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.
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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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.