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There are no silos in working for better lives, Wisdom for Advancing Careers in Peacebuilding and the Social Sector



Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of helping to organize and host the 5th Annual Graduate  Symposium on Innovation in Graduate Education in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution. The annual event, which was held in partnership with the Georgetown University Conflict Resolution Program, the United States Institute of Peaceand the Alliance for Peacebuilding convened leaders of academic programs, faculty, adminstrators, students, training organizatiosn and more to see have an in-depth dialogue on the state of grad education in our field, to discuss the crises in higher education in general, areas needed disruption and inspiring examples of innovation.

One of the panels we organized was a career panel including four outstanding leaders from diverse organizations and sectors, including

  • Bob Spoer, Chief of People Search, Ashoka
  • Stephen Lennon, Acting Director, Office of Transition Initiatives, USAID
  • Anne Steen, Director, School of Foreign Service Career Center, Georgetown University
  • Evelyn Thornton, CEO, Institute for Inclusive Security

The four distinguished guests shared a wealth of ideas inspiration for those seeking to advance careers in peacebuildiing and the social sector.

A few key suggestions from across the panelists for academic institutions and individuals include:
1) Be humble – While it is important to have a strong set of skills and experience to make one a strong candidate, candidates who let their record speak for their work (the proof is in the pudding) is key. Make sure that you have experience and can show concrete results of one’s work rather than just talk. Peacebuilding and social sector careers also require building relationships, being open to ambiguity and adapting to change

2) Network, Network, Network – Many job openings have an enormous nuber of applications per posting. For example, USAID/OTI has less than 50 openings per year (largely filled through Personal Service Contracts) but receives over 1500 applications. Other panelists indicated they might receive 100 or more applications per job opening. Over 80% of jobs are filled through connections. This doesn’t mean that one doesn’t need to apply for a an opening, but that it is essential to build strong and ethical networks. For example, if one is applying for a job in a particular organization having someone in the institution who can vouch for the quality of a candidate’s work can be essential for having the resume be reviewed. One panelist indicated if he/she saw an applicant had a connection to someone in his/her org and that person didn’t speak up on behalf of the candidate would raise a red flag

3) Develop Skills – The panelists emphasized that it is important for academic programs (and students) to develop not only critical thinking skills, but the concrete skills needed to manage budgets, undertake monitoring and evaluation, do writing in diverse formats (policy briefs, op-eds, blogs, etc), understand tech, etc. There is a strong need for both the soft interpersonal and cr skills and the technical skills to do changemaking. Also, an ability to also develop relationships and alliances is key.

4) Be Adaptable and seek opportunities – Peacebuilding and social sector work requires an attitude and ability to be flexible, adaptable and seek creative opportunities for advancing social change.

5) Trends – In terms of trends in the peacebuilding and social sector fields, the panelists identified some of the tends

  • Monitoring and Evaluation – There is a strong need for organizations to improve their monitoring and evaluation tools. The field needs to do a better job in measuring the impact of our work.
  • Technology – Technology is increasing playing an increasing role and understanding the opportunties/challenges in using tech is essential.
  • Cross-sectoral – Much of peacebuilding and social sector work takes place in siloed approaches, which is not the most effective way to advance social change. A wonderful quote I heard in a separate panel today from the head of the GHR foundation that clearly states this point: There are no silos in working for better lives.
  • Entrepreneurial approaches – Our career panel had organizations working on advancing change from the government, nonprofit, foundation and private sector approaches. There is increasing emphasis on developing partnerships across institutions involved in changemaking

I would encourage everyone to look at the amazing organizations and their respective work, their career and internship opporunities and think creatiely about social change. Please consider attending the symposium as well as the AFP annual conference next year. What are other questions or recommendations others have around careers in the field?

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