| by Sierra Abukins

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Worthington, Sam

Sam Worthington, former CEO of InterAct.

Working in international development is a “tremendous way to spend your time,” says Sam Worthington MAIPS ’84, who recently shared advice for people just starting their careers in the field.

The international development sector is enormous and incredibly diverse with lots of different entry points and kinds of jobs.

Worthington got a unique view into the sector during his 16 years as the CEO of InterAction, the nation’s largest alliance of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

A “third culture” kid who grew up in five countries on three continents, his interest was sparked when his family moved to Venezuela and he witnessed huge injustices and a lack of international response. He graduated from the Middlebury Institute with a degree in International Policy Studies (now called International Policy and Development) in 1984 and was attracted to working in NGOs, which he saw could get to the table and advance and implement new ideas in ways that governments sometimes couldn’t. He recently shared some of his top tips for people just starting their careers in international development.

“This next generation is taking on some of the world’s biggest challenges. Don’t shy away from them, because you can actually make some positive things happen,” said Worthington.

He recently shared his top five tips for people just starting in the field.

Network—But That Doesn’t Mean What You Think

Networking is not “I know a million people and I have connections with them because I’ve talked to them once.” The real network is the person you spend some time with and you’ve built a relationship. It’s creating a group of individuals who are willing to answer your call, willing to talk with you and advise you and who may, over time, help you find a job.

That includes faculty—it also includes your classmates. One of my first jobs was sharing a desk across from someone who ended up running Food for Peace and is now a global leader in food security. We were just two 20-somethings. A career is 30 to 40 years of time, and you are building that foundation right now. 

The nice thing is that a lot of professionals want to mentor individuals who are just starting in their careers. The essence is finding a few champions who could help you. Internships are a good way, and I’m glad to say the number of paid internships is increasing.

Go Where the Jobs Are and Start Doing What’s Needed

If you’re looking for more field-oriented work, be willing to travel to places outside many people’s comfort zones and learn a language (or two or three). It might mean working for a local NGO or a local nonprofit for $500 a month and living in a small town. There you will find oftentimes a lot more entry-level jobs than you’re going to get in the capitals of the world. There are fewer of those roles, as things are localized, but there are ways to break in starting there. 

If you’re looking for something in headquarters or Washington, D.C., there are all sorts of different ways that people can get in. Nonprofits have to write proposals. Proposal development is a skill set that requires individuals, and there are enormous amounts of work. There is also policy and advocacy work.

It can be a little more direct to go into the contractor community, which is sort of the for-profit world. They tend to hire more people, at least from the U.S. 

CEO of InterAct
Sam Worthington, former CEO of InterAction.

Build the Skills that NGOs Need: Writing, Budgets, Management, Intercultural Communications, Emotional Intelligence, Policy, Research

So much of what I learned in graduate school I am still using. 

It’s amazing how many people don’t understand the basic concepts of what a bureaucracy is and how bureaucracy works. And they’re saying, “Well, I have an idea. They must adopt it.” Well, “they” is a complex entity or public administration, and if you don’t understand that, you’re not going to change much. You’re inevitably dealing with some form of country context or political context. And if you don’t have a sense of the political context, how can you begin to offer value? 

The intensity of grad school was helpful. That’s what you’re going to get into and need—an ability to think on your feet, to debate. It’s not as if the learning ends. 

You need the softer skills. Can you live in a multicultural environment? Do you understand diplomacy or have an ability to explain one world to another? Can you operate across different cultures and different norms?

There has to be this tremendous respect for local knowledge. There has to be a sense of both empathy and support for peers you’re working with.
— Sam Worthington

Approach All You Do with a Tremendous Respect for Local Knowledge

I’m a strong believer that human change and human development are local and best done by people for themselves. So that’s a premise that I’d start with. I also start with the idea that people should be able to help each other, and that we can learn across cultures, so there’s value in the global nature of this enterprise. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person who’s coming from the global side of things is going to be the one who does the work.

The global side of development now is linking, bridging knowledge across different areas, bringing resources across different places. It is not necessarily rolling up your sleeves and doing something to help someone else directly. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fascinating. Doesn’t mean that you aren’t directly involved in some way in helping people’s lives. It does mean that there has to be this tremendous respect for local knowledge. There has to be a sense of both empathy and support for peers you’re working with. I think the world is getting flatter in that area. We’re talking about broader issues of inclusion and social justice.

I think that a world where everyone is sort of looking after themselves or, you know, “our country first” is actually a very unhealthy world. The world we’re looking for is a world where individuals are networked with each other. It’s not necessarily linear.

Persist: It Can Be Hard to Break into the International Development Sector, but It’s Worth It

Like some careers, especially areas where people are passionate and where there’s a sense of purpose, there are a lot of people trying to get in. It’s often hard to break into, but don’t let that dissuade you. When I graduated from the Middlebury Institute, I was a Fulbright Scholar and thought I was doing pretty well. I applied to a whole bunch of NGOs and was roundly rejected by one after another. It wasn’t that I wasn’t qualified—it just required a degree of persistence that was beyond what I thought was going to be the case. 

It’s worth it. You’ll get far more out of it than you put in, and it’s just a tremendous way to spend one’s time.