Getting certified can be an important factor in career mobility, employability, and upholding high sector standards. Online certifications are one way to increase access and ensure content aligns with current best practices.

According to a survey — which is not yet publicly available — that we have done at online learning site DisasterReady.org, 94% of aid workers see certifications as an opportunity for professionals to demonstrate their skills, knowledge of a role, and commitment to continuous professional development.

What separates a certification from a course is the assessment and validation of knowledge. And for many humanitarians, particularly those working as national staff members, this validation of knowledge can be a key component of career advancement, particularly when valued by employers.

We need to provide all professionals ... with the opportunity to gain the foundational knowledge required to be effective in the most high-demand humanitarian roles.

Although we at DisasterReady.org have seen an increase in demand for these certifications around the world, we’ve also seen an increase in the barriers learners face in achieving their certifications.

For decades, earning traditional certifications has been fee-based and required hours of in-person training before completing an exam. The whole process can be time-consuming and costly and has often meant individuals have to choose between continuing their studies and gaining experience in the field.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, travel restrictions and social-distancing measures make in-person learning and exams even more challenging to administer.

Online certification programs are one way to overcome these challenges. Online and on-demand learning allows anyone with sufficient internet bandwidth to take courses at their own pace and complete the exam online when ready.

Some certificate and certification programs — such as DisaterReady.org and NonprofitReady.org’s core humanitarian certification and nonprofit essentials certificate — offer training for free, expanding access, career mobility, and career opportunities for humanitarian professionals, particularly those in low-income nations who often have very limited time and money to spend on formal training.

Some examples of no-cost, assessment-based certificate programs from DisasterReady for early-stage professionals include the procurement and logistics and fundraising certificates. More rigorous certification programs, like Humanitarian U’s core humanitarian certification, can help both new and experienced professionals advance their careers at no cost.

The value of online certifications

Even if all educational institutions were to make certifications free, base their content on sector-approved standards, bring courses online, and translate modules into multiple languages, the value and demand for these certifications would still largely depend on the value placed upon them by a hiring manager or organization.

Mercy Corps is one organization taking the lead in validating the certified skill sets most meaningful to its group. The nongovernmental organization is not simply offering certification opportunities to staff members but is encouraging them to complete these certifications by promoting them to all local partners, said Jocelyne Takatsuno, director of the Investing in Syrian Humanitarian Action program at Mercy Corps, in an interview with us.

“For some of our partnership work, we will go beyond promoting it, but we will include it as part of the foundational capacity-strengthening activities that we require 100% of the staff within that partner organization to complete,” she said, noting that this is important when partnerships span multiple countries and many staffers experience restricted travel permissions.

“It also helps us avoid situations where only a few staff benefit from trainings and information is not widely disseminated to all the people who need it in order to effect change,” she added.

John Cropper, co-founder of Pyramid Learning — a training consultancy for NGOs — told us that a number of organizations, including Mercy Corps, have adopted a project management certification called Project DPro, listing it as a desired qualification. Plan InternationalSave the Children, and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation are the others that have adopted the Project DPro standard as the foundation for their own project management methodologies, Cropper said.

It is our hope that more humanitarian organizations follow in their footsteps.

Some front-line managers might question the value of mandating deep engagement with certifications considering the time required, but it is important to consider the value for organizations that comes with carving out time for career development and to recognize that certifications are even more effective when learners engage with the material in a standardized way across an organization.

For organizations, such certifications could mean a cost-effective and safe way of providing learning opportunities for staff members — given no travel or, at times, no expense — and having more staffers with skill sets that align with core competencies for success in the sector.

To make it possible for everyone in the sector to earn certifications aligned with their career goals, DisasterReady has supplemented its library of free online learning resources with a curated collection of assessment-based certificates and certifications.

The core humanitarian certification from Humanitarian U and DisasterReady covers four essential topics for humanitarians at all levels:

— Humanitarian context, systems and standards.

— Building blocks for humanitarian practice.

— Humanitarian cross-cutting themes and future directions.

— Disaster response.

Today, learners can choose from 10 certifications developed by reputable organizations in the sector, such as the International NGO Safety and Security AssociationProfessionals in Humanitarian Assistance and ProtectionPM4NGOs, and Humentum. Recently, DisasterReady has added the core humanitarian certification from Humanitarian U.

With more opportunities available, establishing the value of these certifications lies first with the certifying bodies, which must ensure their content is applicable to current circumstances and that their assessments are rigorous enough to measure competencies.

An equal responsibility lies with NGOs to recognize these rigorous certifications when making hiring and promotion decisions and providing their staff members the time and resources to earn new certifications throughout their careers. Many organizations have already taken positive steps on both these fronts.

For our sector to cultivate a thriving workforce, we need to provide all professionals — particularly those at an early stage in their careers — with the opportunity to gain the foundational knowledge required to be effective in the most high-demand humanitarian roles.

Tina Bolding

Tina Bolding

Tina Bolding is the director of DisasterReady.org and is responsible for the strategy, development, and outreach of DisasterReady to support the critical and demanding training needs of the global humanitarian and development community. Before joining the foundation, Bolding served as chief human resources officer at Food for the Hungry, where she was responsible for HR operations across 22 countries.

Kirsten Johnson

Kirsten Johnson

Dr. Kirsten Johnson is an associate professor of emergency medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She practices emergency medicine at McGill University's Health Centre Hospitals and is the incoming president for the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians. As CEO of Humanitarian U, she is involved in humanitarian professionalization, working on the development of competencies and standards for the training, education, and certification of humanitarian responders globally.

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