Finding a meaningful career: a personal story

Finding the path




Finding a meaningful career: a personal story

Daniel is a young Swiss person, a self-described “typical generation Y”. He has a background in Psychology, works as a HR-recruiter for a big firm and coaches his friends in building their own path. His experiences in life have helped him to define his dream job in a realistic way and to know that an NGO would likely be a good place to find it. For him, money is not the primary focus, generating impact and making social change is. Getting this job and making a career out of it would bring personal fulfillment and help others, making the world a better place. A win-win-win situation, except that Daniel faces a challenge:  his dream job is proving hard to find, and NGOs don’t seem to pursue the concept of career development that’s common in the corporate world.

What is Daniel looking for, why did he get here? And what could NGOs be doing differently? Daniel’s story is the starting point of our new blog series. Over the coming weeks, Daniel will take us through different chapters of his biography. Each chapter, structured along common turning points in life, will have contributions from other individuals and organisations to create a combination of personal and professional perspectives.

This story touches different levels: the personal experience, which represents well the path of many other people, and the broader societal context, where these options are defined and challenged. In our current society, is it possible to build a life path where personal energy and skills are devoted to generating both a personal and common benefit? How does this influence the role of work and livelihood, now and in the future? And how does it impact the current footprint and ongoing sustainability of society, measured by its capacity to address social and environmental issues? Such questions are not new but remain of profound importance, as shown by the recent discussion on a guaranteed minimum income in Switzerland or the trend towards flexible, non-permanent work arrangements.

On an individual level, these questions touch a common theme in many people’s lives: the quest for a meaningful purpose, occupation and career.  How “meaningful” is defined - and what makes it satisfactory - tends to vary according to age, lifestyle, socio-economic background, expectations and so on. For many, doing something that improves the lives of others in a non-superficial way and increases the feeling of proximity and mutual understanding is “meaningful”. Not surprisingly, working with an NGO or an impact-driven organisation usually comes as one of the top options when looking for such an occupation. Where to find such options? And, importantly, how do these organisations adjust their positions to match the potential and expectations of employees and collaborators?

The moment to start such pursuit can come at different times in life. In Switzerland, as in a good part of the developed world, the path in life tends to be more structured along common phases: first education, university years, early professional experiences, etc. Well-defined time periods with a clear roadmap and usual choices follow each other, until the open-ended “adult career stage” is entered. For many, the opportunity and motivation to look for something different comes during the transition between these phases. The desire to shift may also be tied to disruptive events, extended periods of personal and professional stagnation or a strong desire for personal development. Depending on the stage in life and the number of dimensions that need to be balanced (individual, professional, family, etc.), this might take the form of a gap year, a volunteering or internship period or a career reorientation. How to match these options to a particular life phase and how to assess them in a strategic, longer-term perspective? 

These questions are also relevant for Sustinova’s work, given our focus in connecting people with organisations that work for sustainability, where public leadership in such issues might be expected. As such, we will be starting a few additional activities to complement this blog series. As always, our goal is to enrich the public discussion, highlight possible solutions and helps others to find their answers.

For now, we give the word to Daniel. Your comments are welcome and will be addressed by both him and the Sustinova team.


My name is Daniel. I am 31 years old and come from a stable family setting in Switzerland, where I grew with my parents and younger brother. Both in school and in my private life, I was always self-reliant and required little intervention from my parents to keep me in line. Since an early age, they have let me take all the important decisions in life. This allowed me to take responsibility and learn to set realistic goals, which I almost always reached.

As a child, I loved to be outside in Nature and experience adventures. Fishing has been one of my biggest hobbies as far back as I can remember, and water a source of magical attraction. The piano, which I’ve played since age nine, has become a part of my identity while humour plays a central role in my life. I laugh with pleasure – also about myself – and see it as a way to break the ice and connect to other people over cultural and personal differences.

My social circle has always been a central part of my life and I nurture friendships with passion. Knowing different people and experiencing the various social interactions is like an elixir for my life. What I feel that distinguishes me from many others is my openness and interest towards anything new. Be it people, places or topics. As such, I let things come to me on my private and professional life, seizing the opportunities that arise without following fixed plans.

That is also the reason why I’ve been through many different occupations during my life so far. Next to my studies in Psychology, I’ve worked in administrative office jobs, as a car washer, as an account manager for large clients at a bank and as a business analyst in an industrial firm. I’ve always found a way to adapt to the environment and to master the necessary duties. But I have not been truly happy or satisfied so far. I quickly become bored and start looking for new challenges, without knowing who I really am or what I really want. And here lies the usual “escape point”. Even though I’ve been given the chance – several times – to develop a carrier in a typical organisation, I feel the inner pull to move somewhere else, to find my true calling. As a typical child of the Y-generation (see footnotes 1, 2 & 3), I still have not reached my most important goal: I want to have an occupation with which I can identify myself, for which I am made, that draws on my nature and strengths and that allows me to fully use my potential so that – at the end – I achieve success, fulfilment and happiness.

Status, money and the opinion of others have never been the driving factors in my life. What really moves me are challenges in adventurous contexts with new and exciting social interactions that require sensibility, analytical and creative problem-solving strategies.

Today, I know that my passion and skills belong to the so-called “Social Innovation sector”.

I believe in a world where all young people have the feeling to be privileged. I believe that each man has something to offer and be of value to society, regardless of its origin. I want to see a world where no potential is lost and where all young people have a perspective to put their capacities to use. Because of that, I want to be a person that helps disadvantaged youth to light their flame and to focus its energy on their dreams and goals.

I’ve discovered my passion for project work in the international area at a relatively early phase. In particular, I’m driven by tasks that mix conceptual and analytical skills with creative approaches and the contact with diverse stakeholders. From there, I imagine my future as mixing social work with «Human-centered Design Thinking» (see footnote 4) in slums, developing innovative projects with young people. As part of it, the exchange between different population groups should play an important role as well.

The reason why I can nowadays sound so certain and clear about is tied to do with the Social Management Innovation course that I concluded in late 2016, in Kenya. To reach this point, it took a long path, which I want to share with you in the coming chapters.

My story will, hopefully, encourage others not to give up the quest for true meaning and to be willing to take some risks along the way.

After my Matura, I decided to pause my studies for one year before continuing further since I wanted to work. This was an opportunity for me to take an occupation that, rather than building on my path so far, would instead fulfil a childhood ambition. I applied to be on the trash collection and as a fish seller but ended up in a car wash. Dealing with the clients, vacuuming, drying cars and cleaning machines, it was all amazingly fun. To a great extent also because my colleagues were all working-class Portuguese. This was a new and exciting world for me and this side job as a temporary assistant extended for 6 years. During the semester breaks, I would take extra shifts. Not only it brought extra money, it also helped tremendously during my later job search after university. At this point in time, I was still unaware how such an experience can be valuable for one’s CV. In all my job interviews, the car wash job led to positive questions and showed me how it made me stand out from other applicants.

Note 1: Given my later professional experience as a HR recruiter, I now know that candidates with this type of occupations in their CV can leave the impression of an ambitious and work-willing personality, more than those that follow a classical work path. Many people undervalue their CV and miss the opportunity to optimize the presentation of their profile, forgetting that particular skills and smaller part-time jobs can also be a valuable “selling point”. Once, for example, I secured a job because my manager was a passionate pianist and read about my conservatory-level piano playing. Had I not included this in my CV, my manager’s interest would not have been there.

After my gap year, I decided to study Psychology. I was not following any particular career plan, deciding instead to follow my interest for the “science of people”. Clinical psychology was never my focus; I was more fascinated by social- and decision-psychology which, rather than being concerned with diseases, were focused on the behaviour of people in specific situations. Afterwards, I followed a masters in the same area. Social Influence, Sales, Cognitive Bias and Behaviour Change are still some of my favourite themes up to today.

Before I started the Masters studies, I decided to grant myself another gap year, to collect work experience in the form of a one-year internship. As many other psychologists, I looked towards the area of Human Resources in the private sector. As an intern at Swiss Life, I was able to circulate through different posts in the Human Resource Department. Of particular interest for me during this time were the analytical and conceptual tasks associated with a staff reduction project. Creating assessment and reports, that presented results in a clear manner in Powerpoint slides and were then discussed during management meetings - all of this was very motivating for me.  Later, during my Master studies, I could continue my work at Swiss Life on an hourly contract and therefore secure an active connection to the work world. However, as I concluded the studies, it became clear to me that I would not want to follow the path of least resistance and that I wanted to start my career in a new field.

Given my passion for project work during my time at Swiss Life, strongly connected with conceptual and analytical tasks, I made my mind about trying to enter a classic strategy management firm like McKinsey. I wanted to prove to myself and others that a psychologist could also be successful in this field. By visiting different career events from consultancies and other firms I then knew exactly what to pay attention to when preparing a job application.

Note 2: The CV should always be matched to the position that you’re applying to, particularly by paying attention to the terminology that is used in the job announcement. A Business Analyst can also be a Junior Project Manager, or an Account Manager a Client Service Manager. The recruiters that filter out the CV also try to find if the applicant brings the necessary experience. The greater the overlap between the CV and the job announcement, the bigger the probability that an invitation to an interview follows. And that is the whole point of an application process.

Back to my desire to become a consultant in the Strategy advisory area. Everyone around me tried to dissuade me from this idea, pointing that I was simply not the right type of person. Still, an inner pull kept me fixed to that idea and I started applying for different trainee programmes in different firms. But very few were looking for graduates in Psychology.

Eventually, I received an offer to join the Career Start programme at Credit Suisse. I didn’t really want this position, or so my gut feeling told me. However, it was about time for me to secure a job and an offer like this doesn’t show up every day. So I said yes. My gut feeling confirmed itself shortly after, as I started as Account Manager for corporate clients. Fully motivated, I started looking for mentors and role models that I could identify with. But very quickly I had to accept that my interests and personality were not matching the type of work and colleagues in this department. Because of the relatively flat learning curve, I soon started taking on Management Support tasks, which allowed me to follow my passion for analysis and conceptual thinking.

Note: My previous work experience at Swiss Life was extremely helpful with my career start. As an HR recruiter, I now know that gathering professional experience during the studies is becoming a must. It is however important to ensure that either it relates to later professional goals or that – if it’s more generalist – that it is of a higher level. Project work is a good example, since it connects to and extends into many functions.

As my first-year assignment as Account Manager came to an end, I was free to choose my second-year placement. I decided to go for the In-house Strategy Consulting team, to fulfill my earlier dream of working with McKinsey consultants. I found myself in a team of four young men, who made it clear very quickly that you were expected to work hard in their team. My assigned mentor drove me to the limit and past, demanding full commitment, zero mistake tolerance and autonomous work capacity. He also made me learn how to get to the relevant information, structure complex data and simplify it for usage in management presentations. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the work tremendously. For the first time, I was pushed hard, carried much responsibility and could generate results in an independent way. Most of the time, I was outside my comfort zone and, because of the steep learning curve, was driven to produce good results. At last, it looked like I had found my mentor.

But there was also a flip side. Fascinated and enthralled by my mentor’s capacities, I listened only to him and forgot about myself and my inner voice. At the end of my one year assignment in this team, it was clear to me that I wanted to follow the same path as my mentor. At the same time, I was aware that I was not the classical type for management consulting, since my free time, hobbies and friends were an important part of my life. It makes sense that friends and hobbies get neglected when you leave the office at ten o’clock in the evening, every day. That you do so because the work is great and fulfills you also makes sense.

Personally, I could not see the point of abandoning my friends and hobbies to complete the analysis of some business area with which I cannot identify and therefore give part of my life to generate a bit more value for a gigantic corporation for which I had no interest. As such, I set the goal to continue working in strategy consulting but for a smaller industrial company. I promised to myself that I would look for a better Work-Life-Balance, identification with the business and more influence and freedom to decide in my future workplace (see footnotes 5 and 6).

Because of the positive evaluation of my manager at the In-house Consulting team, I re-entered the job market with a greater self-awareness and confidence than before. As I came across a Business Analyst position at an industry firm, I discussed it with my former mentor; he recommended taking the position immediately if I was accepted. Since I idolised him and wanted to be like him, it became clear to me: I have to take this place! As it had to be, I was offered the position. Already during the second interview, my gut feeling was negative. The workplace was out of way, the atmosphere was rather cold and the majority of the workers and the corporate culture were extremely conservative. Still, I took the job.

Before taking this position I wanted to go abroad for 2 months, to improve my English skills. Cape Town, in South Africa, was my destination and it eventually ended up changing my life. While there, I attended a language school and discovered a whole new life and attitude. I quickly dove into a new world. My friends came from South Africa, Angola, Tanzania, Ethiopia und Congo. I learned a lot about their cultures, plunged into the night life with them and discussed about their problems and ways of life. I felt at home, at my guest family’s house and in this city. I was having the best time of my life. Fascinated by Cape Town and its people, I eventually had to leave the place to take my new position as a business analyst.

This was the complete opposite. I found myself in a conservative firm with conservative people in the most remote corner of an industry park. I felt as out of place as a polar bear in the desert would be. My tasks and my colleagues were boring and did not click with my own nature. My expectations about my manager were also unfulfilled. He always mentioned that he challenged and supported young people but I could not feel any of it. It felt instead as if I would not learn anything while there. Since I tend to not give up easily, I hanged in there for nine months until I realised that I had to change something more fundamental in my life. I was at this point 29 years old and was aware that the next step should be a long-lasting one (see footnote 7).

As such, I decided to go for a thorough career counselling service. Several tests and counselling sessions indicated that, because of my interests and capacities, I would find my vocation in either the Human Resources or the Non-Profit areas. Since I had already accumulated some experience in HR while at Swiss Life, I was not that convinced about that area. NGOs however, were a totally new thing for me. The results from the assessments indicated that work would only be enjoyable in two cases: when in close contact with interesting and diverse people, doing something for them; or when I could truly identify with the content of my work. The whole economy thing in the background never really interested me past a superficial level. I’m not driven by money and I cannot identify with firms, profits salaries and status. Although I somehow always managed to cope with the anonymity, rigidity and even the politics of some of the big corporations, this was not my real nature.

With this counselling, it dawned on me that my fondness for projects, the close contact with the people and the theme “People” would perhaps be satisfied by working in the NGO area. I loaned books and took to the Internet to learn more about this area. In addition, I got in touch with several people who could tell me more about this field. Filled with motivation and with a new goal ahead of me, I decided to quit the job I had, risk a new turn in my CV and go back to the place that had given me so much. 

Note: Knowing yourself  and knowing the areas you might be interested to pursue are two sides of the same coin. Invest in both (and check footnote 8).

I decide to go back to Cape Town as a volunteer to confirm my new insights. I looked for an organisation in a Township which offered no volunteer program and was not established. Through Google, I came across a website for such an organisation established in the Khayelitsha Township and managed by the local people on a volunteer basis. My gut feeling told me this was exactly the right place for me, which was confirmed when I got there.

The organisation was called Ikhozi Community Child and Youth Organisation (ICCYO), founded in 2005 in the streets of Khayelitsha by people who volunteer for their own community members. Playing a central role in changing the social dialogue around issues of education in Khayelitsha, their aim is to ensure that learners enter the education system as early as possible and stay until tertiary qualification, and in parallel build a base for reforming more complex aspects of the system. To inhibit crime, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy, they offered after school alternative to keep the learners busy. Through core activities like Tutoring Programs they provided academic support from grades 9 – 12, and with Youth Development Sessions they focused on developing life skills and discussing issues like income inequality, xenophobia, sexual identity and others.

I dove deeply into the Xhosa culture and became part of a community where i could experience things that were normally closed to the outside. I gained friends for life, people hit by inequality, lack of opportunities, poverty and bad education in a way that i had never seen before. Nevertheless, I quickly found a connection to them and we remain friends still today.

A prerequisite for my success was my psychological background and my open interest for other cultures. The Xhosa people readily accepted me as a member of their community and even gave me a Xhosa name. I stayed for two nights in Enkanini, one of the most neglected and unsafe places in Khayelitsha. I participated and went to the taverns at night to experience the real life of the community, as well as enquiring and discussing the various elements of the Xhosa culture. Despite facing uncomfortable and dangerous situations, which usually cause anxiety, I was able to keep a calm disposition and to adapt to this environment in a way it did not deter me from engaging on other occasions with the people of Khayelitsha.

Again, i had the best time of my life. I also became aware of how much I could contribute to such organisations, with my professional background and education. During two busy months, I drafted a proposal to fund a project that aimed to involve the parents of in their kids’ education. Inspired by the youth singing skills, I developed a concept and formulated a proposal to record a CD with them. This would involve them in an activity they could lead, while serving as a platform for them and as a promotion and fundraising tool for the organization. Further, I helped them to structure the organization, formalizing the different human resource needs, defining the roles and responsibilities for each volunteer so they could be trained in the necessary skills. During the youth development sessions, I facilitated sessions and focused on cultural exchange by contextualizing how youth in Switzerland live and what they struggle with. I also did motivational talks relating my own personal views for success in life, from a Swiss perspective. Towards the end, I fundraised for a kick-off camp for the youth and organized of a barbecue for them.

 As my two months came to an end, I had to return home to Switzerland. Once again, I had no money and no job, but I knew which way to go. I looked for a job to keep me above water until I could reach my new goal, formulated as: I want to become a Project Manager/Development Office in the field of Education in Africa. Based on my skills, I want to develop projects that help disadvantaged youth and young adults to progress in their lives. I also want to have both the behind-the-desk conceptual work and the direct contact with people on the field. Within this setting, I want to develop and lead something autonomously. Based on my volunteering time in Khayelitsha, I know I can do it. I burst with energy and motivation just from thinking about it. Ideally, I would start right now!

Back in Switzerland, I was able to quickly find a new temporary job in the HR department of a large bank thanks to my SwissLife network. Since I had some time between closing the contract and starting work, I decided to return to Cape Town for 3 weeks, to move a bit further with the project there.

I was slightly overqualified for the HR position I had taken, but at least I could secure a regular income. In addition, the position was in an area which had been indicated by the career counselling. The work itself was not very challenging, but it was tremendously fun to work there due to the young and very pleasant team. This confirmed once again, that people make or break a place for me. Every morning, I happily went to work. In parallel, I tried to come closer to my true goal but this was harder than I had thought.

I pursued three strategies, to develop my dream:

  • I tried to build a network of contacts in the NGO area. I started with a few contacts I had, which led me to other contacts. I grew my network quite strongly, giving me a lot of input, opinions and interesting information.
  • In parallel, I tried to attend different events with topics and participants from the NGO field. Amongst others: Impact Hub, UBS Optimus Foundation, Ashoka, Sustinova, Interteam, Mission 21. I discovered these events online and by registering for their newsletters.
  • To top it all, I looked online for open positions in job portals like Kampajobs, Impactcareers, Devex, Escape the City, etc. or directly at the organisations' websites.

I discovered that such jobs cannot be found in the normal job channels, or maybe that they do not exist at all. Today, i know that many interesting positions are either unpaid or solely offered as internships, while other positions have such a high qualification level that they are only suitable for specialists with many years of experience. Fellowship Programmes, sometimes offered by foundations, are not very frequent and extremely competitive due to the high number of applicants.

Another aspect that made my search difficult was the lack of role models or career models, which would be helpful for knowing what to look for and what to expect. Where are the entry programmes in NGOs for junior-level generalists, who plan a lateral career move and already have collected some experience in the private sector?

As time passed, I continued in my job and, after one year, I was promoted to HR Recruiter. This gave me enough financial safety and allowed me to continue my backup-plan. In addition, I engaged myself as volunteer with Sustinova and on other occasions, so I could remain aware of what was going on.

I also stayed in contact with a South African friend from Khayelitsha, whom I visited for 3 weeks in December 2016 so I could help him to develop his dream further. We tried to establish a youth occupational project in his community, to fulfill his vision of making it a better place to live. The 3 weeks were, of course, too short. Still, what we could do was worth more than the project itself. Every day, from morning to evening, we worked together. We went through the process of defining the idea and structuring the steps to take. By going around the community and asking questions, we came to the conclusion that the best way to help young people was if they could have a job and earn their own money. As such, we started a trash container cleaning business. This was like lighting a spark on my friend, as he suddenly recognised his own potential and the motivation to do something with his own life went through the roof. He directed himself towards the Entrepreneurship and Education areas, learning, attending workshops, conferences, working as a camp leader in the USA and organising talent shows within his community. He created his own agency, which organised youth events, to keep them productively occupied and for which they were awarded later on. I’ve been with him along the way, acting as a coach wherever is skills were (for now) still missing. Maybe, someday, we will lead our organisation together.

A few months before that trip, I had decide to quit my position as HR Recruiter so I could go to East Africa between July and December 2016 and complete a post graduate certificate in Social Management Innovation. Finally, it looked like I had knocked at the right door to enter into the social sector!

This program was a practice-oriented education based on 3 main parts:

  • The technical part had experts teaching us about topics like Leadership, Communication, Entrepreneurship & Management, and Creativity & Problem-Solving in the social sector.
  • Next to it, each student completed an internship at an NGO or social enterprise. In my case, I interned at a slum youth organisation, with the goal of turning this donor-based organisation into a financially capable social enterprise.
  • The main focus was, however, the Social Innovation Management part. During 4 months, we learned through our own projects how social innovation is put in practice. We had to go through the different stages, from the idea to the implementation and the resulting pilot project. My project was aimed, once again, at young people from a slum. The goal was to create a source of regular income and the access to role models and mentoring options. As a solution, we decided to create a tailored touring guide service, where these young people would take tourists through the city and share their personal stories and perspectives during the tour.

Following a successful start phase, I then planned to return to East Africa to take the project further, while taking opportunity jobs with local NGOs to keep myself afloat. This experience seemed to give me a clear goal and an entry point into the world of social change-makers (see footnotes 9 and 10).

Based on what i've seen, I would venture that emerging markets offer the best opportunity to make a start in the area. Compared with Switzerland, where everything is very structured, organised and regulated by the State, emerging markets have a huge potential - particularly in the social sector. Poverty and social inequality are big, the State is mostly amiss regarding social issues and there is no lack of obvious problems that are only waiting to be addressed. At the same time, there are numerous organisations and social enterprises in loco, constantly looking for new people to innovate and establish solutions. This creates an opportunity to quickly build a valuable network in the social sector and take an active role. Given the reasons above, my recommendation to those wanting to advance a career in this sector is to take on a practice-oriented education and/or look towards an emerging market to jump into action.  


The other view

The meaning of an occupation is one of the top considerations for many ETH students, when it comes to starting their professional life after their studies and defining a career. In general, the students look for an employer that they can identify with, an occupation that does not run against their values and that maybe - in the best cases - even makes the world a little bit better.

Many graduates would have the option to work for a non-profit organisation (NGO) but these tend to be absent from their “radar” as they look for opportunities. The main reason is that NGOs are a rare presence at the ETH, failing to promote their brand as employers and to show the professional options within their field. This would be a necessary step for the NGOs, if they want to reach to potential candidates and increase their pool of future options. Even if an organisation has few positions available for recent graduates and instead has its focus on professionals with a few years of experience, by not making itself known next to students and fresh graduates this organisation will later be absent from their radar and career options.

When working in the non-profit area becomes a professional option for students, other important questions tend to emerge: How can I develop myself further? Is working in this area a “one-way street”? What if want to change to the corporate side at a later time, will I be automatically disqualified or will I not be trusted with working in a profit-oriented business? These questions are neither irrelevant nor unjustified.

To address these questions, doubts and uncertainties and be able to captivate the desired ETH talents, it is important for the NGOs to take part in the various existing platforms (Career Events, Job Fairs, Presentations, etc.), to profile themselves and to clarify the diverse professional options. This is actively supported by the ETH Career Centre through, for example, close joint work with cinfo. During the Autumn Semester of 2017, cinfo will make a presentation about the diverse professional options, to clarify questions by both undergraduate and graduate students (Presentation of Cinfo at ETH : 5.10.2017, at 17.15. To be published in September under

SUSTINOVA’s suggestion:

The ETHZ career Centre’s website and team provide a central platform between companies, students and doctoral students as they embark on their careers. To know more, visit:

Beat Geiser, Senior Advisor and Sandra Rothböck, Head Network IC at cinfo kindly provided their insight on our questions below. cinfo ( is the Center for Information, Counselling and Training for Professions relating to International Cooperation. Based in Biel, Switzerland, they provide expert advisory in the field of career development, intercultural and leadership development in international cooperation (IC).

1. For someone trying to enter the NGO world as a professional, which critical points are normal or most frequent? Which personal characteristics are important to have and what should one look for in a potential NGO employer?

SR: As a preliminary remark, it is important to realize that development/international cooperation and humanitarian aid are not exclusively a NGO world. Many other types of organizations are active and increasingly more relevant: government institutions, international organisations (e.g. UN, World Bank), foundations, consultant firms, other private actors, social enterprises and others. CINFO provides a view and information about careers in several of these here:

When it comes to critical points and requirements to enter the sector, it depends. IC has a tremendous variety of jobs to offer. There is a trend for fewer jobs to be available in Switzerland and more abroad, in increasingly fragile contexts. What employers in the sector are normally looking for is:

  • A post-graduation;
  • Experience working abroad, skills and experience in a field and/or experience and insight into how development cooperation works  e.g., cooperation between organisations and institutions;
  • Multiple language skills;
  • High level of motivation and resilience;
  • Readiness and ability to work abroad in difficult environments, with high intercultural competence (not just “sensibility”);
  • Need to be value-based and passionate about the cause of the work. However, passion without skills and knowledge is not enough.

2.     Which profile might have the best chance to enter in the field and stay for a longer period: an inexperienced all-rounder, a young professional, a specialist or a professional manager?

BG: This is a tough question, since it mixes various issues. It is difficult to answer since there is no “single size fits all”. On cinfo’s website, we tried to provide a good overview of different cases and career pathways. Please read:

As a shorter answer, an inexperienced all-rounder might have a chance to do an internship in Headquarters, hence in Switzerland. But that does not give an entry into the sector.  A young professional with Swiss nationality with 1 year in the case of the UN Youth volunteer programme or 2-3 years relevant experience in the case of the Young Professional Programme has the chance to get a young professional opportunity at the UN, for example. Usually NGOs have fewer opportunities for young professionals and prefer instead a professional manager who is willing to work abroad. There is a growing demand from the Multilateral Organisations for Swiss senior professionals with experience in the private sector.

3.     Many companies offer a career path or development opportunities as part of their HR and business management strategies, with the goal of increasing employee attraction, retention and satisfaction. However, in the NGO sphere this approach seems largely absent. Is this the case and, if so, what are the reasons for it?

BG: NGOs tend to have fewer resources available and therefore have less fine-tuned HR Policies on staff development programmes than the private sector. One reason is that their funding is based on projects and therefore time-dependent. Hence, the majority of staff tends to work for a limited time period and might move on. It is increasingly difficult for NGOs to provide job security for employees and this reflects the overall trend of the labour market as well.

4.     During a previous discussion, it was mentioned that "there are no careers" in the NGO world. Is this a general note of caution or an unavoidable reality, meaning that any experience in the NGO world should be seen as temporary and conditional to having a return plan? Or does it mean that one has to be prepared to jump from NGO to NGO, while building competences and a track record in order to secure a longer-lasting position?

BG: The typical career in an NGO, or in the UN for that matter, used to be that you started young and gradually moved up the ladder to senior management positions within the same Organisation. The sector has undergone changes during the last years. As mentioned above, project-based employment dominates and professionals move from being project managers to being consultants and vice-versa. This brings both opportunities and challenges and requires new ways for organisations and employees to engage with each other.

While organisations cannot guarantee continuous employment, they surely try to retain qualified and good professionals by providing bridging solutions till new projects emerge or allocate some funds to keep projects running until they get an extension. But, yes, it happens that people jump from one NGO to another, particularly if they are specialised in the area they are working on.

5.     How is the work/life/family balance in the International Cooperation? Are there consistent good practices or is it largely a non-topic? 

BG: For many people in the NGO world, particularly when active in the field and more so in Humanitarian Aid, it is difficult to find a work life balance. This is for many people still a vocation and less a job. So, the world of work and life are often blurred. People need to be passionate. One needs to be prepared, if one enters a career in IC, to work hard and not count hours.

The issue depends highly on the context and type of work. It is difficult to compare a family duty station with a position in Switzerland or an assignment in fragile contexts in humanitarian aid. What about the career of my partner? It is certainly an issue to consider and is a concern for NGOs, and international organisations.

6.     The world of IC and NGOs in particular is frequently seen from the outside as "underfunded, under-paying, do-good work"? How much does this reflect reality?

SR: IOs and NGOs are value-driven organisation and people usually work there not because it is a well-paying employment opportunity. These organisations usually offer another work environment where non-monetary aspects make up for a lower salary and compel people to stay. Being able to work in an area where you can truly identify with the values of the organisation is a wonderful thing. However, yes, there is an issue with lower salaries. But people can live and often get in-kind support when they live abroad, which makes the package and quality of life abroad attractive.

7.     It seems common to work in the corporate sector, spend a few years working in the NGO sector and then try to (re)ingress in the corporate world. What are the normal reasons for this? What are the most common challenges in this transition and how to prepare for them?

SR: I still think this is rather rare. Working in IC, and particularly when abroad gives little opportunities to make the skills and experience acquired visible enough in Switzerland. Swiss employers still tend to prefer experience and qualifications obtained in Switzerland. The big challenge is to recognise and to make visible the acquired skills, and to understand and make understand how they are transferrable.

8.     The last years have seen an increase in the so-called "social businesses", which overlap with the area of action of NGOs. Many of these are start-ups, fed by an entrepreneurial spirit and a wish to change things fast and in a non-bureaucratic way. Has this development affected how the NGOs need to position/profile themselves and respond to potential applicants? In parallel, has there been a rise in the "intrapeneurial" wave, as in the corporate world?

SR: Yes and no, NGOs in general have become more entrepreneurial too by approaching social problems with a more market-based approach. Additionally, NGOs are seeking funding increasingly from the private sector. Reduced funding from the government and increased funding provided by foundations and CSR (note: Corporate social responsibility) programs has led to such a shift. Also internally, some NGOs function a bit like enterprises, submitting their offers and having to invest quite a lot in acquisition of work.

SUSTINOVA’s suggestion:

cinfo’s website and team provide a wealth of information in the field of IC, available positions and professional development options.  We suggest visiting their site or events, or signing up to their newsletter ( or to cinfoposte, their job portal (


Footnotes & suggested readings

  1. Chapter 1 | On Generation Y and work: Handelszeitung, Delloitte's Millennial Survey 2017 and a self-portrait
  2. Chapter 1 | Challenges for HR: Tages Anzeiger and Harvard Business Review
  3. Chapter 1 | PWC’s view, NextGen study and follow-up (PDF, English, 3Mb) 
  4. Chapter 1 | More information on IDEO and «Human-centered Design Thinking»:
  5. Chapter 3 | "Work-Life-balance": a modern invention? Roman Krznaric has some interesting thoughts on How to Find Fulfilling Work (Chapter 1 freely available) and on recovering "Carpe Diem".
  6. Chapter 3 | Check BMeaningful/MaRS white paper "The Insider’s Guide to Finding Meaningful Work and Attracting Top Talent" and two additional reads on Harvard Business Review: "How to Build a Meaningful Career", by Amy Gallo, and "Developing a Strategy for a Life of Meaningful Labor", by Brian Fetherstonhaugh.
  7. Chapter 3 | You might be lost but you are not alone! Check Stanford Business' "Five Strategies for Making a Career Pivot" and Career Shifter's "How To Change Career When You Have No Idea What You're Doing"
  8. Chapter 4 | A very useful resource is Net Impact's Impact Career Profiles, complemented by Charity Village's recommendations for students entering the nonprofit world. Additionally, check BMeaningful's Career Paths section, including their "Best of Career Advice" and tips for a career in Social Impact and in Corporate Social Responsibility.
  9. Chapter 5 | Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), a very useful resource in itself, gives a view on who are the Change Makers, and whether one's role should be to Agitate, Innovate, or Orchestrate.
  10. Chapter 5 | Podcast from Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, on Promoting Social Entrepreneurship Among Youth.

And some additional resources:


Do you have any suggestions? Let us know!


Comments (4)

Interested reader (not verified)- Sep 18, 2017 11:14 AM Reply

Thank you for the interesting texts. I'm curious to see where it leads. Daniel seems to be an ambitious and self-confident person, with a good amount of energy.

He does not want a "traditional" career but he's at a big firm and (so far) seems to have collected experience mostly in these. Were these the only options, or just the easiest ones? Given his interests, has he actually tried working with an NGO? Or what about a social/impact business, which seem to be everywhere nowadays?

Gen Y people are described as a challenge for HR, to the work structures and value/reward system, but the search for a broader social meaning in a job is not new. There are many "older" people which also re-orient themselves for similar reasons. They just run out of fashion, like the Millenials :)

But - going to the starting question of this blog - do the NGOs even try to attract these professionals (young and old) and what's their competitive positioning? Given that NGOs exist by convincing donors about their cause, the communication skill is probably there and it's just the strategic orientation that is missing? That seems to connect with the comment from Mrs Kappel fom the ETH, about the lack of profiling by NGOs (she should know, given her position).

When you look at job rankings and career advice, NGOs are usually not in the top list of alternatives. Seems that if you want to advance your skillset, work in a professional structure or simply have a certain financial stability, an NGO is not a smart move. Maybe they don't need it, or maybe their marketing/communication fails there...
Would be interesting to hear from an NGO too!

Looking at the growth of the social/impact business model, which could work as a disruptor to the traditional charity model, i would be looking carefully to that side if i was an NGO. Does Daniel - our one-person sample of the Gen Y - have a preference?

Paulo Morais's picture
Paulo Morais- Sep 25, 2017 11:42 PM Reply

Thank you for your comprehensive comment! I'll address some of the questions on behalf of Daniel.
As we will see in the coming chapters, Daniel did try to work for NGOs but encountered some challenges which we writes about. There is also an interest of his on social business, for certain.
Regarding if and how NGOs try to attract professionals and the challenges they face, we will publish a contribution from cinfo ( with the next chapter. They have a good inside perspective of the field, given the work they do. Stay tuned :)
And i agree that keeping an eye for disrupters in the NGO field is worth it. There are - in my opinion - a lot of attempted innovations and open questions in this sector, even if apparently few take hold and change happens slowly. Paradoxically, many aspects about how this sector works are not in the public's radar, despite how much the NGOs try to engage with and depend on public goodwill to legitimise their work and, to an extent, secure funding.

Daniel (not verified)- Oct 01, 2017 04:11 PM Reply

Hi, this is Daniel. Thank you very much for your comment!

Working for big firms were neither the only options, nor the easiest ones. At this time, I had just thought it would suit me well and the social sector had not been on my radar yet. Currently, I am working for a social impact business in Africa. The coming chapters will clarify, how I ended up there.

I totally agree with you on the social enterprises, which interrupt the NGO market. I definitely prefer the entrepreneurial approach since it is, in my opinion, always the best way to solve problems. NGOs often fail as they often base their initiatives on assumptions without doing rigorous "market research" and therefore not targeting the real demand. However, from an employee's perspective, it can highly lucrative working for an NGO, especially when earning a Swiss salary in a development country. And some problems, with an urgent need, can only be solved through charity.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon!

Sébastien (not verified)- Oct 31, 2017 01:35 PM Reply

Very motivating read, where I could see myself in different parts of your story and am still facing some similar questions, being 26. I hope that you’ll be able to start your new goal very soon.



Contact us

We look forward to hearing from you

For specific inquiries, please contact one of our team members directly.

For general requests, please use our contact form on the right side or send us an e-mail.

We will get back to you soon.