What I learned working for a huge INGO: relationships matter. More than you think. On top of everything else, you have to have good people skills in this business. Which makes sense, since this job is – after all – about people.
What I learned working for a tiny little INGO that almost no one’s ever heard of: Acting and seeming and actually being professional matter. Probably more than you think. Also, you don’t have to be huge to make a big difference: you can do great, effective work with a budget in the tens of thousands of USD.
What I learned working in Asia*: Things take as long as they take. Yes, meet reporting deadlines, keep appointments, follow-through on time-bound commitments. But build enough time in to project, programs and strategies to do things right. Good aid does not happen overnight.
What I learned working in Africa*: Don’t judge people, places, or situations based on superficial appearances. Invest in understanding. It took me far too long to “get” this one.
What I learned doing long-term development work: We get far more from the people we try to help than they get from us. This is true even when “your” project or program is extremely successful. Always keep that in perspective.
What I learned doing disaster relief work: People need what they need, and want what they want. Just because disaster survivors or refugees have nothing doesn’t mean that you can give them just anything. Just because the pressure is on doesn’t mean that a crap response is good enough.
What I learned from being the “boss”: Be straight with your employees about what you can do and what you can’t, what you know and what you don’t. Admit it when you’re wrong, apologize when needed. Get tough, throw down, clean house, lop off heads in private if you have to… but never ever ever throw your staff under the bus.
What I learned from being an underling: Good bosses are rare in the aid world. Know the difference between a good boss and a bad one. If you’re fortunate enough to have a good one, forgive his/her foibles and pay the rest forward.
What I learned from large, government grant management: Cross the “T’s” and dot the “I’s.” Learn to sense when the intangible cost of a government grant is too high, and walk away.
What I learned from working with small, unrestricted private funds: These are gifts from the gods. Use them wisely.
What I learned sitting in airport lounges: Keep your voice down, don’t diss your competition/NGO colleague organizations, and always be respectful to airline staff (even if they don’t give you your way). In short, don’t be a wanker. All this if for no other reason than that the person behind you might be a widely-read aid blogger who will call you out in a snarky post or tweet about you the next day.
What I learned in coordination meetings: Be nice. You can disagree without getting nasty. The aid world is a small one – an argument supposedly “won” in one relief zone can come back to bite you in another one.
*In case it’s not obvious, these apply to all regions of the world. It just happened that I learned them in Asia and Africa, respectively.