Life After Fellowship: Three Career Success Stories

Fellowships in the social impact space are experiential learning programs that typically include work placement at a social sector institution (e.g. a nonprofit, school, or government agency) or social enterprise, as well as structured professional development and coaching. Programs can range from a few months to up to two years, and most provide either compensation that’s comparable to a full-time job or a stipend and benefits for participation. As many programs serve a “cohort” of fellows at the same time, participants also benefit from the support of a peer learning community and opportunities to build a strong network of like-minded professionals. 

No matter where you are in your career, a fellowship can provide valuable exposure to the unique work environment and culture of organizations in the social impact space, as well as the technical and soft skills needed to succeed in a mission-driven career. To help inspire our readers, we spoke to three former fellows who have leveraged their experience to build great careers.  Check out their stories!

Story #1: Discovering an Unexpected Passion

Majoring in environmental studies, Chun Ying planned to pursue research after graduation. During her senior year, however, she found herself wondering about jobs that directly benefit people in her community. This exploration led her to the “Residency in Social Enterprise” fellowship with New Sector Alliance, a 1-year program that offers social impact leadership curriculum and project-based work assignments to early career professionals. 

“My fellowship was essentially my first job. I was placed in a data analysis role at the Boston Plan for Excellence, and I worked directly with and in public schools,” Chun Ying said. “The experience not only exposed me to urban education, but also taught me essential skills like multi-tasking and stress management in a high-stakes environment. Schools can be intense, and I learned how to slow down and take the time to listen to others in order to solve any problem at hand.”

At the start of her fellowship, Chun Ying didn’t know very much about urban education. However, after some coaching from staff at New Sector Alliance and exposure through her placement, she discovered that she deeply enjoyed working in schools. Today, she continues to work in urban education as Director of Operations at Dever-McCormack Middle School, and she credits her career path to her fellowship experience.

“My experience confirmed the thoughts I had my senior year of college – that I am highly motivated to devote my career to making a positive difference in the community. New Sector Alliance showed me that the education field is a great way to have an impact on a broad range of people, from students to teachers to administrators. Working ‘behind the scenes’ in operations allows me to support these groups and provides daily gratification.”

When asked for her advice for anyone who’s considering a fellowship like New Sector Alliance, Chun Ying offers, “Just do it! It’s an amazing way to explore a career and serve a community in a relatively short time commitment. Even if you go on to another field, a year in the nonprofit sector can teach so much about what it takes to work in service to others and gain skills that you can apply to any job.”

Story #2: Opening Doors to Future Opportunities

Upon earning a master’s degree in public service, Breanna DiGiammarino had already secured a position at the San Francisco office of Bridgespan, a strategy consulting firm for the public sector. Before joining the firm, however, Breanna knew she wanted to learn more about the nonprofit landscape in the Bay Area, particularly in the education field. She applied for a 3-month fellowship with Education Pioneers, a program that connects emerging leaders with schools, districts and education organizations.

Breanna was placed at BUILD, a nonprofit that uses entrepreneurship to excite and propel low-income students through high school and college success. Joining the organization on the verge of tremendous growth, Breanna worked closely with the leadership team to build its strategy for entering new regions. “I didn’t fully realize this at the time, but this project was a classic example of the work I would go on to lead at Bridgespan,” Breanna recalls. “Gaining insider exposure to a strategic planning process provided a unique perspective on the questions faced by nonprofit leaders that would serve me well in my next role.”

In addition to the professional experience gained at her placement site, Breanna attended weekly meetings at Education Pioneers which allowed her to learn from her cohort of peers and build strong professional relationships that have proven to be valuable in her career. “My association with Education Pioneers helped me to secure positions at Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and Indiegogo. I’ve been amazed how this experience has helped open doors to highly competitive positions and employers.”

“I think back on my fellowship as the entry-point to my mission-driven career,” Breanna told us. “It’s allowed me to move seamlessly from strategic consulting to philanthropy to a start-up crowdsourcing platform for fundraising.  I am grateful for the knowledge and connections gained through this experience.”

Story #3: Taking the Leap from the Private to Public Sector

Marian Leitner had always been interested in international development. In high school, she held an internship with the United Nations and participated in microfinance projects with Acumen Fund. However, after college, she joined a financial services firm in the private sector in order to gain solid training and exposure to the business world. While she learned a great deal in this role, she knew her long-term goal was to pursue a career at a mission-driven international development organization. She just needed a plan to make this transition.

She learned about ProInspire, a fellowship program that recruits business professionals to use their skills for social impact. ProInspire offers 1-year placements in analytical or strategic nonprofit roles, as well as monthly trainings with a cohort of peers and coaching to support career growth.

“It was harder than I thought to navigate the transition from financial services to the public sector. Even though I had solid training and work experience, it seemed like there were only entry-level options for me. ProInspire helped me make the leap and enter the sector at a more experienced level,” Marian said.

Marian’s fellowship placement was at GAVI, a global “Vaccine Alliance” that brings together public and private sectors with a shared goal of creating access to vaccines in the world’s poorest countries. In addition to gaining exposure to a highly successful nonprofit, she also gained valuable knowledge about what it means to truly work for a mission-driven organization.

“In the private sector, motivation is largely tied to financial incentives. In the nonprofit sector, I found that motivations were more complex and nuanced. Organizational values and culture play a major role in our daily work. With guidance from ProInspire, I was able to quickly build up the soft skills that were required to thrive in this environment.”

Through her fellowship, Marian contributed to some exciting projects at GAVI, including developing a matching fund that incentivized pharmaceutical companies to make more vaccines available in developing countries. This experience led to her current role at Global Partnership for Education, a public private partnership hosted by the World Bank, where she works closely with the CEO to develop partnerships in support of quality education for children worldwide.

Upon reflecting on lessons from ProInspire, Marian said, “My fellowship taught me that it takes tri-sector leadership to build innovative solutions. I’ve learned how all sectors can work together to drive change, which has created a greater sense of direction and purpose in my career.”

Fellowship Resources

While there are many options for pursuing a fellowship in social impact,  a few highly reputed ones include:

EDUCATION
• Broad Residency
• Building Excellent Schools Fellowship
• Education Pioneers
• City Year

COMMUNITY SERVICE/CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
• AmeriCorps

GOVERNMENT/PUBLIC SERVICE
• City Hall Fellows
• Fuse Corps
• Coro

INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
• Global Health Corps
• IDEO.org Fellowship Program
• IDEX

SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP
• Echoing Green
• Starting Bloc

SPECIALIZED BY CAREER STAGE
• ProInspire – for business professionals
• New Sector Alliance – for undergraduate and graduate students, and recent graduates
• Encore Fellowship - for late-career or retired professionals
• The Mission Continues – for veterans