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Writing for the NGO Community
by Kimberly Baldwin Radford

Return to International Freelancing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Imagine 38,000 potential markets for your writing skills, excluding books, magazines and newspapers. That's how many different non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are estimated to be operating worldwide -- literally thousands of unique and diverse freelance opportunities for the global writer to explore.

If NGOs and their acronyms conjure up visions of covert military operations, think again. Non-governmental organizations are private, not-for-profit, non-partisan organizations that generally perform humanitarian functions. They often directly assist or are part of a nation's infrastructure, contributing to such diverse sectors as education, agriculture, development, health and economy.

Many NGOs such as CARE, Save the Children or Medecins Sans Frontieres are secular, while others, such as World Vision, Catholic Relief Services and Habitat for Humanity, may have a religious affiliation. International (INGO) or local (LNGO) are two other important designations. INGOs usually have an international headquarters and work in many different countries. An LNGO, while sometimes affiliated with an INGO, has offices in only one country. These two characteristics may affect an NGO's writing and translation needs.

What Can Writers Offer the NGO Community?

1. Proposals and Reports. NGOs depend upon funding to carry out their activities. Their ability to get funding is usually related to submitting articulate, succinct proposals that have carefully followed all of the guidelines required by the donor -- a process also known as grant writing. Retaining funding is likewise dependent on carrying out the activities outlined in the proposal, and in describing them to the donor in timely, well-written reports.

Good proposal and report writing is an art form. It requires an economy of word and clarity of meaning that experienced writers are accustomed to producing. Following proposal guidelines is not unlike following writer's guidelines, although proposal guidelines can be far more exacting.

Writing proposals and reports for NGOs often requires technical knowledge about the type of project activities the NGO performs, including specialized terms and development strategies. Since many proposals are written as a team, a lack of specialized knowledge may not be a problem; however, this is an important point to clarify as you market your skills.

2. Proofreading and Editing. For many INGOs, a primary objective is to "nationalize" the country office, meaning that all projects and activities will eventually be managed and carried out by local staff. While this is an important goal, it can create linguistic challenges for both INGOs and LNGOs: Non-native English speakers may be required to submit proposals and reports in professional and often technical English. Here is where a native English- speaking writer can be of tremendous assistance in editing and proofreading materials that will be submitted to or shared with a primarily English-speaking audience.

In addition, proofreading and editing may be needed for training materials, survey reports, project evaluations, proceedings of major meetings/workshops, professional presentations, technical papers, employee and policy manuals, brochures, newsletters, websites, and translated materials.

3. Public Relations Material. NGOs need PR materials for a variety of reasons: to raise money, to describe services to their beneficiaries, to inform the public (both locally and abroad) about their accomplishments, and to distinguish themselves from other NGOs.

Writers experienced in producing public relations materials may find a ready market for their skills, particularly if they have additional talents in photography, desktop publishing or website development. Brochures and newsletters are a common type of PR material produced in-country; locally developed web sites are also becoming more widespread. Keep in mind that there is usually a certain amount of PR copy generated by an INGO's headquarters; tapping into their PR department can also be a source of potential writing assignments. Many INGO headquarters produce magazines or newsletters that are open to freelance submissions.

While writing for NGOs may be one option, writing about NGOs is another possible avenue. NGOs combating social, economic or environmental problems in unique ways may be good candidates for stories submitted to national or city papers and magazines. Also consider publications near an NGO's international headquarters. If the headquarters is in Minneapolis, would a Minneapolis-based paper be interested in the story?

Lastly, look for less obvious "tie-ins" that may lead to other markets. Did an NGO distribute eyeglasses that were donated by the Lions Club? The Lions Club (as well as other service organizations) has its own magazine that might be interested in the story. Was a forest saved because farmers were taught new agricultural practices? An environmental publication could be interested in a write-up.

4. Assisting with IEC Development. High-tech media changes are reaching the most remote areas on earth, and many NGOs are attempting to adapt their teaching and training approaches accordingly. IEC development -- Information, Education and Communication -- is a growing field amongst development strategies. Projects that formerly relied on flipcharts or blackboards to convey information on family planning may now be using videos or audiocassettes; employee-training videos are also widely accepted. Information that was taught in lecture style is now presented in engaging scenarios or melodramas on television. Radio and TV public service announcements (PSAs) may be employed by NGOs addressing issues with broad social implications (deforestation, stopping the spread of AIDS, etc.).

To be effective, all of these IEC formats must be in the language and cultural context of the country in which they are to be used. In countries lacking sophisticated national media and communications, there may be a lack of experienced people to act as technical advisors for these projects. That's where you, the writer, can help. Do you have experience in scriptwriting? Developing PSAs? Designing educational materials? Market these skills along with more traditional writing approaches and you may create your own unique niche as a freelance NGO consultant.

Networking with the NGO Community

The key to networking amongst NGOs is to find someone who is working with an NGO in your region and ask how he or she would do it! Although the networks and links between NGOs vary by country, here are a few strategies that can assist you in connecting with your local NGO community:

  • Locate NGO Membership Organizations. In some locales, membership organizations have been established to facilitate communication and cooperation between NGOs. These associations usually help to organize larger forums that NGOs may contribute to or collaborate on certain topics -- think of them as a "Chamber of Commerce" for the NGO community. Inquire about upcoming meetings, CV/resume databases, NGO directories, newsletters (mail or electronic), and any other possibilities for making your services known.

  • Ask Your Embassy. Embassies frequently have funding programs that assist NGOs, so they are often well aware of what NGOs are operating, and where. Ask for materials on NGOs, open meetings that you might attend, embassy-sponsored social events available to expatriates, etc. Be sure to attend equipped with a generous stack of business cards.

  • Think Global. If your lifestyle demands frequent moves to other countries, remember that the NGO community does not just extend intranationally, but internationally as well. Get letters of reference on letterhead from the NGOs for which you have consulted. Request names and contact information for people working with the same NGO in your destination country. Keep in touch with former associates and let them know if you would be willing to return for special writing projects.

  • Practice Discretion. A word of caution: Don't confuse the humanitarian agenda of NGOs with perpetual warm fuzzies and a "let's join together to save the world" mentality. While there is collaboration and cooperation on certain levels, there is also a great deal of competition for an ever-shrinking pool of donor dollars. In a writing or editing capacity -- particularly of proposals -- you may be privy to information about strategies and activities that are considered unique to that NGO. Do not offer them as examples when working for other organizations. Once a project is underway, that's a different story, but in the conception and fund-seeking stages, discretion is crucial to your future in this field.

Opportunities to write for and about NGOs are as many and varied as the NGOs themselves. Whatever the issue -- whether it's combating illiteracy, protecting endangered species, eliminating polio, reducing food shortages, safeguarding human rights, preserving historical landmarks -- an NGO somewhere is working on it. As an international writer, working with the NGO community will open your eyes to a whole new range of interesting, life- changing -- and often life-saving -- activities occurring in your host country.

Helpful Sites:

Links to Australian NGOs working overseas.

Charities Directory
UK and international charities and NGOs.

Charity Choice
A directory of UK charities.

Charity Portal
Another directory of UK charities and UK-sponsored international charities.

Charity Village
"Canada's supersite for the non-profit sector" is extremely user- friendly and visually appealing. Find links to Canadian NGOs working abroad.

The Grantsmanship Center
Excellent resources and publications for developing well-written proposals.

Information and links to US-based INGOs.

NGO Cafe
An excellent overview of INGOs; useful links.

The Union of International Associations
Calling itself a "clearinghouse for information on over 40,000 international non-profit organizations and constituencies," this site boasts links to over 11,000 web sites.

Copyright © 2000 Kimberly Baldwin Radford
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Kimberly Baldwin Radford is a writer and public health consultant currently residing in Tamatave, Madagascar. She has worked for NGOs in the United States, Honduras, Bangladesh, China and Cambodia, writing on topics ranging from safety belt usage to maternal/child health to anti-tobacco issues. Kim also writes travel and cultural features for both adult and children's markets. Visit her online at http://www.facebook.com/kbrmg.


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