Types of employers

Working in an NGO

Can you predict what work in an organisation looks like from its status? Yes, to some extent. There are different types of actors in international cooperation. A comparison between them shows the similarities and differences that can influence work. It goes without saying that each organisation also has its own particularities.

Working in an NGO

NGOs at a glance

An NGO is an entity under private law and can be an association or a foundation. All NGOs pursue a non-profit goal of national utility – or international utility in the context of international cooperation. To finance itself, an NGO generally relies on a variety of sources: membership fees, donations and legacies, contributions from the Confederation, the cantons, donor foundations, and/or the acquisition of mandates.

How does NGO status affect the working environment?

There is a wide range of NGOs, and they vary greatly in size. Some employ only a few people, others several hundred.

Given this diversity, it would be risky to draw too many conclusions about NGOs. Discover this diversity in our overview of actors and in our report on the Swiss labour market in international cooperation:
NGOs in the overview of actors
Key observations on the Swiss labour market

But are there any common features among NGOs? Let's try the following exercise:

  • An NGO is generally characterised by the ideas and causes it wishes to defend.
  • It is usually engaged in implementing programmes: its own programmes or programmes it shares with other organisations in a coalition (an increasingly common reality).
  • The work of the NGO tends to be close to those for whom it is committed ("the beneficiaries").
  • The NGO is in principle accountable to its funders, which influences its orientation.
  • The NGO is rather prone to "flat hierarchies".
  • The range of salaries varies significantly from one NGO to another, and generally, the salaries are relatively modest.

Questions to ask yourself

Taking into account the above considerations, the following questions can help you to better define whether working in an NGO is right for you. Understand these questions primarily as an orientation aid, not as preconditions for making a decision.

Do you share the ideas defended or promoted by the NGO?

Although it is often not imperative, having the same beliefs or "being on the same page" often makes sense. This is particularly true for those involved in campaigning, programme development and implementation.

Would you like to work at a level that is perhaps closer to the beneficiaries than in other types of organisations?

This question should not be taken literally: the "altitude" of work varies greatly from one NGO to another, from one function to another.

Are you prepared to do more than just work for the beneficiaries?

The people who fund the work of the NGO will probably also be your target audience. It is likely that you will have to devote a greater or lesser part of your work to them (for example, reporting).

Are you, in some cases, prepared to weigh your salary expectations against other aspects?

Such as the satisfaction of making a small impact "for a better world".