When you start working with International non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in administration, nothing can prepare you for the complexity that comes with the job. Many NGO’s operate on project budgets so administrators tend to be down the list of priorities – usually technical, strategic and communications related positions are prioritised.

For NGO’s that are set up for permanency, from my experience administrators tend to be low paying, high turnover positions. Good administrators often are moved about from one position to position internally, thus not giving stability to work processes. This is excellent for administrators to have that level of trust and responsibility, but it still means high turnover of administrative positions.

Growing in a Job

Depending on the NGO you may have a mixture of temporary or permanent positions. Permanent positions are wonderful for stability, but the risk is that once you know it you become fixed to that job and are not able to grow and advance. Temporary positions are fixed periods, and you cannot be guaranteed job security. If you do your work well though, your reputation as an administrator will grow, and new work opportunities will hopefully come through.

What makes you good at a job? Is it your people skills? Ability to meet deadlines? Ability to multi-task? No matter how excellent you make a tea or coffee, this should not define your ability to do your job! An NGO is an intricate web, and I like to think administrators are the connections that hold it all together. The NGO may be 5 people, or 5000 people, but without good administrators I don’t think an NGO can be truly successful: from the junior assistant to the office manager to the executive secretary.

Administrators need to find a rhythm/style of working together. Don’t expect your NGO to give you more time to share and grow as a group though – it’s still a challenge to get visibility for administrative training and skills building, but if you’re all talking and sharing together that’s a victory in itself. I don’t know how many times there have been team retreats where no administrators have been invited, then concern as to why administrators don’t know what’s going on.

Language and communication

One of the biggest challenges in International NGOs is language. There will be a common language of the organisation (possibly more than one), but that won’t make it any easier to communicate. There are so many variables to consider when working with colleagues, and it can take many months and years to work out the best approach for you. This is a one-on-one process, and as an administrator you want anyone you work with on your side, so when the pressure is on you can do your job well. It took me quite a while to ‘get my ear in’ to colleagues’ accents – it takes time so be patient.


You email a colleague from China with some questions for an important meeting which is time sensitive. You receive a reply to your email but it doesn’t give you the information you asked for. What do you do next?

Option 1: You respond via email and re-advise what you need, mark it urgent, underline the deadline and bold key information

Option 2: You go to your boss and tell them that your colleague has not given you what you need and you can’t deliver the information for the meeting

Option 3: You call your colleague at an appropriate time (taking into account time zones) and talk them through clearly what your email is about, find out what urgent information you can quickly confirm during the call, ask them if they have any questions, and re-confirm the next steps with them.

Hopefully you will have thought Option 3 was the best step forward. If not, consider what could be the obstacles for your colleague to provide you the information you need. Did you explain it clearly enough? Did you keep your language simple and professional? Have you allowed enough time for your colleague to respond? Don’t use slang or sarcasm when corresponding with colleagues – it’s not appropriate in normal work circumstances, and across different cultures slang and sarcasm it’s not even recognised.

Get creative with your support

From my experience you find your way of dealing with colleagues often through trial and error. I had one person who I knew would always miss deadlines, and it reflected badly on my delivery of the work. Eventually after a few frustrating emails and tense talks, I realised what my colleague needed was a ‘fake’ deadline, and a phone call the day before to remind them of the deadline, and the understanding that it was okay to be a couple of days late, because I was not going to miss my actual deadline. We found a way to work together well, and this came from understanding what the barrier was and offering solutions.

The most productive meeting are usually because of administrators who make sure everything is well prepared, have catered for requirements and last minute requests, checked and double-checked the timings, have a backup plan for when (inevitably) something goes wrong. You may not get praise for most things you do (and do well), but great leaders will recognise how important you are and the work you do. Celebrate your successes.


Administration for NGOs is very much ‘who you know’. Don’t be scared to introduce yourself to a CEO, Project lead, technical consultant, but if you do make sure you know what you’re going to say and do a bit of research to know who they are and what they do – be prepared!

Do the basics well. Administration can vary greatly in terms of needs for NGOs. Much of your work will come with pressure, sometimes lack of planning, and frequently an often and unrealistic expectation you can do anything and everything. There’s a level of confidence you need to display, but if you don’t ask for help. You’ll become a better person for asking, and in time you’ll be trusted more to make decisions on your own.

There are estimated more than 10 million NGO’s in the world and they want the right people working for them, so be the best you can be and you’ll be great!