Fellowships are popular in the philanthropic community, and in other sectors, as a tool for advancing equity and diversity. Here are some reflections on what I’ve gained by participating in them—and how funders can help increase their impact.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel at the 2019 Unity Summit with others who participated in equity-focused fellowships at various stages in their careers. Our panel, titled “Super Cohorts: Bridging Power Towards Justice by Connecting across Cohorts,” focused on shared experiences from alumni of philanthropy fellowships, with the goal of demonstrating how bridging power across fellowships and within cohorts can further equity and action in the field. During our panel, I discussed a few insights for developing robust networks among alumni of equity-focused fellowships.
Personally, fellowships have helped jumpstart my career, expand my networks, and identify a place where I could have the most impact. Most notably, the Environmental Fellows Program, a partnership between the University of Michigan and Environmental Grantmakers Association, served as my gateway into the field of environmental philanthropy. After having participated in, and worked for, this fellowship and others, there are two areas that I think all fellowship sponsors should consider when seeking to maximize the impact of fellowship programs.
#1: Help fellows build connections that increase collective social capital
Building social capital is often critical to advancing a successful career, and fellowships can contribute to the development of that capital by broadening social networks and extending access to positions of power. For people of color, who have historically lacked access to strong professional networks due to structural barriers, fellowships can offer a ‘leg-up’ to increasing social capital. The relationships built through fellowships, and maintained through alumni networks, help support career development, thereby possibly granting a person greater influence over systemic issues affecting their communities. For example, I was able to connect with powerful individuals as part of my first EGA Fall Retreat with the Environmental Fellows, which eventually set up my career pathway to work with foundations, families, and individuals who seek outsized impact in the environmental movement.
Maintaining alumni networks that extend well beyond the duration of the actual fellowship is often critical to success. Such alumni networks can look different for different fellowships. For the Environmental Fellows, we continue to stay in touch through various channels and use the network as a space for elevating and learning from each other. One way we do this is through our alumni listserv, where we share job postings, speaking engagement opportunities, and career updates.
#2: Ensure that fellows are supported during and after fellowships to avoid replicating systems that can isolate them.
As one of the speakers on our panel noted, it’s ‘fellowship’ not ‘organizationship’. Centering the fellows during and after fellowships helps ensure their time spent during the fellowship is meaningful and that relationships last after the formal fellowship period ends. For people of color undergoing their fellowship, support systems are critical to success since not everyone is used to working in spaces where white dominant culture is deeply embedded in organizational norms, practices, and policies. Additionally, fellowship sponsors or supporters should be intentional about how they integrate fellows into the work in order to avoid having them feel simultaneously included and excluded, as staff of color at environmental organizations have reported. My cohort members in the Environmental Fellows Program often expressed similar feelings, and while we mostly coped with these occurrences through dialogue among ourselves and program staff, fellowship sponsors can play a more active role by intentionally creating engagements where fellows can meaningful contribute to the work.
Considering what happens after a fellowship ends is crucial. Developing alumni engagement activities or programming in advance helps instill the vision of a robust network for both fellows and program staff, thereby supporting long-term connection building. To that end, it’s great to get creative! The Funders’ Network PLACES Fellows holds an annual book club for cross-cohorts, while the Environmental Fellows alumni meet at an annual conference to connect with one another and with environmental professionals.
My fellowship experience has been a meaningful and important part of my life, personally and professionally. If you’re thinking about starting a fellowship or strengthening ties among fellowship alumni, then I encourage you to seek out past fellows and learn from them to help guide your journey.