We receive many enquiries from people looking for job, volunteer or internship possibilities in China, but our very modest income is—by solemn grant agreement!—devoted entirely to publishing and capacity building projects. These leave no time or budget for responding to private enquiries. Here, by way of alternative, are some generic answers to the following frequently asked questions:
1) How can I get a development job in China? 
2) What placements can international volunteer agencies arrange? 
3) Is it possible for individuals to arrange their own placements with an international NGO or other development agency? 
4) Can China Development Brief recommend organisations to approach? 
5) What kind of volunteer skills might an international organisation want? 
6) What is the best way to identify an agency that might be able to use me? 
7) What is the best way to approach an organisation? 
8) Is there any other way to get a foot in the door? 
9) Are there international volunteer opportunities with Chinese NGOs? 
10) Does China Development Brief take interns/volunteers? 
International development agencies will normally require expatriate staff to have at least two of the following:
i) Previous experience of working on international development projects
ii) Some relevant academic qualification (a first degree in Development Studies is not all that helpful; a Masters degree in an applied field, such as Public Health or Agricultural Economics will prove more useful.)
iii) Experience of working in China and, preferably, Chinese language ability.
If you have at least two of these, watch our job listings and circulate your resumé (cv) to organisations working in the fields where you have relevant skills and experience to offer. Our Directory of International NGOs Supporting Work in China  may help.
Some development agencies, including NGOs, are also increasingly interested in recruiting people with corporate management experience.
If you don’t have at least two of these essential qualifications you are unlikely to find paid work, however much talent, energy and enthusiasm you may have to offer. There is no reason why a responsible development agency should take a risk with untested expatriates. The best agencies are far more interested in identifying and building up local, Chinese talent.
Therefore, if your mid-term objective is to work in development in China (or indeed elsewhere), you will probably need to start by looking for internship or volunteer opportunities. These will give you a chance to impress and might even lead to short-term paid contracts (typically on ‘local’ conditions). Either way, they will start to give you the experience you need to secure a ‘real’ job that might set you on the path to a career in development.
Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), Peace Corps, Australian Volunteers International (AVI) and government-funded volunteer agencies from Korea (KOICA) and Japan (JOCV) all send their nationals to work in China. (VSO also accepts applications from other European nationals and also recruits from the Philippines, Uganda and Canada.) The application process for all of these agencies takes several months at least. Placements normally last two years, and all of these agencies offer support packages that include orientation and training. Host institutions usually provide accommodation and a modest stipend.
The great majority of China placements available through these agencies are in foreign (predominantly English) language teaching and teacher training—despite the best efforts of the organisations themselves to create programmes in other, developmental fields.
Over the last few years, a number of new agencies, both non-profit and for-profit, have started to offer expatriate volunteer placements in China—again, overwhelmingly in English language teaching. These generally charge placement fees, but vary greatly in terms of costs, selection criteria and time commitment. Most are targeted at the 17-25 age-group. Some that are aimed at young people looking for a year’s interesting experience between high school and university will also offer candidates advice on how to raise money to fund their own placement.
UNV (United Nations Volunteers) also recruits and places a small number of volunteers in China from all over the world. Generally, they are placed in a supporting role in UN funded projects implemented by Chinese government agencies.
Matt Perrement’s March, 2005 article, Market drives volunteering to re-explore its boundaries , describes the field and includes a table  briefly summarising the programme of more than 20 international organisations that place volunteers in China.
Possible, yes, but not easy, and a great deal harder if you are trying to do it from overseas. If you are really in earnest, get together what you would need to live on in China for a couple of months (USD 1,000—10,000, depending on how rough you can live), arrive on a tourist visa, and start doing the rounds. Your immediate availability and interviewability will be among your greatest assets: prospective employers will be far less willing to take on a person they have not met, and most will be impressed by the determination you show in pitching up on their doorstep, and more inclined to create a role for you.
The basic situation is the same as in the paid jobs market: there’s a surplus of people wanting credible, volunteer experience in China. So you need to be able to show that you have some tangible and useful skills that cannot easily be supplied by Chinese nationals. Taking on a volunteer always entails some management responsibility (and legal liability) and no organisation will want that responsibility unless they are confident that you have a useful contribution to make. Moreover, the most responsible agencies will be far more interested in identifying and developing the potential of local staff.
Therefore, you are unlikely to get far simply by circulating your resumé and announcing your availability—unless it is a singularly impressive resumé! Most international NGOs we know receive dozens of such offers every year—in some cases, hundreds—but most of them do not want dozens of raw recruits, even if they come for free. You will be more likely to receive a response if you can show that you have thought seriously about an organisation’s approach and work and how you can fit in to that.
No, we don’t do that. (Nor, incidentally, do we recommend organisations for project partnerships, donations, prizes or awards). That is not our job. Read what we publish and draw your own conclusions.
Research. Learn the China development field by reading as much as you can. Narrow down to a number of organisations that interest you and then find out as much as you can about them and their work. Try to imagine a role for yourself that would be of real value to them.
Much naturally depends of the sector an organisation works in. If it works in public education (eg, for AIDS prevention) it might be interested in someone with creative design (or even performance art) skills to work with local staff in developing ‘IEC’ (information, education, communication) materials. If the organisation works in forestry, it might be interested in someone who can tell a pinus yunnanensis from a eucalyptus. (Or, if it is a really thinking forestry organisation, it might be interested in someone who doesn’t necessarily know a pinus yunnanensis from a eucalyptus but who does know how to help well-informed Chinese colleagues to argue the merits of the former: when it comes, at least, to forestry in Yunnan.)
Fluency in languages other than Chinese is one important comparative advantage that expatriates have (compared to local staff), and this means that there may be opportunities in research, information management and documentation, and external communication. ‘Research’ in this context does not mean writing scholarly tracts. It would be more likely to mean searching the internet for news items relevant to the organisation’s interests, or to collect examples of ‘best practice’ from development projects elsewhere. Or it might involve collecting case studies to document the organisation’s work (or case studies that highlight the need for such work). This kind of research assistance can be valuable to organisations that are writing project proposals and/or trying to disseminate project experiences that they regard as successful.
A good, well-managed international NGO—and please do not suppose that all international NGOs are good and well-managed, for that, alas, is not the case—will recognise the value of having some bright, capable foreigners working alongside local staff, because this naturally involves a certain amount of skill, knowledge, and cultural exchange. This is educational for Chinese staff and expands their horizons. (Not always because they learn from you, so much as because they learn about you). But it is important to show that you have the right attitude. If you believe that you’re going to come in and solve China’s problems then you will have little of value to offer (apart from showing Chinese colleagues what fools some foreigners are), and no worthwhile organisation will touch you.
Initially, inevitably, by email. (If you want to market yourself more originally, though, and have the time, you could try a snail mail letter written with fountain pen in Royal Blue ink: such epistles may well soon enjoy a revival as a mark of distinction). As already noted, yours will be a more attractive overture if you are already in China, or have fixed dates when you will be, and so can propose a face-to-face meeting. (And be sure to give a realistic timeframe: no busy organisation will grind to a halt in order to meet you at short notice.)
As already noted, if you just send the same resumé round dozens of organisations the great majority will hit the delete button almost immediately. (A handwritten letter might well last longer, which is a major argument in its favour.) You would do better to research, target, and send a purpose-written letter that shows you have thought about the organisation in question and how you might fit it into it.
Unless you are responding to a specific appeal or advertisement, do not assume that the organisations you approach will already feel any need for a volunteer or intern. So help them to imagine the possibilities. Say what you have to offer them, not just how much you would like to work for them. Based on your research into the organisation and the sector they work in, make some tentative suggestions as to what role you could play. Do not be arrogant about this: if you propose too grandiose a role they will write you off as a megalomaniac. Instead, be realistic in your expectations, and set out to propose and to do small things well. (If you become a successful ‘development professional’ you will soon enough find yourself struggling to do too many things just about well enough: enjoy more finite projects while they last!) Even if your target organisation does not agree with your specific suggestions, they will appreciate your thoughtfulness and this may trigger them also to think about ways they might find a role for you.
Be plain, straightforward and direct, not lengthy, wordy or ostentatious. Remember, if they are likely to need a spare pair of hands these organisations must be busy. So don’t waste their time. Get straight to the point.
Never say in your first sentence “My name is . . .” This just makes you sound dumb. Your name is of no interest to the recipient until they know what you have to offer, and it will appear at the end of the letter in any case.
Yes, there is. Despite the Western world’s current preoccupation with democracy, good governance and equal opportunities, the plain truth is that personal connections and referral are still both very useful and very widely used tools for opening employment doors everywhere. If your mother’s best friend’s sister works for a UN agency or NGO in Beijing, you are off to a flying start in the quest for a post. But we didn’t really need to tell you that, did we?
Yes, if you are careful and sensible. There is what an economist would call an ‘emerging market’ for international volunteer placements with Chinese NGOs. But ‘emerging’ implies immature and that translates in reality into many pitfalls. If you don’t speak Chinese pretty well—well enough to have a conversation about real things, not just the merits of Sichuan cai as opposed to Guangdong cai—our advice would be not to bother trying to work within a Chinese NGO.
You may find Chinese NGOs organised along quite different principles from international NGOs. (Indeed, you may be unable to discern any organisational principles at work; but don’t be too quick to suppose that there are none, they may simply be invisible to you.) You will almost certainly find that you have to work without a formal job description, and it may take some time for you to realise what your host organisation’s expectations are. Or it may be that they expect you to take the initiative in making yourself useful once you have arrived. So, altogether, you will need to be sensible, flexible, and capable of performing useful work in an environment that is not clearly defined.
Be prepared, though, to be seen and used primarily as a means to facilitate the organisation’s interaction with the outside world. For example, they may want you to translate brochures, reports, project proposals etc into English; to help them identify and approach international funding prospects, or simply to teach English to their own staff. Or they might see an international volunteer as a status symbol. Or they might not be quite sure how to use you, but just suppose that in some way you will prove to be a magnet for other resources.
These are all entirely logical ways for Chinese organisations to use a foreign resource, even if they are not the sort of opportunities you would like. As in the case of approaching international organisations, you can suggest possible roles for yourself (or create a role once you are installed in an organisation), but it is important to be realistic and modest. The more worthwhile NGOs will not take kindly to your presenting yourself as their ‘trainer’ or strategic adviser before they even know you. If you want to do more than serve as a translator and language teacher—and these are perfectly valid and worthwhile things to do, as well as giving you an excellent vantage point from which to learn about Chinese NGOs—you will have first to win the trust of the organisation’s staff.
In identifying a placement, our 2001 Special Report, 250 Chinese NGOs: Civil Society in the Making (307 pp), may be useful. This includes one-page profiles of 250 organisations. It can be ordered (USD 15 plus shipping) from email@example.com If you are in Beijing, you can buy a copy for CNY 50 cash at The Bookworm in Sanlitun or at our office.
This directory is still the best, general English language guide to Chinese NGOs that is available, but it is now rather out of date and since it was published the number of organisations in China that can credibly be called NGOs has grown substantially. Towards the end of April 2006 we will be launching a (mainly Chinese language) website profiling Chinese environmental NGOs, and hope in the future to build similar sites for NGOs in other sectors—eg, for organisations that work in the field of disability. So keep visiting this site for updates on Chinese NGO activity and contacts.
Yes, but we are a very small and busy organisation so it is absolutely essential that volunteers and interns are able to make a useful contribution without needing much orientation or management support. We also feel that volunteers or interns should work on a specific project so that they can leave with a clear sense of achievement—and something that they can point to as their contribution—rather than merely being asked to help out with routine administration. This can make China Development Brief a rewarding place to work, but we do need high calibre people with a lot of initiative—and three or four volunteers or interns per year is as many as we can usefully absorb. As per our general advice above, we will give much more consideration to people who study what we do and can send us an application letter, stating how they think they could help us (either by proposing a specific project or, at least, by specifying what skills you could bring to the organisation). We are able to consider both people looking for a full-time volunteer post for a fixed period (minimum one month), and people who are living in Beijing and would like to offer part of their time on a regular basis (minimum one day per week).
What are the opportunities and what skills do I need?
1) We are always interested in developing the content on this website. So if you see gaps to fill—eg, we would like to add ‘more on’ resource panels to all categories on the site—then write to us and suggest how you might contribute. We are also willing to consider proposals for topics that you might spend a couple of months researching in depth, to provide the basis of a feature article or special report. However, you would need to be able to work quite independently and to a high standard. So you would need: some sectoral expertise on the topic in question; research skills; good Chinese language skills; proven ability to write clearly and well (send us a sample).
2) We are basically writers with very limited time (or expertise) for marketing our work, developing administrative procedures, and improving our production processes. Thus, we can sometimes consider help from volunteers with demonstrable skills in areas such as marketing, information management, desk-top publishing, website development and maintenance. For this kind of role you would not necessarily need more than a smattering of Chinese.
3) If you are a language specialist, we can always use help with translating articles and documents. Greatest demand is currently from English–Chinese, but opportunities to translate into English also exist.
4) We are strongly committed to developing the skills and capacity of our extremely busy and hard-working Chinese staff. If you have proven training or coaching skills in areas relevant to our work, and can make a regular time commitment, we might be able to create a role for you giving professional support in areas such as making presentations, dtp skills, writing in English etc.
How do I apply?
Quills and ink would be nice, but email will also suffice. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘CDB Intern’ in the subject field.
All applications should include a covering letter outlining what you can offer us. Also enclose your current resumé and, if you are hoping to write anything for us, a sample of your written work.
What terms and conditions do you offer volunteers?
We cannot offer any kind of stipend or allowance and normally expect a time commitment of 2-3 months. In return we give you lunch, bus-fare to our office, other work-related travel expenses and great work experience.
What is the cost of living in Beijing?
Accommodation can be pricey. The monthly rent for a short-term lease on a small and basic apartment starts at around USD 300 per month for a location near to the second ring road. There are cheaper apartments and flat-share opportunities in outlying areas, but our office is in the heart of the city and peak-hour transport is not great. Cheap, backpacker hostels do exist (around USD 5 per day) but the conditions leave something to be desired. We cannot undertake to arrange accommodation for you in advance, but can offer advice once you arrive. (It is normally possible to find a place within one week.)
A good meal for four in a cheap Chinese restaurant will costs around CNY 100 (USD 13). Eating alone in Chinese restaurants is difficult, given the nature of the cuisine, but you can get a good bowl of noodles for less than a dollar. ‘Western’ food of inferior quality is relatively plentiful but more expensive. (There are one or two quite good international restaurants but you will not be able to afford them if you are working for us!) Fresh food on markets is plentiful and much cheaper than most parts of Europe or North America.
Buses and underground trains are expensive by local, but relatively cheap by international, standards: three yuan (c. USD 40 cents) flat rate fare on trains, two yuan for air-conditioned buses.
Can you help with visas?