by Darcy Lockman for Who Cares Magazine
During one nine-month period, Amy Field worked in the media, on a political campaign, in the government, and with a labor union, a business, and a nonprofit. No, she's not the biggest flake you've ever heard of: She's a former Coro fellow.
The Coro Fellows Program is a full-time graduate-level program that matches its fellows with leaders of public affairs organizations for six short internships. One of the oldest and most prestigious fellowships, it strives to produce effective community leaders.
The Coro fellowship is just one of many programs that allow nonprofit types to check out different areas of public affairs, as well as trade ideas with fellow do-gooders, take classes in relevant fields or just take a much-needed breather.
Fellowships can remove you from your day-to-day life and remind you what spawned your interest in nonprofit work in the first place, offering new ideas and fresh plans to implement in your own organization.
Field, who currently recruits fellows for Coro, chose to pursue a fellowship after college because she wasn't sure where she wanted to go in the nonprofit sector.
"I was introduced to an entirely new set of options," she says. "I didn't know how to find out what I was good at. Through the fellowship, I did a different internship every month. It was an exploration and discovery of what's out there in public affairs. As someone who wants to make a difference, I was allowed to figure out what ways there are to do that."
A fellowship can give you the necessary experience to make a difference effectively. "It's difficult to find a public interest job," explains Gia Lee, a Georgetown University Women's Law and Public Policy fellow, "especially doing litigation, straight out of law school. Public interest organizations don't have the time or resources to train new lawyers, and litigation takes a lot of training so they want people with experience. It's a valuable proposition for the recent grad because the organization invests a great deal in you in terms of training. It works out well for them, too, because they don't have to pay for your services-your fellowship does that."
Not, it should be added, very well. Where Lee's classmates graduated into corporate firms whose salaries begin just under six figures, public interest law fellows typically earn in the mid-30s. Like other fellows, of course, Lee is not in this for the money. She has always been interested in women's and civil rights. This year-long fellowship will give her the opportunity to become something of an expert on both.
Lee's anxious about still having to find a public interest job at the end of year. She shouldn't be. When Field's fellowship finished, she received four job offers without lifting a resume-demonstrating that the primary benefit of a fellowship is the contacts that you make.
Current fellows and alums throughout the nonprofit sector claim that out of all the fellowship perks-seminars, retreats, professional training, cash, etc.-the contacts that they make have the most lasting impact on their work.
Kellogg National Leadership Program fellow Tony Defeill explains: "I founded a nonprofit a few years ago with a lot of involvement from others, but I was the one that stuck around for the long haul. I felt like I was out there on my own. I didn't have mentors or a fellowship of peers to nurture and support what I do. Now I have that. Through my interactions with these people, I'm challenged to think differently. I learn to work with people in a way that can affect change in a different manner than I was familiar with before."
"The notion of a peer support group is significant," notes Henry Izumizaki, executive director of San Francisco Bay Area Eureka Communities, an organization that brings together the executive directors of community-based organizations to improve their leadership skills. "Nonprofit folks tend to be competitive instead of supportive because they're going after the same funding sources, looking for the right staffs. They need to build trusting relationships to overcome this because they can learn so much from each other. A fellowship offers an avenue for doing this."
"If I'm having trouble with a certain situation," says Saundra Bryant, Eureka fellow and executive director of All People's Christian Center, "I can call one of my Eureka fellows and ask how they've handled it. A couple of us are even joining forces to work on a collaborative project."
Through the people that fellows meet as well as the experiences that they have, fellowships also offer a singular opportunity for growth-both professionally and
personally. Many programs, such as the Kellogg Foundation, fund their fellows' interests in subjects that are only tangential to their areas of concentration. They'll pay for you to take guitar lessons, for example, or yoga classes if you believe that it will somehow enhance your personal or professional life.
Says Defeill, "All of it makes you better at the work you do, and if the work you do is improving the world than fellowships improve the world." However, fellowships may not improve your marriage: Defeill reports that married fellows often complain of outgrowing their mates.
Fellowships are undergoing some changes themselves. Programs like Kellogg and Eureka have started to wonder whether their fellows are contributing to the goals that the fellowships exist to advance. "Even after years of lots of money going in," explains Izumizaki, "there was no overt or clear outcome required. So none was evaluated. People are looking at that and wondering, hmm, what happened here?" Kellogg has hired someone to find out.
Although future fellows may find more pressure to produce solid results, they'll also find a more activist-friendly funding environment. Douglas Maguire, the director of the Fund for Social Entrepreneurs, says that "there's a move toward increased flexibility on the part of funders to meet the real time needs of tomorrow's community leaders, rather than have the community leaders jump through a series of hoops to meet the cycles of foundations. We're moving towards a more customer-driven system."
Fellowship programs are figuring out other ways to help their fellows better. They recognize that the greatest benefit that they can provide is professional contacts. Following the example of fellowships from other professions like law and medicine, many nonprofit fellowship programs are working to put together tight alumni networks by hiring people to assemble rosters and make former fellows accessible to one another.
They're looking at professional programs like the Georgetown University Women's Law and Public Policy Fellowship, which introduces its lawyer fellows to top civil-rights attorneys and makes sure that they attend prestigious legal events-like a moot court at the Supreme Court or a dinner to celebrate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade-for ways to open similar doors for their fellows. "Many of the programs have been around," says Maguire. "There's now a base of people who've been through these programs and we want to tap the asset that's been created."
In the end, though, it's not who you know but who you are. Although all of the people interviewed for this story would choose to do their fellowships again if given the chance, "there's no one-to-one relationship between success of a fellowship and success of a person," says Izumizaki. "A fellowship is a tool, and the people who know how to use the tool kit will be the most successful."
Anastasia M. Warpinski provided research assistance for this article.