Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are typically mission-driven advocacy or service organizations in the nonprofit sector. There are large and small NGOs operating around the world and organized for just about every imaginable purpose. The term – coming from United Nations (UN) jargon to delineate between government bodies and private organizations – is relatively modern. However, international NGOs like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Anti-Slavery International have been in existence for more than one hundred years. NGOs have contributed to the achievement of “the defeat of apartheid in South Africa; the end of the dictatorship in Chile; the political transformation of the Philippines; the overthrow of the Communist regimes in Central Europe; the creation of an international treaty prohibiting land mines; and the establishment of an international criminal court.”
The growth in number and influence of NGOs in the last ten years is astounding. As the quotation from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggests, NGOs increasingly work as advisors to national governments, international agencies and the UN. In the past, NGOs often convened separate and autonomous meetings alongside UN conferences to critique UN agendas, mobilize local organizations and to advocate for political, social and economic changes. Today NGOs are at the table, enriching intergovernmental discussions with grassroots knowledge and subject matter expertise. What began as consultancies with selected NGOs has evolved into a system of governmental and intergovernmental partnerships. The UN has responded with increased funding of NGO initiatives and projects across the globe.
International NGO work is crucial in campaigns that mobilize citizens at the community and national levels. Currently, NGOs are critical contributors in global efforts to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. These goals include the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, gender equality and women’s empowerment, the reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health, environmental sustainability, advancements in the fight against diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, and the establishment of global partnerships for development.
Acquiring positions at NGOs can be difficult, and it may be necessary to find outside funding to pay for your position or personal expenses. Competition can be stiff, especially since NGOs may value an international workforce within their own organization and NGOs, even those based in the U.S., may not always hire American law students. NGOs often hire those who have developed experience in their issue area or region and/or with relevant skills. Sometimes they hire those who develop that experience during law school; but often NGOs seek those with postgraduate experience, creating a conundrum for students wanting to break into this field upon graduation. More and more, fundraising experience is an essential skill needed in NGOs, even for attorneys. Mission-driven work often translates into long hours, emotional drain and frustration from swimming against the tide. In some instances, safety concerns exist. Yet, work within an NGO can often prove exhilarating and exceptionally rewarding as well as critically important to the clients or causes served. The students who persevere and land these jobs after law school often feel that the rewards are worth the hard work of breaking into the field and the inherent challenges of the work itself.