How Prioritizing Her Professional Development Helped This Nonprofit Strategist Gain Career Clarity

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

Heather Quinn has dedicated her career to helping others — as a nonprofit strategist, she supports communities through fundraising and grant strategy. But like many professionals in the nonprofit space, her focus on taking care of others meant that taking care of herself took a backseat. 

Ready for a change, Heather made a commitment to prioritize herself by applying to the MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellowship. See how taking on this stretch experience helped Heather own her worth and gain clarity on her career in her full story below!

What inspired you to “take the leap” and go Experteering?

Before applying to the Global Fellowship, I was at a crossroads in my personal and professional life. Well, not a crossroads exactly, but more like an absence of any road. I had studied nonprofit management in school, but after 5 years of working in the sector I was ready to go to the next level. I have always been interested in international work, so I decided to invest in my own development and pursue that goal through the Institute. 

What were you doing before going Experteering?

I was and still am working for the Texas branch of a national nonprofit dedicated to bringing outdoor experiential learning to high-poverty elementary schools. I am a fundraiser for the region — responsible for grant writing, fundraising campaigns, donor relationships, and anything that remotely relates to fundraising.

What did you do on your Experteering trip?

I worked with Coschool, a certified B Corp in Bogotá working to develop social and emotional skills in young people. Colombia is undergoing an exciting period of change following years of civil unrest, and Coschool is supporting this positive transformation by strengthening the education system. Its multi-pronged approach includes three programs:

  • Cotrain, which trains teachers, educators, and parents to create positive learning environments where students can learn and develop their life skills.
  • Colead, which involves project-based learning and design thinking to empower students to design and execute real social impact projects that change their reality and their communities. 
  • Campco, which is a character development summer camp.

Its innovative approach won Coschool big grants from well-known institutions like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, but the team felt under-prepared without a grant strategy in place to stay organized and seek out future opportunities. With my background in grant writing and fundraising, it was a perfect match!

Heather’s workspace at Coschool offices in Bogotá

I used design thinking methods to understand the context of the team, history of the organization, and to develop a solid idea of how things were currently operating. Then, I applied my experience writing grants and managing donor relationships to co-create a new grants process to help the team take advantage of future opportunities. This included developing a grant template to be used in the future and a list of prospects they could pursue right now. 

Since my time on-site was relatively short (I was in Bogota for only 1 week) I gained a lot of context beforehand and focused on conducting the workshops to maximize my time in-person. I was actually able to accomplish a lot more than I thought I would — I handed them a draft of the grants process and a draft calendar for activities to support their grant program by the end of my week there, and finished the template and prospect list within a few weeks of returning home.

Heather proudly representing Team Coschool!

What was the highlight of your Experteering trip?

The highlight was the insight I gained from the CEO of Coschool, Henry May. Henry’s a true social entrepreneur and it was inspiring and motivating to learn about his journey since he started Coschool five years ago. He gave me great coaching on how I could grow professionally as well as great feedback on how the in-person workshops went.

Henry, CEO of Coschool, and Heather

What was one thing you wish you knew before you went volunteering overseas?

I had a lot of pre-trip anxiety, and wish I’d had tools to manage that better. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to do everything perfectly, from navigating the international travel logistics to delivering the perfect product at the end of the project. 

My attempt to control every last thing was thwarted almost immediately by how difficult it was to get there: I ended up being delayed TWICE due to weather, which ultimately cut my trip even shorter. Life is funny sometimes — having everything go wrong on my way there ultimately deflated my ‘anxiety bubble’ completely because I had no choice but to accept what was happening. By the time I finally arrived, I was fully aware of what was and wasn’t within my control.

After the whole ordeal of trying to get there, I arrived totally ready to go with the flow. 

Despite the delays, Heather still made time to explore the beautiful city

What advice do you have for people thinking about Experteering?

1) Do it sooner rather than later. If you have a spark or flutter inside of you that makes you think this is for you, just do it. The more time you put between yourself and your experteering experience, you’ll only have regret. I structured my finances around being able to do this program and only looked at projects in countries where I knew I could afford the plane ticket. I only selected a project that offered housing, and I made it work despite only being able to take two weeks off of work. If you want it, you can make it happen! It is possible to make a real impact in a short amount of time.

2) Listen more than you talk. I waited until the last possible moment before my trip, after I had several conversations with Coschool, before I brainstormed some initial ideas for the project. The inability to plan somewhat added to my anxiety, but the final product I believe is so much more practical and authentic because I prioritized listening to the team I was working with and taking a human-centered design approach.

Anything else you want to add?

I was honestly shocked when I was accepted into the MWI fellowship. I thought there must’ve been a mistake. At the kickoff, I was so uncertain of what skills I could contribute. In the past, I’ve definitely left opportunities on the table because I wasn’t confident enough to speak up or put myself out there. After completing the Fellowship, I feel lightyears away from the person I was before. Plopping down in a country I’ve never been to before, with a Gates Foundation grant winner, and actually being able to add real value just blew the lid off of my self-limiting beliefs and boosted my confidence far beyond what it’s been for years.

Heather venturing into the unknown to explore the natural beauty of Colombia

How are you going to build on what you learned to create more of an impact in the future?

I feel more empowered to offer my skills to create impact inside and outside of my day job. The MWI tools and curriculum combined with my experteering experience showed me that I have value to offer, and it’s ok to stand confidently in owning that. It has inspired me to be more proactive in adding value, even before being asked (like if it’s not in my job description).

How did your Fellowship Cohort help you reach your goals?

The Office Hours each week really kept me on track. I felt myself slipping many times and it was difficult to keep up with the reading, but I always hopped on office hours anyway because the group is so supportive and warm. Since we learned really personal things about each other through the process, their advice was always very astute but not laden with baggage of knowing each other’s full career histories and paths. There is something tremendously valuable about having a group of like-minded people on the same journey towards re-invention. 

How would you describe the Fellowship to a friend or colleague?

It’s a personal and professional development mastermind for people who want to have a social impact. Not only is there tons of expert knowledge, but the value of the group adds the little bit extra that makes it even more valuable than one-on-one coaching. And if you’ve always wanted to volunteer abroad, the team will hold your hand throughout the process to make sure you’re matched with a safe and sustainable opportunity, plus give you the tools and framework to actually make a difference. Even if I hadn’t experteered, I still would have gotten a lot out of this fellowship (but I’m super glad I did!)

We’re grateful to Heather for sharing her experience with us, and to Coschool for the opportunity. If you’re ready to prioritize your personal and professional development, apply to join our next cohort of MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellows today!