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The Program on Humanitarian Leadership

Nonprofit Organization Management • 1000-5000 employees • Based in Dublin, Ireland •


The Program on Humanitarian Leadership (PHL) provides training for humanitarian professionals who want to make a greater impact on the crises they’re taking on. They use Trakstar Hire to manage the applicants who apply to their program, rather than for hiring new employees.

Program Officer Michelle Dann was nice enough to speak with us about the great work PHL does and the selection process for their training program.

Can you provide a background on your organization?

I work for an international humanitarian organization called Concern Worldwide. We work in 26 of the world’s poorest countries, focusing on emergency response and long-term development programs in areas like livelihood, education and nutrition. Within our portfolio of programs, we also do humanitarian training and capacity building.

I work specifically on the Program on Humanitarian Leadership (PHL). It’s a consortium made up of Concern Worldwide, International Medical Corps, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative with technical support from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. It’s a collaborative effort so the program isn’t housed in one organization, although Concern Worldwide is leading PHL. The program consists of an in-person workshop, distance learning, mentoring where participants can be coached by technical and senior-level staff, a community of practice where the participants can learn from each other and some participants receive field placements with Concern or International Medical Corps. By the end of the program, participants will have the skills, knowledge and confidence to take on leadership responsibilities within a variety of humanitarian organizations, ultimately improving the delivery of services to those in need of humanitarian assistance.

What’s the history of your organization?

Concern Worldwide was founded in 1968. We’re an Irish-based organization and our main offices are in Dublin. It launched in response to the Biafra crisis, which occurred in Nigeria. A group of people came together and were concerned about people who didn’t have access to supplies, nutrition and other essentials. These people came together to raise money and develop programs that would make an impact. Over time, Concern’s mission became to focus on the hardest hit areas.

We help the poorest of the poor communities, helping them rebuild their communities.

What’s the history of PHL?

PHL is a new program that just started last year. I think the level of interest we saw for the program  demonstrates how significant the need is for more training programs for humanitarian staff. The humanitarian industry, if you will, is  relatively new. It has really only gained strength over the latter half of the last century. So more recently there’s been a big push to professionalize the sector and provide training on the capacities staff should have.

Unfortunately, emergencies are not going away. As you see today, there are several protracted and serious crises around the world. There aren’t enough people with the skills and experience necessary to be deployed and manage long-term relief efforts.

When we did our call for applications in 2016, we thought we might break the 100 application mark if we were lucky. We ended up receiving more than 750 applications from people worldwide with varying levels of experience. We had applicants from people working in NGOs (non-governmental organizations), the United Nations., government disaster management agencies, the private sector – across the entire gamut of actors involved in humanitarian response.

It was great to see that so many people were just emphatic about their desire for, career development and training.

We were initially not actually going to be able to run a second round of the training this year. However, we get our funding from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and they gave us additional funding which enabled us to offer another in-person training this year. We did another call for applications and received over 1,500 for 37 spaces. Last year the application was a word document and sometimes people attached their application and supplemental materials separately. It was a very lengthy process to sort through them. If we had done this year’s cycle manually instead of online we might still be reading applications!


Beyond skills and experience, what do you value in the people you admit to your program?

We look at people’s ability to represent what their career ambitions are and how they would utilize the skills they would gain in the training as they return to their organizations.

As we narrowed down our pool during the process, we looked for people who had a vision and could say, “these are components in the program that are of interest to me and this is how I want to use them in my own work.”

What are the steps in your selection process?

We started by screening applications as they came in. Our team grouped applicants into buckets of “yes,” “no” and “maybe.” Within the yes bucket, we used “high-maybe” and “low-maybe” buckets as a way to group our finalists. The sheer volume of qualified applicants meant that we needed a way to flag which candidates might be more suitable. We utilized the ‘label’ function to tag specific attributes of significance to us so that we could easily highlight which candidates had specific skillsets rather than needing to re-read those applications in their entirety.

Our program draws people internationally so we narrowed it down to a shortlist of candidates to call and did Skype and phone interviews. We ranked people with specific criteria during these interviews and then the full team came together to compare the finalists and make sure we were selecting a diverse group representing as many different skills, experiences, and working environments as possible.

Because we’re working on humanitarian emergencies, we definitely wanted to make sure there is a good breadth of experience levels and geographical spread. We have people representing different areas globally where there are major emergencies right now, so for example we have some people who are working on different components of the Syria crisis and crises in Africa.

Within that group, there’s different skillsets. There are some people that might be working on education programs or logistics. We wanted to ensure we were getting people that had specific or unique skills to diversify the group.

Do you have any favorite interview questions you like to ask or ways you like to conduct interviews?

We have two people on an interview so there is more of a group atmosphere. We explain a little bit about the program and we ask about the work the candidate is doing.

Because it’s a leadership program, we try to identify people who are able to speak confidently and have a clear vision of what they want their future role in their organization to be. We ask a scenario-based question about a time they saw a past coworker or supervisor do something that demonstrated poor leadership. We ask what they learned from it and how it affected the situation they were in.

We’ve heard some really great stories from candidates who recognized a problem and jumped in. In many cases, it ended up changing how they interacted with co workers or their position in the team or department.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I’m one of those obnoxiously positive people, I love my job. We’re imparting knowledge to people who are working tirelessly, in extremely challenging circumstances and settings, doing absolutely amazing work. In the world’s biggest crises, they’re making a phenomenal direct impact. They’re doing the things we see in the newspapers, working closely with communities, to get people back on their feet. It’s a great feeling at the end of the day to be able to learn from them, help them share their best practices with each other, and see them return to their organizations and share the knowledge they got from our program with their colleagues.

What’s the outlook for your organization?

What’s really exciting is PHL will go online at the end of the year. Since we work with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at Harvard University, we have a lot of really good resources for training and setting up online educational components. What’s great is we have a very high demand for our program, so when we put this information online at the end of the year, anybody, anywhere will be able to access it.  


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