Richard Davill: Volunteering is the number one factor in starting your career as a humanitarian

The Solomon Islands

Richard Davill  Richard Davill

Richard Davill (MSc Disasters, Adaptation & Development, 2015) is a United Nations Volunteer with the United Nations Development Programme in the Solomon Islands. A small-town northerner, he has grand plans that continue to lead to strange, challenging but exciting experiences. 

As a humanitarian worker, people often ask me how they can go about getting a job in the sector. There are a number of factors that can prove important when applying for that first role: a second language, experience, money, luck, even gender. But for me what made the biggest difference was volunteering. In fact, in most cases it’s the only vehicle available to start the process. Here’s why:

Meeting the requirements

My CV was taking shape, I’d achieved a merit in my master’s degree in Disaster, Adaptation & Development from King’s and had three years solid experience as an emergency planning officer in London. I thought I was ready to begin my career as a humanitarian worker, but I couldn’t get over the first hurdle – finding an entry-level position. It would take me another three years to find my first role in the sector.

Humanitarian jobs often have particular requirements such as a second language or field experience. Many entry-level positions ask for at least a year or two of relevant progressive experience in a humanitarian setting. These type of roles don’t really seem to be entry-level positions at all. That’s because they aren’t. The nature of the industry is that the real entry-level positions are volunteer ones.

You may see some jobs with lower specs that seem easier to meet, but the organisation nearly always has someone in mind for the role before advertising it. You’ll need to already be on their radar to be in with a chance, which means you need to start…

Meeting the right people

Having a network is vital. The humanitarian sector is a close-knit community and employers like to recruit tried and tested people. Having someone know you who is able to recommend you makes a huge difference. Shameless networking, done by dropping into random social events or conferences, is never as effective as working with people and building professional and trusted working relationships. This can only be achieved by working in the sector and the most common way to do that at the beginning? You guessed it, volunteering.

Volunteering in the Solomon Islands

Raleigh International demonstrating how to build hand washing stations in rural Tanzania

Gaining field experience

A high value is placed on the places and situations you’ve been as a humanitarian. Even for many non-operational positions experience in the field is often highly desirable. It’s one of the hardest elements to build in your career as even volunteering opportunities rarely offer direct humanitarian field experience. The route I took was to gain experience in challenging development settings (through volunteering), which then worked as a bridge to humanitarian environments. My first field posting was a six-month volunteer position as a team leader on a youth development and rural livelihoods project in the southern highlands of Tanzania. It was very different work from what I do now, but the experiences gained from being in the field have proven invaluable.

Is it worth it?

I’m not going to lie, it’s not necessarily going to be easy. Many people around you won’t understand what you’re doing or see the end goal. People will challenge you on your life choices, taking unpaid or low paid positions one after the other. But volunteering experience really is key to finding a job as a humanitarian. My friends who’ve made the leap into the sector all did it though this route. Some were luckier than others. One friend, who volunteered whilst studying at King’s, landed herself a great position with a major International NGO straight after she graduated. Another spent the best part of a year looking for an opportunity before finally landing an unpaid internship. Within two weeks the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar escalated and he was deployed immediately. Within a few weeks of his return he was offered a position as a junior officer within the organisation.

You can’t see what will happen when you start out on this journey. The important thing is to find a way to make it work. When people ask me about getting a job as a humanitarian that’s what I tell them. Volunteering often means making sacrifices but it can be incredibly rewarding. I’ve had so many adventures, met such a diverse range of amazing people and challenged myself to grow into someone so much stronger than I was. All through volunteering. So if this is your dream, go make it happen and good luck.

If you would like to share your story, why not get in touch? Email with a short bio and a summary of the story you would like to tell.


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