Just Give Them the Money: When Will Fellowships Make a Comeback?

In his 1996 book Narcissism and Philanthropy, Gerald Freund sharply criticized foundations for cutting back on their historic support of talented individuals in favor of grantmaking that put foundation program staff in the driver's seat. Self-regarding funders, Freund suggested, had grown more interested in making their own mark than in empowering the innovators and original thinkers that every society badly needs. 

Nacissism and Philanthropy was published before a new surge in funding for social entrepreneurs, but its basic critique still resonates, tracking with the broader complaint that funders exercise too much control in the nonprofit world. (A complaint echoed recently by no less a figure than Ford Foundation chief Darren Walker.)

Fellowships are one way that foundations have historically empowered individuals to develop their talents and leadership skills, but this form of grantmaking has long been in decline (as Freund observed). Handing over a bunch of money to promising people to go do their thing isn't so popular these days—not when funders hold their own strong views on targeted ways to solve problems and have impact. 

Indeed, every year, when the MacArthur Foundation announces its no-strings-attached "genius" awards, we marvel at how wonderfully out of step this fellowship programstarted in 1981seems in today's era of technocratic philanthropy, in which project support reigns supreme. 

Related: YouReaction to Those “Genius” Awards Says a Lot About Your Views on Philanthropy

Of course, there do exist a number of other foundation fellowship programs, particularly in the fields of science and medical research. And while less common, fellowships also exist for people tackling social, economic, and ecological challenges. Some of these fellowship are longstanding, like those sponsored by the Open Society Foundations. And some are of more recent vintageincluding a fellowship program created in 2013 by the Nathan Cummings Foundation. 

When that foundation kicked off its fellowship program, we didn’t quite know what to expect. Last year’s call for applicants described its ideal candidates as U.S. citizens with track records of risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit and pie-in-the-sky ideas for challenging traditional approaches in its two program areas: inequality and climate change.

Related: What is Nathan Cummings Really Looking For With That Big Fellowship?

These “visionaries,” as the foundation refers to them, are each awarded $100,000 and the support to turn their ideas into action. That’s a pretty sweet deal. And it's exactly the kind of open financial backing and vote of confidence you don't often see these days from mainstream foundations fixated on milestones and deliverables. 

So who are these visionaries, exactly, and what do they envision? Well, you can learn more here about the people who've made the cut and won NCF fellowships since the program started. It's an eclectic group, with impressive folks. This year's fellows, for example, includes Bridgit Antoinette Evans, who is "creating tools to help social justice organizations use culture change strategies to bring about policy change," and Jessica Norwood, who is developing a "community investment model that will help African-American entrepreneurs overcome the 14:1 wealth gap between whites and Blacks."

The foundation claims that its fellowship program is already showing "success" after two years, and that its fellows "have quickly become game changers in their respective fields." For example, one of last year’s winning fellows, Margot Brandenburg, facilitated a new partnership between Care.com and the the National Domestic Workers Alliance to help consumers of domestic care provide these workers with fair wages and paid vacation. Billing it an “unusual partnership between a nonprofit advocacy group and an employment website with a user base of millions,” the Washington Post regarded Brandenburg’s project as a critical step forward in bringing standards to a highly unregulated industry.

But while other NCF fellows have done important stuff, too, claims of near-term impact by the fellows misses the true value-added of programs like this—which is how they nurture leaders and thinkers who may make any number of important contributions during the course of careers that unfold over decades. 

You'll never find easy metrics for measuring the success of fellowship programs. But it seems pretty obvious that such grantmaking offers foundations a relatively easy way to develop talented thinkers and leaders in the areas they care about most. And in an era when everybody recognizes the power of new ideas and entrepreneurial energy, you'd think that fellowships would be poised to make a comeback.