Engaging Future Philanthropic Leaders: An Innovative Model from WRAG

By Ginger Elsea, Associate Director, Arabella Advisors

I recently spoke on a panel about career opportunities in the philanthropic sector at an event hosted by the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG). The panel was part of WRAG’s Philanthropy Fellows Program—an innovative partnership with the University of Maryland (UMD)’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership that provides WRAG’s member organizations with an internship pipeline of students studying philanthropy. The program is emerging as a model for other regional associations and foundations to consider in the pursuit of creating a new generation of philanthropists. It is helping foundations embrace new skill sets and diversify their workforce to meet society’s most pressing problems, while at the same time providing students with a clearer career path into the field of philanthropy.

The Philanthropy Fellows Program pairs undergraduate and graduate students who are studying philanthropy at UMD with grantmaking organizations in the Washington, DC region. As such, the program connects foundations with young people who bring social media skills and a passion for issues, which injects energy and helps foundations pursue new and innovative approaches to increase their effectiveness.

The program, now in its fourth semester, came about in 2011 in the midst of the economic downturn, when foundations were looking for ways to increase their staff capacity to more effectively address the growing needs of their grantees and the region. Member organizations often approached WRAG in search of interns, and UMD’s newly launched center emerged as a critical partner in identifying young people with unique skill sets, such as social media expertise, to meet the demand at these foundations.

The Philanthropy Fellows Program has also created a more defined path for students who are interested in pursuing a career in philanthropy but may not have a good sense of how to go about it. Students typically have a clear understanding of how to embark on a career in fields such as management consulting or investment banking, where long-standing internship programs and well-oiled recruiting efforts define the space. The steps for joining the field of philanthropy, however, remain obscure. This program teaches student participants about potential careers in philanthropy, builds their professional networks and enhances their understanding of how philanthropy works. Even if the students eventually end up in another job, such as in development at a nonprofit, they will understand how the field works and will be better positioned to draft appeals that are grounded in what foundations seek.

To date, more than 30 fellows have been placed with foundations throughout the region, bolstering this generation’s imprint on the field. Two fellows have accepted permanent positions with grantmaking organizations since graduating and another nine have accepted positions in the nonprofit sector for organizations such as Teach for America, Center for American Progress and the Partnership for Public Service.

WRAG is continuously improving this model as it plays the role of matchmaker, coach and administrator. It talks to member foundations about their gaps and opportunities and, based on an understanding of their needs and culture, works with UMD to identify students for the foundation to consider. Once the fellows are selected, WRAG hosts monthly events—like the career panel I attended—for the group to interact, learn and build their professional networks. WRAG has helped foundations fill positions as diverse as grants administrator, events coordinator and communications specialist.

The Philanthropy Fellows Program is a worthwhile model for other regional associations and foundations to consider as a means of incorporating cutting-edge skills and approaches and helping guide more talented young people into the field of philanthropy. Such programs can create a better-informed generation of philanthropists who are prepared to tackle society’s most pressing challenges.

This post originally appeared on Greater Good, the Arabella Advisors blog, on February 12, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.


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