By Ralph Vacca
I’m no Jerry Maguire but I had you at “fellowship” didn’t I? Understandably so… fellowships seem to be everywhere with new ones popping up as fast as those Facebook groups, 1 million people for [fill in the blank] (my favorite is the one to bring back Frankenberry cereal).
But in all seriousness there does seem to be a dramatic increase in fellowship opportunities. Specifically the fellowships I’m talking about are the ones around social entrepreneurship, social innovation, social change or whatever term you ascribe to that entails solving social problems. Even more specifically when I say fellowships, I mean finite developmental opportunities that provide practical experience in getting involved in the social change movement (think Teach for America).
So what’s the deal with these social change fellowships? Rather than argue what is meant by social change, or label the fellowship explosion as a “fad” or “innovative”, or even compare them with internships and volunteer opportunities, I’d like to plainly and simply ask two questions I’ve recently found myself thinking about as I try not to think about the cold slushy NYC weather.
First is the idea of how do fellowships serve as a catalyst to change an entire sector? Secondly, what are the implications for fellowships in recruiting locally or outside the local community?
So what got me thinking about fellowships? And no I won’t make a Lord of the Rings joke here. What did it was my recent trip to Hubli, India this past January. Most probably have never heard of Hubli, but a friend described it best when she said it’s like Ithaca, very lovely but not sure why you would visit. Anyway, I was there as part of an NYU course in International Social Impact Strategies, and I had the pleasure to learn more about an interesting fellowship called the Deshpande Fellows Program (DFP) housed at the Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship (see image of cool building below).
In Hubli, in addition to permanently raising my tolerance for spicy food and watching Avatar in Hindi, I was inspired by the fellows in the DFP that were creating enterprises ranging from milk collection/distribution initiatives to security force services. Truly some very cool initiatives.
So… quick overview of DFP? Sure! DFP is a six-month program that trains and empowers locals (mostly those in the Karnataka region) to become social entrepreneurs and tackle mounting national social problems such as poverty, hunger and education. Through intense experiential learning the cohort of learners engage in projects that develop their entrepreneurial and leadership skills including how to use social media, devise business plans, and develop grassroots initiatives, etc.
So on to the first question I posed earlier. How do these fellowships serve as a catalyst to change an entire sector? Something that kept coming up was the challenge in getting the development sector in India to be more risk-friendly promoting innovation and new entrepreneurial ways of working. So in answering this we started to ask ourselves, should fellowships focus on preparing leaders to enter existing organization to bring about change from within or prepare entrepreneurs that will start new organizations that foster social entrepreneurship culture and innovation from the onset?
I likened the question to a romantic relationship where one asks themselves if they should work on changing a semi-functional relationship or start anew with someone else, this time knowing what works and what doesn’t. Maybe not the best analogy but nonetheless relevant because what you face in trying to change organizations are people and a series of relationships that shape the organization’s problem-solving approach. So therein lies the challenge for fellowship programs in that there seems to be a difference in preparing intrapreneurs with organizational change skills versus entrepreneurs that have enterprise birthing skills.
In line with thinking about the focus of the fellowship is also our second question, about the fellows themselves. What are the implications of fellowships recruiting locally versus outside the local community?
In learning about the DFP, it was inspiring to see the power of recruiting locals to address local issues. From being able to leverage the existing social capital they have within the communities being served, to inspiring a new generation of changemakers in children that see themselves in these leaders, the DFP made me wonder what would happen if Teach for America focused on cultivating local talent to work in schools being served? As we look to change pockets of the social sector through human capital development efforts (such as fellowships), how important is it that we focus on local talent that are not just passionate about social change, but often resonate with the issues on a personal level because they lived it, they understand it, and they are product of it.
So regardless of what answers you come to in pondering these questions on fellowships and social change, I’m sure we can all agree that having more change agents running around trying to make the world a better place can’t be a bad thing. So to the social sector…. show me the fellowship!
Deshpande Fellows Program: http://www.deshpandefoundation.org/deshpande-fellowship-program.html
Ralph Vacca: http://www.nyu.edu/reynolds/grad/09_html/vacca.html