Doing good
When It Comes to Disaster Preparedness, Are Our Priorities Wrong?
Free Enterprise Staff | February 5, 2015

Everyone has seen what happens in the aftermath of a major natural disaster or serious public health threat, with huge amounts of money spent and governments scrambling to react quickly. But what if training for disaster preparedness were better structured and available online to anyone around the world? Could it fundamentally change how we respond to the unexpected and calamitous?

DisasterReady.org is at the forefront of this new model. Working directly with international aid organizations like the United Nations, UNICEF, and Save the Children, DisasterReady.org is pioneering an altogether innovative approach by ensuring that aid workers across the globe have access to free, high-quality training in all kinds of important areas.

DisasterReady.org has strong roots in the training space. Its parent company, Cornerstone OnDemand*, has been providing cloud-based talent management software for over a decade. In April of 2013, the Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation launched DisasterReady.org to “transform the way people help people.”

Since it began operating , DisasterReady.org has provided international aid workers with access to a growing library of courses on subjects such as protection, management and leadership, and safety and security. The nonprofit’s online courses have already impacted thousands of humanitarian workers across the globe, says Atish Gonsalves, the group’s director.

With his extensive experience in the global nonprofit sector, Gonsalves has helped DisasterReady.org hone its strategy and partnerships since he joined the organization in mid-2013. Over that period of time, he’s seen its influence and membership grow rapidly: An upstart agency barely 2 years ago, DisasterReady.org now has 40,000 users in more than 190 countries, with approximately 500 new users signing on each week.

During a recent interview with Free Enterprise, Gonsalves talked about his background and DisasterReady.org’s mission, and he discussed how the organization will continue to hone its model and better structure the free classes it offers to learners across the globe.

Where’d the idea for DisasterReady.org come from? 

The original idea came from Save the Children, which is one of the Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation’s partners. In 2010, there were huge floods in Pakistan, and they were recruiting staff and volunteers to go to this emergency. At that time, they came to the Foundation because they needed a way to rapidly train people who were getting deployed out, so that was really the genesis of our initiative.

What’s your organization’s objective?

The goal of DisasterReady.org is to provide aid workers with high-quality training at no cost and make it easier for aid workers to come together, share best practices, and prepare, whether they’re working in natural disasters, conflicts, or complex disasters. We’ve accomplished this by creating a website that uses sophisticated technology that enables these aid workers and volunteers to learn and connect with each other. We’ve worked with many partners—including global agencies like the Red Cross and Oxfam—to compile our content and build it out.

What kind of content do you offer?

Our content is quite wide ranging, covering everything from basic humanitarian principles and standards to very technical operational areas like food and shelter and protecting young, vulnerable children in disasters. Staff safety is also a huge area, so we strive to provide volunteers and aid workers with the tools they need to protect not just themselves when they’re working these kinds of disasters but also their teams and staff.

Because a lot of these aid workers need to know how to write proposals, work effectively under these high-stress environments, and manage their teams, we have a lot of soft skills classes that revolve around writing, wellness and staff care. We also offer communication and language courses because a lot of these operations take place in different countries and cultural contexts, so aid workers need to be able to communicate with the local population. In total, we offer roughly 400 online courses today in a number of these different topic areas, and we have live webinars that feature expert speakers, which we run once or twice a month.

How do you structure your content so members are able to find what they’re looking for?

We’ve started to package our content by different roles, by different types of emergencies, by different times in the emergencies that they would go out—those kinds of criteria. For example, we’ve created a Humanitarian Starter Pack which really targets new aid workers who are either new to the area of work or are going on their first emergency deployment somewhere.

There are also more specialized training courses in areas such as security. We also have content around water and sanitation, protection, shelter service, as well as more technical areas. We’ve also started to package content that’s more relevant for people who have more experience, so it helps them with leadership skills and better assembling teams in these kinds of tense environments.

How do you make sure aid workers and volunteers take advantage of your programs? 

We build awareness of DisasterReady.org with the more than 250,000 aid workers around the world primarily through social media, word-of-mouth and search engines. The other channel is through big agencies like the UN, which do work with a number of organizations in the field. So, simply by going through them we manage to hit a number of other small organizations, and that has a cascading effect. We do go out in the field, as well. The last piece is that, since a number of our operations do happen in locations where the internet is patchy, we also have offline solutions available. By doing so, we’re able to reach out to thousands of workers who would never have been able to access them otherwise.

Why is disaster preparedness so important?

Studies have shown that only 1% of spending in these kinds of situations goes toward disaster preparedness. For every $1 that is spent, however, $4 is saved, which shows how big of an impact the work we’re doing can have on communities. The more prepared communities are before disasters hit, the more resilient they’re going to be after, and the fallout in terms of economic losses and the loss of lives is much lower.

*Cornerstone OnDemand won the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship award for Best Disaster Response and Community Resilience Program Award in 2014 for its DisasterReady.org platform.