outside the organisation
  • Advocacy/outreach – this is all about changing attitudes and sharing the work of the organisation. You could be a campaigner, lobbyist, fundraiser or communicator
  • Support – these are the vital but often overlooked roles. Like any sector, international development needs HR, finance, logistics and IT expertise too

See these as a starting point for where you want to get to. You’ll first need to get experience working in international development to allow you to move into the role you really want.

An admin role with the fundraising team of a charity might not attract you as much as the jobs you’ve seen designing programmes, but it will allow you to get your foot in the door, so you hear about new roles, develop relationships and build relevant experience for your CV.

A group of ICS volunteers write on flipchart paper together
© Andy Aitchison / VSO
ICS developed a lot of those soft skills that employers are looking for

What kind of person do I need to be?

You’ll need to work out if you’re the right kind of person for international development. Because it’s such an international field – surprise, surprise – there’s a certain skillset that’s required. But you’ll notice that lots of the skills and characteristics are those required on ICS.

Development agencies and charities typically look for people who:

  • are adaptable and flexible
  • show their cultural sensitivity
  • have good communication skills
  • can adapt their skills in challenging work environments
  • can cope with limited resources
  • enjoy working with a team of diverse individuals
  • speak a second language

You’ll notice that all of these are soft skills.

These are characteristics that once developed, are transferable and useful in all areas of employment. As we enter a world in which no job is secure forever and employers develop more reactive, short-term and multifunctional roles, these skills will help you navigate this uncertainty.

The great news is that ICS provides you with opportunities to develop all of the above skills, and great examples for demonstrating these skills as you enter employment.

Where can I find work?

People working in the sector may be based anywhere around the world, whether that's in field work in a rural Nepalese village or in a major international city like London or Nairobi. In the UK, international development positions are mainly found in London and southern England.

Roles with government aid agencies are often found in capital cities, such as with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) – the government body that funds ICS. The FCDO has a broad range of roles available for those later in their careers. As is the case with many other aid organisations, you’ll often need to have a few years of work experience behind you

If you’re beginning your job search, there are many sites that you can look at to find opportunities. We would recommend setting up alerts, so you’ll be automatically notified when a new role becomes available that meets your requirements. Start with these:

Now read our tips on how you can get your first job in international development.

A group of children get involved in the planting of a tree
Use your experiences from ICS to demonstrate how you're suitable for the role

Applying for your first role after ICS

You’ve finished ICS. Great! You’re in a really good position to start chasing those international development jobs. What’s important to remember is that you’ve now got an advantage on most of the competition: three months of reputable, on-the-ground, development experience.

Our tips:

  • Tell them what you did on placement. We don’t need to tell you that your ICS experience is great material for your application and (hopefully) interview. Whether that’s showing how cross-cultural working made you a great team player or how you’ve now got the skills to produce great reports quickly – these are all useful examples for employers to hear about.
  • Keep up to date with the newsletter. Every month we publish a comprehensive list of jobs and opportunities to help you find entry-level and junior roles in the sector – and it also contains details about those elusive apprenticeship and internship schemes. If you’re not on the list, sign up now. Restless, Raleigh and VSO also have ICS alumni Facebook groups where jobs are posted too.
  • Give ICS an upgrade on your CV. We’re often told that our employment history is the most important thing to put down on your CV. It’s not necessarily untrue – but that doesn’t mean your volunteering experience should be relegated to just a paragraph. If you have relevant things to say about your time on ICS that link to the job you’re applying for, include them.
  • Network, network, network. You won’t find every job on the internet. Meeting people and starting to make valuable connections in the sector will help you massively. In many cities, there will already be international development sector social events. Start by looking here to see if there’s one near you – and don’t forget to join your local ICS alumni network.
A user holds an iPhone with the LinkedIn app open
© Worawee Meepian /
Revisit your social media profiles to make sure your career history is up to date

I’m currently working in the charity sector

Experience in working for a charity is really helpful as you search for your next role.

Already having some experience shows your commitment to good causes, and the way many charities or international development organisations work is actually very similar – so you’ll have a good understanding of the culture, practices and nature of the work.

Our tips:

  • Use examples from your work. Show how your current work in the charity sector and the role you’re applying for link together. If you work in communications but want to get into fundraising, this could mean talking about how your experience managing social media channels or running campaigns could be valuable in getting supporters to donate.
  • Show your knowledge. Do your research. Although you might not be new to the sector, individual charities can be very different, so get a firm understanding of what the organisation you’re applying to does and how it fits into the wider sector. Do a bit of background reading to find out about their challenges and successes. A quick look at their annual report is a good start!
  • Highlight your volunteering. ICS is a great place to start – three months volunteering away from home on reputable international development projects looks great on your CV and comes across even better during interview. Explain clearly why you chose to volunteer, the impact you made while on placement and how it shaped your career path.
  • Keep your social profiles updated. That might mean revisiting a dusty LinkedIn account or unused Twitter profile. Bring them in line with your CV so if recruiters check you out online all the information will match and there won’t be any gaps. It’s also a great opportunity to include more information and links that you can’t squeeze onto your CV.
A British town hall sign
There are many parallels between the world of local government and international development

I’m currently working in the public sector

There are many parallels between the work of the public and international development sectors.

A big part of international development is advocacy – trying to drum up public support for a particular idea or policy. The experience you have in making relationships, whether with the public, other departments or the media can make your career history really valuable to NGOs.

Our tips:

  • Don’t play down your experience. If you have more knowledge than most of how a particular government department works, or who the big movers and shakers within the local council are, demonstrate your skills at navigating the public sector.
  • We’re all fighting the same fight. Whatever your reason for wanting to get out of the private sector, don’t talk badly about your current or previous roles. Instead, explain why international development is the best place for you to make a difference.
  • Highlight your volunteering. ICS is a great place to start – three months volunteering away from home on reputable international development projects looks great on your CV and comes across really well during at interview. Explain clearly why you chose to volunteer, the impact you made while on placement and how it shaped your career path.
A student writes in a book
Having experience of proposal writing or budgeting will be valued in development

I’m currently working in the private sector

While it may seem like the goals of the private sector and international development sectors are at odds with each other, the skills and culture required in your work are desired by NGOs.

Skills that are particularly valuable to international development organisations include:

  • proposal writing
  • any kind of report and technical writing
  • creating and managing budgets
  • general project management
  • partnership development
  • accounting

Individuals in the private sector are often seen as more used to achieving results and better at meeting targets. But this is incredibly important in the third sector too, as charities must stretch their resources to deliver impactful interventions while ensuring ‘value for money’.

Our tips:

  • ‘Charitify’ your CV. When talking about the impact you’ve made in your current or previous roles, make small changes to the language so it’s more appropriate to charity recruiters. Instead of talking about monetary value, talk about personal impact. Instead of talking about customers, describe how you’ve increased engagement with supporters.
  • Make your skills relevant. Even if your current day-to-day is very different to the role you’re going for, there’s always ways to make links. What skills have you acquired that will be used in your new role? For example, if you work in human resources, you might discover that your skill set will be very similar to what’s needed in volunteer recruitment.
  • Highlight your volunteering. This is most important for people in the private sector as it’s the best way to demonstrate your passion for the work. ICS is a great place to start – three months volunteering away from home on reputable international development projects looks great on your CV and impresses at interview. Explain clearly why you chose to volunteer, the impact you made while on placement and how it shaped your career path. Fundraising, pro bono work or internships are also definitely worth a mention.
  • Make your CV accessible. You might have loads to fit on a couple of pages and be tempted to squeeze paragraphs in and condense the text. Don’t. Accessibility is very important to charities, and as the first opportunity to understand you, it’s important you don’t get overlooked when your CV lands on a recruiter’s desk.
© Andy Aitchison / VSO

What else can I do to make myself employable?

Getting into this sector is hard. Jobs are being cut, funding is tough to come by and as a result, employers are looking for people with more skills and qualifications than ever before.

But there are things that you can do to improve your CV.

  • Volunteer. We don’t really need to tell you this. Not only is it great for your portfolio, it’s also super rewarding. So many NGOs offer opportunities to get involved – whether that’s through collecting donations, canvassing or getting involved with admin tasks. And have you thought about becoming an ICS Team Leader to boost your pastoral skills?
  • Become a trustee. It’s time consuming and will replace your bedtime reading with reports – but becoming deeply involved with a charity is massively rewarding. You’ll shape their strategy, who they help and guide them to achieve their goals.
  • Embrace your activist. There’s plenty of ways you can fight the good fight. Protest, petition and get other people involved. Join local groups of activists near you and see your passion for and knowledge of a particular cause develop.
  • Follow the sector. It’s important to stay up to date with trends in the sector. Keeping abreast of the news will give you insider info and opportunities that may well land you that first job. We recommend subscribing to Bond’s newsletter for weekly updates.
© Andy Aitchison / VSO

Other options outside development

The decision to work in international development is something that you should carefully think over.

If you don’t have a specific reason for wanting a career with an international focus, it’s worth remembering that other rewarding jobs are available at home too. Social problems exist everywhere and issues closer to home also need talented people to tackle them.

The skills you’ve developed from ICS are relevant to jobs both in and outside the international development sector. If you’re also considering roles in other fields, remember to articulate and evidence what you’ve learnt through ICS and link it to the job description.


Written using resources from Bond, Devex, Oxford University, Manchester University, LSE, The Guardian. Check them out to find out more about how to find your first role in development.

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ICS is funded by the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), which projects the UK as a force for good in the world, including reducing poverty and tackling global challenges.

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