Satisfaction is reward in not-for-profit organisations

Salaries are lower than in private sector – depending on where you come from, writes Tim Smedley

Few people join the international public sector for the money. Cyril Muller, vice president for external affairs at the World Bank, says: “We do have people who come from Wall Street and work for us for a while. Our treasurer came from Wall Street. But they make a lot less money here than on Wall Street.”

So why do they come? The answer, for many of the world’s brightest and best who are attracted to the sector, is job satisfaction.

Not that the international public sector – comprised largely of the large government-funded organisations including the UN, the EU, World Bank, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development among many others – pays a pittance. It does aim to be competitive.

David Bearfield, head of the European Commission’s Personnel and Selection Office, says it depends where you are arriving from: “If you are working in London, the pay may not seem spectacular; if you’re coming from Romania, it’s hugely attractive.”

One aspect of job satisfaction derived from working in the sector is mobility. The World Bank might be headquartered in Washington DC, but 40 per cent of its 12,500 employees are spread across offices in 100 countries. “You shouldn’t join the World Bank if you want to be the person in charge of Mexico but live in Washington,” says Mr Muller.

“Any World Bank employee who works on programmes in developing countries can expect to be posted at some point to developing countries. The mobility factor is quite important. We want to ensure that people bring a set of experiences that are richer than single individual countries or regions.”

There are few organisations in the world offering the same level of global presence and the opportunity – indeed expectation – to move countries, as those in the international public sector.

The EBRD for example was founded in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall to support the eastern European bloc’s transition to the market economy. It retains a strong presence across Europe’s former Communist countries, but has since spread to central Asia and the Middle East, and has recently been invited into northern Africa following the Arab Spring revolutions.

Sheila Bates, head of banking client management within HR, works in the London head office but has responsibility across 32 resident offices, ranging from the biggest in Moscow with 100-plus staff, to offices in Tajikistan with about five or six staff, and Mongolia with about eight or nine.

The diversity of such workforces is another attractive factor, being far more representative of the markets they serve than an average multinational corporation.

The World Bank workforce represents 170 countries, with more than 60 per cent of staff coming from developing countries, and it is equally gender balanced – even at senior executive level.

The range of projects and opportunities for those working in the sector are just as diverse. Mr Muller argues that the development projects upon which people work in the field, whether in banking, engineering, or even procurement, are typically at the peak of each respective profession.

“The staff of the World Bank is made up of economists, engineers, social scientists, health specialists, political scientists – and these are extraordinary jobs. If you are the person helping a government design its energy sector policy, for instance, or you help an entire country transform its energy efficiency, how good a job is that?”

Similarly, Ms Bates says job satisfaction at the EBRD comes from its bankers “wanting to make a difference”. They work predominantly on investment projects for private sector firms in areas where traditional investment streams have broken down. “The range and scope of things you can do here is broader in some respects than in a classic banking environment,” she says.

“Staff have to have good banking skills but there are a number of other things they need to take into account, too, such as environmental considerations, gender and diversity. If people just want to make money, then of course they can make a lot more money elsewhere; but will they derive the same degree of job satisfaction and commitment, or get to go to the same weird and wonderful places?”

The European Commission is by far the largest of the EU’s administrative institutions with about 34,000 staff. Mr Bearfield says: “We say to people you can have a job for life, but a lifetime of different jobs. I’ve moved around all sorts of different jobs, I think I’ve done about nine jobs in almost 20 years.

“You can move from different policy fields, to a finance job, to management, or move between institutions, and that enormous breadth of opportunity is something people find really stimulating.

“The sheer intellectual challenge is just so interesting. It’s not saying you have to come with a particular political ideology, you don’t have to believe in a ‘federal Europe’, but wanting to make a difference to people’s lives is a powerful factor.”

Not all those joining the international public sector are looking for jobs for life. It is not uncommon for the higher-salaried bankers and lawyers to work for a couple of years to gain experience and “give something back”, before heading back to private firms.

This is something that the EBRD is happy with, says Ms Bates: “We are a tremendous school and a place for people to learn and grow. You will get some who come for four or five years, learn an awful lot, then move on.”

Not everyone leaves, though: Ms Bates herself joined as a senior manager from the telecoms industry. “I came here for a commitment to three or four years, and have now been here eight years”, she says. “I think people join for the mission of the bank, and they find they like making a difference.”

It is the mission that gives many in the sector a level of job satisfaction they feel could not be found elsewhere. Alice Mercanti is an administrative finance associate at UNHCR, providing general back-office support for the London office.

“You feel you’re part of something much bigger – you’re not just processing an invoice, you know that that invoice helped somebody achieve something much bigger,” she says. “I could be in a job where I don’t see that, where it’s just a matter of profit. But here you know that what you’re doing is supporting a much greater cause, and I think that is what gets you out of bed every morning.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.