In the early stages of creating a refugee rights organization, you may be working alone to refine the details and to set a road map. As you get closer to opening your office doors for services, however, you may require more staff to grow your organization. It is therefore important to consider hiring and developing a leadership team of qualified and driven individuals who can take your organization to success together. Ultimately, assembling a launch team (through hiring and partnerships) is central to the sustainability of the organization. In this section, you will be familiarized with the key considerations involved in the recruitment of your staff members.

Key characteristics when hiring leadership

1. Seek characteristics that complement your own

Before you begin the hiring process, ensure that you have a clear understanding of the characteristics that you are looking for. It is tempting to simply hire someone to provide support and complete everyday tasks. However, it is more beneficial in the long run to seek colleagues who will provide leadership in your absence. This means looking for skills that complement yours and add to the organization’s strengths rather than merely replicating them.

For refugee rights organizations, this is particularly important. There is a temptation for a refugee legal aid organization to staff its team entirely with lawyers. However, lawyers do not necessarily know how to manage a fundraising campaign, or have the psychosocial background to provide support to refugee clients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Hiring multi-talented people is important, and knowing the talents you are seeking in advance is even more critical. A competencies matrix is a simple and useful tool to guide you in keeping your team’s strengths in check.

The following questions may help you develop an understanding of the characteristics you are looking for based on your own strengths:

  • What do I enjoy doing?
  • What am I really good at doing? What am I not good at doing?
  • If I could only focus on a few functions, what would they be?
  • If I am at my worst, what kind of people do I need around me?
  • What are my priorities? What are the priorities of the organization?

2. Create positions from needs

In addition to making a list of characteristics of the person that you would like to hire, you should clarify what role this person will fill. This may involve assessing specific needs and gaps in the organization, and prioritize those. The following are some typical needs that an organization may have, and the corresponding role or position that might be developed to fill that need.

Specific Needs of Organization

Corresponding Role or Position to Fill Organization’s Need

Need to grow existing services to serve more people.

Hire someone with experience in a growing organization, good operational skills and ability to create tools to facilitate growth.

Need to improve existing services to serve existing clients better.


Hire someone who has plenty of client serving experience, can point quickly to factors that ensure good client services and have the knowledge to keep up those variables (i.e. staff training, team environment, work-life balance, etc).

Want to diversify the types of services offered to meet additional refugee needs.


You may need to look outside the ‘usual suspects’. Diversifying services is about exploring new ways in which you can impact the clients’ lives. Its best to start by consulting your client base as you think of staffers that would be good at diversifying your services.

Need to focus on structure/legal change before serving individual clients.

In this case, you may be looking for a different staff profile: someone who can speak authoritatively on the matter, and who has connections or is good at building relationships with key stakeholders.

Need to manage internal organization and external partnerships better.

Hire a mid-level administrator rather than leadership staff. Do not under estimate what a very good organized office manager can achieve!

Want to market yourself better so that more refugees know about your organization.

Hire a marketing or communications expert with experience working in resource-limited environments. Creative professionals working with nonprofits tend to be good initial sources for candidates to take this job.

3. Be aware of money and resource limitations

Hiring can be costly. Before starting to become the source of someone’s livelihood, go through the following checklist to make sure you are ready to hire them formally.

  • Identify a realistic salary that is competitive. Take into account the cost of living and additional expenses for foreigners (if at all) – and have the salary commensurate with experience. Note that while referencing the salaries of other non-profit organizations your size is a starting point, it is common that NGO workers are paid notoriously low wages in many countries, causing a lot of talent to leave.
  • With an idea of the salary in mind, enquire about additional costs the organization must cover, such as mandatory social security costs, pension contributions, and taxes. Consider these as part of the cost-to-company costs.
  • Ensure that you will have enough sustainable revenue to cover the salary, and for how long.
  • Keep in mind that even if you are not in a position to pay prospective employees very highly, it does not mean people would not be interested in applying. Many people are also drawn by the organization’s mission, the position, the people, and the environment. As long as the salary you offer is competitive, people will apply. Make sure you advertise the position widely, even in places where prospective candidates may already make more money than what you can offer. In other words, if money is the main priority of the potential candidate, you may want to think twice before making an offer to join your team.
  • If you decide your organization is not ready to hire new leadership staff, there are other short-term options that may help you get through until your organization is ready to hire. For more details, refer to Non-hiring options section of the toolkit.

4. Do not fall for the culture trap

Hiring foreign staff would not work because they will never understand the local country conditions; or hiring local staff is impossible because locals are not open to receiving refugees in their countries. Painting broad generalizations about foreign staff vs. local staff will limit your talent pool. Therefore, seek for leadership teams with diverse backgrounds, where team members are active facilitators across bridges.

5. Do not overestimate years of experience

The job market for leadership positions generally place substantial weight on one’s years of experience. While knowledge of the sector and players is important, it is also important to ask the tougher questions to test the candidate’s willingness to ‘rock the boat’ in addressing the root causes of refugee rights violations:

  • If refugee rights have not changed in Country X for the many years you have been working in this area, what part has the candidate played in changing this? Has the job candidate’s methods been unsuccessful? If so, is the candidate ready to admit it?
  • Has the candidate become cynical about the prospects for change in Country X?
  • Does the candidate envision future work with refugees in Country X as “business as usual”?