CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Foundation fellowships are lowering the average age of foundation staffers, while providing a fresh perspective to the world of traditional grantmaking.
“I don’t know that a year and a half ago I could have defined what a foundation was,” says Elizabeth Ireland, first-year fellow at The Duke Endowment in Charlotte.
Then a class on philanthropy her senior year at Davidson College led this frequent nonprofit volunteer to consider a career on the other side of the grant application.
Brika Eklund, a second-year fellow at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem who made her way through Davidson on a community-service scholarship, says that in applying for the fellowship, she too sought to expand her knowledge of philanthropy from direct-service work to considerations of public policy and systems change.
Three North Carolina grantmakers, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, The Duke Endowment and, most recently, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, also in Winston-Salem, offer two-year fellowships to recent college graduates or graduate-degree recipients.
Eklund describes the fellows’ work as the “middle ground between internship and program officer.”
These junior program officers, as they often call themselves, typically cycle through each of the foundation’s program areas, supporting program staff in grant analysis and evaluation.
They read grant applications, meet with applicants and present information to the foundation’s board, just like program officers do.
Fellows say they collaborate both formally and informally through shared lunches and support groups like the Emerging Leaders Working Group at the North Carolina Network of Grantmakers.
A fellowship gives young graduates time not only to experience more fully the day-to-day work of a foundation professional, but also to develop their own projects.
“I definitely feel like I have my own niche,” says Ireland. “I came in with my own personal fit that happened to coincide with the Endowment.”
The Duke Endowment requires all fellows to complete a “capstone project.”
For her project, working with a church in Wilmington to reach out to the Latino community on health issues, Ireland has been able to combine her interests and strengths — she majored in religion and spent a semester studying in Bolivia project — with two of the Endowment’s focus areas, health care and rural churches.
The capstone project of second-year fellow Margaret Andrews is a human papilloma virus education and vaccination program for young girls, and will continue as an initiative of the Duke Endowment’s health-care program even after her fellowship is over.
“Sometimes when you start a fellowship program, it helps you look beyond just one program area, because our role is to ask questions,” Ireland says.
Gene Cochrane, president of the Duke Endowment, agrees.
“They’re really good at asking, ‘Why do you do it that way?’,” he says. “For those of us that have been here for a good while, that’s a very important discipline to go through.”
Though the influx of fresh faces is a key benefit of fellowships, Cochrane says the initial goal in founding The Duke Endowment’s program was not to keep fellows in the foundation world forever.
“It was to increase that pipeline of people that had a foundation experience,” he says. “We didn’t and we don’t say this is training ground for foundation jobs. We try to say it’s a training ground for not-for-profit.”
Exposure to several different fields and to the art of grantmaking makes exiting fellows “very, very competitive” in the nonprofit job market, he says.
Eklund says 10 out of 15 of past fellows at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation remain in North Carolina, working in public service or the nonprofit sector.
Ireland says being a young face in an established sector has been an affirming experience.
“It is a place,” she says, “where we’re cultivated and nurtured.”
For information on establishing a foundation fellowship, see the document developed by the Emerging Leaders Working Group at the North Carolina Network of Grantmakers.