Getting a paid job in microfinance can sometimes seem like the Holy Grail of nonprofit work. The fact of the matter is that the top-notch, innovative, entrepreneurial economic development strategy draws a slew of top-notch, innovative, entrepreneurial job candidates. Whether you’re a soon-to-be recent grad or looking to transition into the field, here’s how to stand out of the crowd:
- Organize your finances and time in order to spend at least six months volunteering with a microfinance organization, either in the U.S. or abroad. “This is the best way to learn more about the industry from the inside and to prove ability and skill to a potential employer,” says Andrea Stiles Pullas, senior director of financial education at ACCION USA. Preferably, work full time to really learn the ins-and-outs of the industry. Microfinance organizations are looking to hire people that have proven that they’re passionate about microfinance, not those who simply say they are. Find your dream volunteership, as well as networking opportunities, through ACCION USA’s Microfinance Council, or Grameen Foundation’s Bankers Without Borders.
- Find your role in microfinance. Here’s something that most microfinance job applicants don’t think about: most nonprofit organizations, including MFI’s, function like actual businesses. We have accounting departments, tech guys, marketing gurus, grant writers, webmasters, and financial analysts. If you’re a student, take all the microfinance theory courses you want, but complement them with classes in tactical subjects or, better yet, real-world internship experience. If you’re looking to transition into microfinance, do your research and find out which MFI’s have departments in your area of expertise. And everyone—in your cover letters, skip the two paragraph intro on how awesome you think microfinance is (this should show through your experience), and get to the heart of why you’re good for the job.
- Get to know the borrowers that you will serve. This tip comes from Elizabeth Garlow, who landed a full time, full pay job at ACCION USA after volunteering there for a year. You’ll need to understand microbusinesses in order to work with them, so get started now. “This will help you to think creatively about ways that microfinance organizations can respond to the needs of microbusinesses,” says Elizabeth. Whether you want to work in the U.S. or abroad, you can find microentrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds in most communities. Chat up local business owners, get your class or a group of coworkers to frequent a microbusiness, or get an internship with a local Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
- Work in a small business. It’s another twist on the previous tip, but a recent job applicant really impressed me when she mentioned that she worked in her family’s small business. It showed that she could relate to the struggles and challenges of microbusinesses, and demonstrated that she’d be great at interacting with microloan borrowers. Most people have had odd job or two at a small business—tell the MFI how that experience shaped you.
- And finally, remember the standard application and interview tips. Know the microfinance field—remembering that real-life examples of how microfinance works trumps theoretical knowledge. (And please don’t be the millionth applicant to say how Banker to the Poor changed your outlook on life.) Know the employer—scour their Website, put a Google Alert on the organization for a few weeks and stay up-to-date with news, follow them on Twitter, and do what you need to do to walk in fully informed.
The moral of the story is that it’s not easy to stand out of the crowd. But with the right career choices and a lot of hard work, working in microfinance AND earning yourself an honest living is within your reach.