Alumni Spotlight: Patricia Harrison, World Learning

Patricia Harrison

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World Learning is a Washington, D.C.-based international nonprofit organization focused on empowering local communities around the world. Through development, cross-cultural exchange, and educational programs, they provide resources and training for emerging leaders to help change their societies. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with alumna Patricia Harrison, Director of Global Exchange Programs at World Learning, about her experiences working in the nonprofit sector and her time in CPNL’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL): Why did you want to work in the nonprofit sector? 

Patricia Harrison: I transitioned into the nonprofit sector through volunteer work. I had a volunteer position leading an English conversation group for international students and that was my personal outlet that I really loved. It was one of those volunteer jobs that got out of control and became a full-time job. I’ve remained in the sector because it is a place that rewards collaboration and creativity like no other sector does. Competition doesn’t really serve people well in the nonprofit sector. It’s much more productive and constructive to build relationships and collaborate on projects to share resources and expertise. In this way it becomes, for me, much more satisfying. I am also motivated by mission-driven work and feel fortunate to work for a nonprofit where my personal values line up closely with the work that I do on a daily basis. That is deeply satisfying. It’s a feeling I know many others in the nonprofit sector can relate to.

CPNL: What is the most fulfilling part of your current role?

Patricia Harrison: There are two parts and the first is very mundane: I enjoy systems administration. I enjoy working with people and processes to make them more efficient and effective. Being a nonprofit director is satisfying in that sense. That’s what my job is really – ensuring that my team has what it needs in order to do their work. When you’re the director everybody brings you their problems (either that, or papers to sign). So it’s always about troubleshooting and problem solving and increasing effectiveness. That’s the work I enjoy doing and what I would probably do in any kind of sector that I’m involved in. But the second part that is fulfilling is the mission-driven component: World Learning promotes tolerance, leadership, and cross-cultural understanding through international education and exchange. That is what I am passionate about, and I am deeply committed to introducing people of other cultures to allow them to learn from one another, to promote the positive benefits of diversity, and to encourage international understanding. What we are doing on a daily basis, person to person, is building that kind of international collaboration and understanding. That’s what gets me up in the morning and gets me so excited about this work. I’m also grateful that our work is future-oriented. We’re working less on “problems” and more on constructive solutions to encourage better collaboration for people across cultures. Our programs also teach leadership skills and that’s an important component because we are working with the people who are most equipped to make a difference in their local communities.

CPNL: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Patricia Harrison: Rebuilding and restructuring a team so that it was healthier for employees, it functioned more effectively, and our work performance improved. When I started, first as manager and later as director, there was a lot of work to do to cultivate a fresh culture in the team that emphasized collaboration and increased the quality of our work. That was my first goal for rebuilding the team, and I feel proud that that’s something that people cite when they’re asked why they stay at the organization. Turnover on my team dramatically decreased after the first year or so, and I think that was a sign people liked being here and that they enjoy their work and find it fulfilling.

CPNL: What was your biggest takeaway from the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate program?

Patricia Harrison: For me, it was having the building blocks or the puzzle pieces that I could add together to address some of the struggles I was having in my current position. The combination of the strategic planning session with financial analysis have helped me to start a new program here in my unit that I am building from the ground up. I’ve been able to do it more efficiently because I have a more effective plan with a better timeline. I think that the strategic planning course gave me the tools that I needed to put into place a feasible plan to get this project off the ground. The financial analysis part gave me some of the numeracy skills and the background that I needed to set up a more cost-effective program. It has required managing sideways across my organization and in many cases with people that I haven’t worked with before and with whom I don’t have a direct relationship. I have been able to encourage them to work collaboratively with me to get it done. Another major takeaway was learning best practices for board members; the Certificate Program provided me with a better grasp of the role that a board plays in effective non-profit management. I recently joined the Board of Directors at Global Ties U.S., and I know that I will be a better board member because of what I learned in the course.  Those are the major parts of the course that have had the most direct impact for me, but I also appreciated many of the other parts. I appreciated the HR management course, and thinking about the nonprofit field overall and having the overview of the whole sector and the challenges that it faces was really helpful. It showed me where I’m not alone and where my organization has some weaknesses that we need to address. It gave me some practical tools straight out of the box on the first day back at the office.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Patricia Harrison: I appreciate the formal certification because it acknowledges my professionalism – that’s very helpful because I don’t have any degrees otherwise that connect what I am doing now. I also think that it gave me tools and some expertise that I could immediately share with my colleagues. The new project that I’m starting is a direct result of my capstone project, which was a strategic plan for a new initiative. The capstone assignment not only gave me a quick start but it enabled me to think through several of the issues that I immediately needed to address, and I presented that plan to the board and the senior leadership of the organization. In that sense it gave me internal legitimacy and a jump start on the project much more effectively than if I had just stumbled through it on my own. In December, I’m planning to roll out the project that was a result of my capstone.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Patricia Harrison: The benefits of building a network of people who don’t work in your immediate organization and immediate area are terrific. It’s great to be able to meet other nonprofit professionals and hear about their challenges even if – and especially if – they are working in different areas. It gives you a fresh perspective and emotional and mental support as you share similar struggles. The sabbatical time that is represented in the course of having time away from the day-to-day job to really think hard about big issues in a field and within each organization is invaluable.