Folks often say there is no substitute for experience. As the Endowment’s 2014-2016 Fellow, I have strategized with Latino health workers in South Carolina’s I-95 corridor, met with pastors fighting food insecurity in western North Carolina, discussed the launch of a graduate program with university administrators, and learned about child welfare alongside state leaders. These experiences will prove invaluable and have reaffirmed my desire to pursue a career in philanthropy.
Coming from the nonprofit sector, I had no idea how foundations really operate before joining the Endowment – this is why fellowship programs within philanthropy are so important. Many professions have a clearly delineated career path. Aspiring attorneys enter law school, complete internships, pass the bar, and join a firm. Future doctors attend medical school, earn a license, and complete a residency. But for those aiming to lead in the philanthropic sector, the path is not so clear. My fellowship has provided a direct lens into philanthropy while preparing me to lead in this dynamic environment.
As businesses, government, nonprofits, and society at large find new ways to tackle pressing issues, foundations must adapt to a shifting landscape and learn how to best support organizations and systems. My fellowship has helped me understand funder-grantee relationships while teaching me that effective foundations leverage more than just dollars. I have left numerous site visits where a program officer has said, “We probably won’t fund the project – but this is how we can help them.” This might mean connecting them to another funder, introducing them to a group focused on the same topic, or sharing lessons learned from a similar project. When my friends in nonprofits ask me for advice, I’m quick to offer: don’t take funding decisions personally; know that foundations answer to a board; and remember that these organizations have a mission, vision, and goals of their own.
Accompanying program officers on site visits, serving on various committees, representing the Endowment in the community, and presenting recommendations to our Board have all provided opportunities to observe – and practice – leadership. There are several great fellowship opportunities out there; this is good news for individuals seeking such an experience, as well as foundations interested in starting their own program. While these fellowships may look different from one foundation to the next, they share an opportunity to develop emerging leaders while providing the organization with new perspective and energy.