If you’ve searched for or posted a nonprofit career opportunity lately, then you’ve probably noticed the large number of fellowship opportunities in today’s marketplace. Increasingly, fellowships are serving to address gaps in how the social impact sector recruits, develops, and supports talent across the career life stage. In fact, ProFellow, a source of information on professional and academic fellowships, has nearly 20,000 fellowship seekers and 400 professional-focused fellowships in its global database.
Why are fellowships so attractive to participants and organizations alike? Common benefits include:
- An intentional focus on leadership development
- A combination of on-the-job experience and theory, allowing for real-time application and deeper learning
- The creation of support systems in the form of cohorts, mentors, and networks
With so much interest, we wanted to better understand the fellowship field and harness those learnings for sector-wide benefit. In 2014, ProInspire and ProFellow conducted a survey and analysis of fellowship programs to gather the first benchmarking dataset in the field. Forty-six fellowship programs participated in the survey, including well-known programs from organizations such as Acumen, Ashoka, Aspen Institute, Echoing Green, and Independent Sector.
Our research documented the rapid evolution of the fellowship field over the past 15 years. In fact, 76 percent of the programs in our survey started in 2000 or later. The research also confirmed the primary focus of fellowship programs on “emerging leaders”—individuals under 40. We also identified some clear takeaways for how social impact organizations and funders can infuse fellowship practices in their own talent management strategies.
Defining Social Impact Fellowships
Our research created the first definition and framework for understanding social impact fellowships:
A social impact fellowship enhances the value created by talent in the social impact sector, as a structured, professionally oriented, time-bound, and selective program in which talent enrolls.
There are four main types of fellowships, each distinguished by its value proposition to talent and to the sectors:
- Match Makers facilitate matching of fellows with public and social sector employers to serve in substantial, full-time roles (examples include Code for America, ProInspire Fellowship).
- Launchpads bring new organizations and models to the world by helping fellows launch new ventures (Ashoka Fellows, Echoing Green Fellows).
- People Accelerators amplify the impact of existing leaders through leadership and professional development (American Express NGen Fellows, Rockwood Leading from the Inside Out).
- Strategic Employers advance their own mission through the work of fellows in a structured program that offers exposure and sector experience (Acumen Global Fellows, Kiva Fellows).
Learning from Fellowships
Although the fellowship field is fairly diverse, there are clear lessons for social impact organizations and funders on how to manage talent:
1. Build internal structures that deliver the benefits of fellowships.
Organizations can adopt some aspects of fellowships that make them attractive to emerging leaders—a group characterized by their desire for leadership development, growth opportunities, and shorter average job tenures. For example:
- Embed leadership development in the planning process. Bridgespan lays out a detailed guide for how to do this in “Nonprofit Leadership Development: What's Your “Plan A” for Growing Future Leaders?”
- Define structured, time-limited assignments for talented employees. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, describes a “tour of duty” approach in The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.
- Enable support systems for employees. While most nonprofits are too small to create a cohort of employees at the same level, they can encourage individuals to get involved with peer networks such as Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, Net Impact, Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. In addition, organizations can foster a culture of relationship-building through one-on-one “meet and greets” with new employees. ProInspire highlights this approach in “Onboarding is More than Orientation.”
2. Expand hiring criteria and processes to reach new talent pools.
We learned from Match Maker- and Strategic Employer-type fellowships that people want entry paths into the social impact sector. Organizations can capitalize on this opportunity with some concrete activities:
- Expand hiring criteria. Many nonprofit job descriptions include narrow requirements around education, work experience, or industry experience. This approach limits access to strong candidates who could bring diverse experiences. Match maker fellowships have succeeded in tapping broader pipelines by targeting people who are not currently working in the sector, often resulting in greater diversity of race and ethnicity, skill sets, and experiences than traditional sector hiring practices. For example, Public Allies recruits young people from the communities served by their programs. Traditionally, 35-40 percent of members don’t have a college degree prior to serving, and more than 75 percent hold jobs in the public and nonprofit sector after their service. Host organizations laud the unique value the non-degreed members bring to their organization's ability to deliver mission.
- Tap into different networks. Fellowship programs often go beyond posting on job boards and establish networks specifically for recruiting. Global Health Corps (GHC) targets professional associations, cultivates relationships with schools, and hosts informational sessions. GHC also engages fellows and alumni as ambassadors in its recruitment efforts.
- Clearly define your value proposition to potential employees. Nonprofits tend to focus on what they want from a potential hire, not on communicating how potential employees will benefit from working with them. Fellowships, on the other hand, convey a balanced message between what the employee will contribute to and gain from the experience. Nonprofits can highlight their culture, the exposure a potential hire will gain, and career paths of past employees.
3. Leverage cohort-based programs to advance grant priorities.
Funders can support fellowships and other cohort-based learning initiatives to move forward their grant priorities. Seventy percent of survey respondents receive foundation support, and foundations actually run 10 percent of the programs. Still, respondents identified fundraising as the most common challenge facing fellowship programs. Opportunities for funders include:
- Identifying leadership skills needed in grantees to affect systemic change. The Annie E. Casey Foundation created its Children and Family Fellowship over 20 years ago in recognition of the long-lasting improvements to the lives of children and families accomplished through results-oriented leadership. The foundation’s $2.2 million direct investment in fellowship grants has resulted in nearly $30 million in additional leveraged funds, and critical changes to government systems and operations.
- Creating multiple strategies to seed and develop leadership. Foundations will not solve how the social impact sector manages talent with one single investment. Funders should create different strategies to address leadership challenges related to the problems they seek to solve. For example, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has enhanced leadership in the education space through investments in its own programs and the funding of other fellowships.
The growth of the fellowship industry validates the desire for greater investment in talent in the social impact sector. Organizations can adopt some of the practices of fellowships to build their own capacity in recruiting, developing, and supporting talent.
This is the final post in the Talent Matters blog series. The interest and knowledge-sharing generated by this series has motivated us to continue the discussion. The co-curators of this series (Net Impact, ProInspire, and the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund) invite you to stay connected on this topic through the LinkedIn group Talent Matters for Social Impact.