From Maxwell Perspective...

The Lure of NGOs

As they enter the Maxwell School, many students imagine their next job will land them in the NGO sector.

Back to main NGO article

NGO Students
Nell Bartkowiak (left), graduate director in International Relations, where interest in NGOs is booming

Nationwide, graduate students are flooding into international relations programs. This is especially true at Maxwell, which is one of only 29 members of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, and whose IR program is ranked among the nation’s top ten by Foreign Policy magazine.

And, while they are drawn by any number of factors, according to Nell Bartkowiak, IR graduate director, a third or more of them are thinking about NGOs. “Students know that NGOs are big players in affecting policy and implementing change, especially overseas,” she says.

Many prospective students tell Bartkowiak they want to “learn more so they can make a difference in the world. They feel they can make that kind of unadulterated change working in NGOs,” she says. And they want to make that change overseas.

Some of these students fit the do-gooder stereotype: unmotivated by high salaries, eager to get their hands dirty, fearful of the stifling red tape they associate with government jobs. A few defy the stereotype — more interested in policy than “dirty hands,” for example.

IR recently created a career track in Transnational Organizations and Leadership — possibly the only program of its kind within an IR degree program. The track includes courses such as Non-State Actors in World Politics, Social Movements Theory, Culture in World Affairs, and Governance & Global Civil Society.

Maxwell’s Public Administration Department also has more graduates entering the NGO market. Alongside its already strong curriculum in domestic nonprofit management, PA offers a program in international development. Enrollment in this area has quadrupled in the past 15 years. PA has added courses on NGO management in transitional and developing countries, global health policy, and other topics. All this is meant to supplement MPA fundamentals.

“The core skill sets of the MPA, public management and policy analysis, are important and useful wherever you go. Good management and good analysis are not skills specific to the domestic market,” says Christine Omolino, associate director of PA. 

In Career Development, director Alexandra Bennett has modified resources, presentations, and counseling to serve interest in NGOs. Of the 15-20 visiting professionals who speak on careers each year, roughly a third represent NGOs. Career guides have been supplemented with fields such as humanitarian aid and microfinance.

Many graduating students will indeed enter NGOs; the sector absorbs more than a quarter of PA’s graduates and roughly half of the IR’s. But many will choose another path. At present, NGOs are overrun with potential employees. And the NGO lifestyle can be challenging, involving travel, distance, modest pay, and occasional risk.

 Bennett is philosophical about all of this. Even for students who never enter the sector, NGOs inspired them to pursue a public-service career; educated about career options, they found ways to apply their skills and enthusiasm closer to home. And for students who land an NGO job but only gut it out for a few years, it’s still an intense, broadening experience. They come home well-positioned for almost any next job.

Some observers assume that NGOs siphon talent away from America’s public-affairs challenges, but Bennett isn’t worried. “They aren’t going to travel forever,” she says. “They’re going to come back. We’re not losing them.”

“In the end,” say’s IR’s Bartkowiak, “they realize there are opportunities to do good things in all sectors."

— Dana Cooke

Dana Cooke is the Maxwell School’s publications manager and editor of Maxwell Perspective.
This article appeared in the fall 2010 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2010 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail