Dedication to a cause

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 July, 2006, 12:00am

NON-STATE bodies, such as Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play an increasingly important role in the community as representatives of public interest and as an alternative to direct state action. Yet, they are often overlooked as a career option.

Modern NGOs offer ample opportunities to develop an exciting and meaningful career as they are increasingly taking part in a variety of activities. Some of their big projects involve relief efforts, programme development, policy research, advocacy and many other activities.

Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, summed it up perfectly.

'It's just [about] people getting involved in their own society - that's what NGOs are,' he said.

For job seekers, it is important to find the type of organisation they are interested in. Whether they want a more hands-on role in an operational NGO or to work in an advocacy and educational role with a campaigning NGO is important for their career satisfaction.

'There is more and more specialisation. It's important to focus and find your specialisation. Don't think of human rights as a whole - focus on one area,' Mr Fernando said.

Chong Chan-yau, senior adviser at Oxfam Hong Kong, said people coming to this area must believe in their job. There was an organisation to suit everybody's passion and if there was an issue that a person really related to, they would become more motivated.

One of the big challenges that NGOs have faced in recent years is improving accountability and fund management. Reports on misappropriation of funds and mismanagement have urged many NGOs to increase transparency and accountability in their work.

Mr Chong said NGOs were adopting many private sector accountability procedures to improve their fund management and public perception.

Improvements in such areas will not only improve public confidence in NGOs but will also have the benefit of making them more attractive workplaces. A more professional approach to accountability by NGOs shows a general trend towards professionalism. Earlier, the relative lack of professionalism was often due to a lack of funds.

Mr Fernando said: 'For a long time, NGOs were seen as guys holding placards and giving out leaflets. We are trying to promote a more professional image.'

Organisations comprised volunteers and part-time workers, which made it hard to establish coherent company policies. This was one of the biggest challenges facing NGOs.

In the next few years, if NGOs are to continue their move towards professionalism, they will need to attract further investment.

Although people are more than willing to donate to direct causes such as disaster relief and developmental programmes, persuading them to invest for other purposes, such as policy work or training, is more difficult.

Mr Chong said: 'People like to give to campaign issues [but] it is far more difficult to get them to contribute to policy research or training. This is something we need to approach more creatively.'

Nevertheless, NGOs are increasingly taking on full-time staff and training them when they have the funds. A lack of funds can make working in this industry difficult but Mr Fernando encourages people with professional skills to seriously consider a career with such organisations.

'Someone with professional skills is of great use to us and making the switch is becoming more and more attractive,' he said.

'NGOs are always looking for [people] with professional skills such as lawyers, accountants and civil servants [because] their skills are easily transferable.'

There is good potential for growth in the field. With governments increasingly relying on such organisations to assist or take over tasks the state usually controlled, there is a growing need for staff.

Unfortunately, the lack of funds often prevents such organisations from taking up more tasks. However, there is a silver lining to the problem.

According to Mr Fernando, opportunities are opening up as businesses are realising the importance of corporate responsibility.

Most of these opportunities are in the area of fund management and fund-raising.

NGOs need people who are able to raise money for them. This can be challenging because persuading people to part with their money can be difficult if they do not see a return on their investment. But, Mr Fernando feels there are other rewards.

'For example, if a law firm does business in a certain country where the rule of law is ignored, it severely limits their ability to operate. They therefore have a vested interest in seeing the rule of law improved and that's where we can help,' he said.

Once an organisation gets the necessary funding, it can offer jobs in several areas.

NGO work is increasingly becoming a career choice for people who have skills and want to exercise their social responsibility. Opportunities in this sector will continue to grow because of improved work practices and better relationships with the business community in the region.


Programme officer

Policy research officer



Line manager



Non-governmental organisation. A company working for the public good and not focused solely on profits

Campaigning NGO

An organisation that focuses on implementing policy and education

Operational NGO

An organisation that focuses on doing field work


Supporting and promoting a certain cause


Formulating solutions and forward planning in response to current events