“Humanitarians, from all countries and cultures, seek to serve victims of crisis. Without some common understanding of necessary knowledge, skills and common standards, the disaster victim is at the mercy of the vagaries of personal whim, political expediency and well meaning, but possibly ineffectual, action.”

This statement is from a 2004 article in The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, but it is still true today. In 2019, there is still a need for humanitarian assistance. There is still a need for humanitarian workers. And there is still a need for good ways to train them.

Recent research by Humanitarian U found that e-learning is an effective tool to do just that. Founded by Dr. Kirsten Johnson in 2011, Humanitarian U provides competency-based professional training for humanitarian field workers and volunteers.

Humanitarianism “was really ad hoc” for years, Johnson says. Workers would bring their individual experiences and qualifications to the field, but “they needed a standard skill set or standard competency base to be able to approach the kinds of projects” that they worked on. After the disaster in Haiti in 2010, “there has been a push to professionalize the sector,” including Humanitarian U. The recent study was an attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of its first competency-based e-learning program. Johnson says Humanitarian U found that in organizations with online training, the beneficiaries of aid had better access to assistance and reported that their needs were better met.

One of the difficulties with humanitarian work is that finding the time for training can be difficult. During an emergency, workers are (understandably) focused on delivering aid, and organizations don’t provide much time for learning and development. Unfortunately, Johnson says, “if an organization doesn’t make time for learning and for continuous professional development while these people are working in the field, then there is no institutional memory, there is no translation of learning into practice.”

Below are five tips for the humanitarian sector to improve training throughout its labor force.

1. Include Professional Development in Grants

As nonprofit or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), humanitarian organizations are reliant on funding from sources such as grants. Johnson believes it’s important for organizations to write professional development into their grant proposals – and for donors to fund those requests. “In the end,” she says, “it benefits everybody. [The donors] get more bang for their buck,” and learners are able to provide better care to aid recipients.

2. Build a Talent Development Strategy

Having a “strategic vision” is important, Johnson says. Identify which skills each job role needs and how to train those roles. Additionally, for humanitarian work to become a profession with a career ladder (which will help organizations retain skilled workers), succession planning is important. Creating a plan for a strong leadership pipeline will not only ensure skilled managers and improve employee retention, but it will also have “a positive impact on … culture and team confidence,” writes Michele Markey, vice president of training operations for SkillPath.

3. Work With Partners

While large organizations might have all the resources in house to develop their talent, many smaller aid organizations do not, Johnson says. That’s why she believes, “We all need to start working together.” Creating a sector-wide standard for training will help organizations know what they need in their talent pool and help humanitarian workers advance their careers.

4. Provide Emotional Support

“One of the most important types of training that humanitarian organizations need involves dealing with the emotional labor of working in the nonprofit space,” says Dr. Sy Islam, an assistant professor at Farmingdale State College and a human capital consultant for Talent Metrics. “Many employees of nonprofits deal with a high level of stress and deal with stakeholders and customers in challenging situations.” This is especially true of workers assisting in disaster zones. Provide training for employees and volunteers on how to manage their emotions when responding to crises.

5. Don’t Forget Their Safety, Too

Humanitarian workers are in their job to protect and help other people – but don’t forget their safety, too. Your employees and volunteers are your greatest asset, so make sure your safety training programs are helping them manage risk and protect themselves. Make your training engaging and memorable, and you can help keep disasters from becoming even worse.

In 2018, 61.7 million people around the world were impacted by natural disasters, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). This number doesn’t include man-made disasters, wars, health crises and other situations to which humanitarian organizations respond. Unfortunately, these numbers are not likely to dissipate. Fortunately, humanitarian workers and volunteers are becoming better prepared to assist.