Monday, February 16, 2015

Advice for Working in the Non-Profit World

If you have ever wanted to work for a non-profit, but were unsure how to start, read on to gain some advice from Katie Letheren (CAS '10).

What did you study at NYU and how did your studies influence the work you do now?

I studied political science with a strong focus in journalism. My studies at NYU, and more specifically the teachers I had at NYU, taught me that through the rise of communications in the twenty-first century, coupled with the art of powerful storytelling, humans from all points of the globe can now feel more connected than ever to create the change in the world that needs to happen.

Nearly the week after I graduated from NYU, I moved to China to teach English. Though this wasn’t where I was planning on ending up or what I had hoped on doing, thanks to Professor David Denoon’s “East Asian Politics” class and his own powerful storytelling of Chinese history, I developed a fascination for the country myself so when I got a job offer to teach English in Hangzhou, I said why not. NYU and going to school in the city definitely instilled that sense of spontaneity and adventure in me—looking back on that decision that I wasn’t so sure about at the time and what I have been able to experience these past four years because of it, I don’t regret it for a second.

No matter which job I had at the time—teaching English in Hangzhou, studying Mandarin at Zhejiang University while interning at a Chinese law firm, working as a Global Coordinator for a US-Chinese joint venture pharmaceutical company, working in Shanghai’s financial sector (the girl who never thought she’d have to use a calculator after statistics at NYU), and finally working as a Grant Writer/Communications Manager at a non-profit children’s hospital in Cambodia—I delved into every opportunity I was given, whether it was in my desired field or not, and learned everything I possibly could from it.

The journey from NYU’s CAS trying different classes to find my desired major simply continued into life after university [with] trying to find my passion. For the first three years I loved what I was doing—working in all these different and exciting fields in Asia. But I wasn’t doing what I loved because I hadn’t found what that was just yet—until now, until eventually my travels brought me to visit a friend from boarding school living in Cambodia where I ended up moving to shortly thereafter. I was fortunate enough to be hired at the incredibly inspiring Angkor Hospital for Children—a non-profit children’s hospital providing free healthcare for impoverished Cambodian children while simultaneously working to improve the healthcare system throughout the entire country.

Name a moment during your time at NYU that stands out as being most memorable, or something you did that you are most proud of. 

It would have to be a paper I wrote for my “Journalism & Society: Minorities in the Media” class, taught by Professor Pamela Newkirk. I can’t remember the exact assignment, but it had to do with examining minorities in the media and I remember the entire class was completely stumped by the unorthodox nature of this particular assignment. We were all making it out to be incredibly complicated and she kept telling us to just count. So that is what I did. I decided to examine gender equality on the front pages of the New York Times for a period of I believe six months or so. All I did was count—count the number of male versus female authors featured on the front page, the number of times males versus females appeared in photos as well as text, and [why] they were being mentioned, etc. The findings were shocking. Authors and people featured in homepage photos were overwhelming male, and when females were mentioned or featured, it was more to comment on less trivial matters such as fashion or events. In the end, I was the only student who got an A, and it might have even been an A++, if I remember correctly. This experience taught me that things don’t always have to be as complicated as we make them out to be. This especially holds true in the non-profit sector. One of the biggest things I have learned over the past year working in Cambodia is that the measures that end up helping the local communities the most are often those that are the least complicated. More often than not, the solution to the problem you are witnessing is very simple and just needs to be carried out over and over again before a bigger impact can be seen. The need is there and the need is great—instead of coming up with complicated interventions and programs, oftentimes the best way to fill the need is the simplest way possible.

Can you tell us about Angkor Hospital for Children and how you became a part of this organization?

Angkor Hospital for Children was inspired by one tragic event witnessed by famous Japanese photographer, Kenro Izu. He came to Cambodia in 1993 to visit the ancient Angkor temples, but was quickly confronted by the appalling lack of pediatric healthcare in Cambodia after seeing many sick and disabled children everywhere he went to shoot.

Less than fifteen years before he arrived, the Cambodian people faced genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime. Nearly two million Cambodians were killed under the rule of Pol Pot and his attempt to create an agrarian-based communist society without any free-market/capitalist influence. This meant that all educated individuals were the target, including medical professionals. After the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Cambodia was left with virtually no healthcare infrastructure and a mere 40 doctors were the only estimated healthcare professionals to survive the genocide.

Kenro was so taken aback by the sick children and land mine victims everywhere so he decided to start visiting the local hospitals and clinics. During one of his visits, he started talking to one father sitting by the bedside of his daughter, who was about the same age of Kenro’s own daughter. Kenro discovered that the clinic doctors were refusing to treat her because the father didn’t have enough money to pay for her treatment (about $2.00). (Even today, more than 40 percent of Cambodians are living in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 a day.)

While Kenro was talking with the father, the girl passed away.

This event inspired Kenro to start Angkor Hospital for Children, a non-profit children’s hospital which opened its doors in 1999 with the mission to provide free high-quality health care to all Cambodian children—regardless of their family’s ability to pay or where in the country they live—and to help strengthen the national healthcare system through the education and training of doctors, nurses and health workers throughout the entire country.

Originally, I was hired to write their first ever in-house production of the annual report after [their] transition away from Friends Without A Border in New York City to become an independent, locally run organization rooted firmly in Cambodia—as was always the hope of the hospital’s founder and famous Japanese photographer, Mr. Kenro Izu. This experience really put my NYU journalism background to the test. I was hired almost immediately following my interview, was toured around the hospital for two days meeting a great number of the 500 employees (98% of which are Cambodian), was sent off to the grounds of the hospital largely on my own and then had less than two months to complete the final product. In the end, it was said to be one of the best pieces of literature the hospital has ever had, really capturing the character of the organization while shining the light on the local Cambodian staff and the great work they are doing to improve the access and quality of care for Cambodian children and adults alike.

It was one of the best experiences of my life to have the privilege to work as a team with the local staff to produce such a document, and an honor to be the one who got to tell these incredible stories of the staff, the patients, and the impact this incredible organization is making in the lives of Cambodian children.

You can see the Annual Report here and read some of the stories I am referring to, such as the story of Samnang*, a 15-year-old boy who was out hunting rats in the countryside when his friend accidentally shot him with his bow and arrow, puncturing Samnang’s heart. Luckily, Samnang was rushed to AHC’s Satellite Clinic and then transferred by ambulance to AHC and was able to receive life-saving heart surgery by the local team.

*Patient’s name has been changed for confidentiality.

What are you currently working on and can you name one aspect of your job that you enjoy most?

After my contract was up in December, I moved home just in time for Christmas and to attend a two-week Buddhist retreat at Karme Choling in Vermont, with the hope of then relocating to Africa to work in the health sector shortly thereafter. And here I am. In two weeks I have a one way ticket to Tanzania. I couldn’t be any more excited, anxious, nervous — any emotion you name it and I am probably feeling it. After three years trying to find my way in China with a handful of different jobs each in very different fields, I knew very shortly after beginning my work at Angkor Hospital for Children that I finally found what I am meant to do with my life and this brought me great joy. When I was recently at the meditation retreat, I read a quote by Sakyong Mipham from his book Turning the Mind into an Ally. He describes better than I can why I love this field with the following words, “Working to make ‘me’ happy only causes pain. Working for the happiness of others brings joy.” I am glad that I have been able to experience joy in my life at a young age.

Do you have any advice for current students or recent graduates looking to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector? 

My one piece of advice for students or recent graduates looking to pursue careers in the global nonprofit sector would simply be to show up in the host country and ask one very simple question: How can I help? Finding jobs online in the nonprofit sector isn’t easy in my experience and the process takes time. Organizations need to know that you will be able to work well with the local staff and that you will enjoy living in the host country, so it is difficult—not impossible as it does happen—to be hired from afar especially if it is a country you have never been to before. So my advice: just go—find where the need is greatest, and where you would enjoy living and just go. Upon arriving, get out there in the local community volunteering where you can (these opportunities will be bountiful so don’t worry on finding volunteer work), learn the local culture and how to work with the people, make sure it is a country you can be happy living in and all the while, keep your eyes open for longer-term contract work.

In two weeks I am heading to Tanzania on a one-way ticket with the hopes of finding such work when I get over there. I did my research about NGOs in the area that I would love to work for and I plan on showing up at their doorstep once I get over there. Working in the nonprofit sector isn’t like working in the profit sector so how you find work may not be what you are used to. Showing up at Angkor Hospital for Children, telling them my skills were writing and communications, and asking them how I could help, is how I first got hired as Grant Writer with the first task of writing their 2013 Annual Report, and then later reassigned as Communications Manager. After three months of volunteering for various NGOs— including my main volunteer work at the Cambodian Diabetes Association where I assisted their mobile clinic team to rural villages where they provided treatment and counseling for diabetics, and I was able to put my recently acquired certification in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University to good use by working with them with regards to eating right for their condition—I learned the local culture and how to work with the people, and I showed up at AHC after learning the great work they were doing.

This is how I found my job at Angkor Hospital for Children and hopefully how I will find my next job in sub-Saharan Africa. Check back in with me in a month!*

What is one thing you have learned about living in another country? Do you have any advice for those who want to pursue a career abroad? 

Living in China was a great experience that I will cherish forever, but living in Cambodia was life changing. Looking back on how much this past year in Cambodia has changed me and my outlook on everything, I can’t imagine how much the world would change if we all went and lived in a developing country for just one year.

A few weeks ago, I flew back to New Hampshire for Christmas and my brother, his boyfriend and I went Christmas shopping at the Mall of New Hampshire. They were both starving but both very healthy eaters being professional dancers, and we knew it wasn’t going to be pretty going into the food court, but I didn’t expect just how not pretty it was going to be. There I was, having a breakdown in the middle of the food court while the two of them shielded me with hugs to conceal this outburst from everyone around me. Just two days ago I was in Cambodia surrounded by malnourished children with bloated bellies and arms the size of pencils, and here I was smack-dab in the middle of the food court watching everyone surrounding me mindlessly consume massive amounts of highly unhealthy foods. I wasn’t prepared for that—it was from one extreme to the next and I wasn’t expecting for it to hit me as hard as it did.

My advice for those who plan to go live and work in a developing country is to be prepared for the amount of suffering you are going to see, and to not have it in your mind that you need to help everyone because this will only cause you to burn out before being able to make any impact. Sakyong Mipham gave more great advice in his book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, when he said, “For example, the people who travel with me when I go to India each year to study are often overwhelmed by the poverty and suffering they see. It makes them feel frantic—how will we help all these people? Too big an approach will only dishearten us, undermine our activity. Perhaps we start with just one person, one family. It’s important to pick acts of compassion or kindness we can complete. Then we can make the next one slightly bigger. It may not always be a smooth ride, but we never give up.” This is the advice I will take with me in the forefront of my mind to Africa.

For more information or to get involved with Angkor Hospital for Children, visit

*This past weekend, Katie secured a position as Clinic Manager at the Lifeline Clinic, a non-profit clinic funded by the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, which provides medical services to the San Bushmen of the Omaheke Region of Namibia.  Katie mentioned the foundation is looking for a doctor and a nurse to join the team.  If interested, please contact Katie at:

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