Photo: John Ferguson

So What Exactly Is a Fellow Anyway?

Posted on January 12, 2022 by John Ferguson, TPF Fellow 2020/21
The role of a fellow at The Patterson Foundation (TPF) is quite the experience. It is a rich and transformative year-long (or a bit more if you happened to start during a global pandemic like I did) immersive experience. It can be challenging to describe, though I liken it to a 'medical residency' but for nonprofit leadership. The fellowship exposes aspiring leaders to innovative and promising practices in the field while building on already existing skills and developing new ones.

TPF invests in aspiring philanthropic leaders who are out to change the world. So far, there have been five fellows, and we could not be more different. We come from various backgrounds with vastly different interests, passions, and skillsets. But we all strive to make the world a better place however we can. We all were drawn to this fellowship to further develop as leaders in the nonprofit space and contribute at a high level to the ongoing work of TPF.

It is not common for a foundation, or anyone really, to invest in aspiring leaders to better prepare them to make an impact somewhere else, but that is exactly what TPF does. They see the value of their unique approach as a way to infuse new ideas and practices into the DNA of future leaders in the sector. The purpose of the program illustrates the unique opportunity the fellowship provides:
Through a collaboration with the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, The Patterson Foundation Fellows Program provides graduates of the world's first school dedicated solely to the study and teaching of philanthropy with a year-long, career-building opportunity to learn innovative philanthropic principles and share their expertise through engaging initiatives tied to their passions. Through the Fellows Program, The Patterson Foundation aspires to create a network of future leaders aligned in their innovative approach to philanthropy.

As you can probably tell, TPF is not your typical private foundation. It operates through initiatives rather than traditional grantmaking to foster wide participation, strengthening people, organizations, and communities. This allows the foundation to respond to emerging and persistent needs in innovative and meaningful ways. And all of this is done through collaboration and community engagement.

There are currently 27 active initiatives. As fellows, we work within multiple endeavors with different levels of responsibility and leadership. It is quite common to be working on ten or more initiatives at any given point throughout the fellowship. Some we lead, some we contribute to as a thought-partner, some we have ongoing roles within, and some we are brought in for a specific purpose at a particular time. It certainly helps to have a good project management system in place to thrive in this role!

Throughout my experience, I have been honored to share my expertise. I am grateful to have learned many innovative philanthropic principles that have inspired me and will inform my work for the rest of my career. But how have I gotten the most value from this experience? Through an intentional approach to everything I did. And this way of thinking about the work will stay with me forever.

I approached every aspect of my fellowship through three distinct yet intertwined lenses:
  1. How do I contribute value?
  2. How can I strengthen existing or develop new muscles?
  3. How do I ensure all participants/partners (in whatever the initiative/event/offering might be) have the best possible experience?
I challenge myself to do my best work through all three lenses, and when I do, it makes a difference by ensuring that those who participate have meaningful experiences. If I can continue with this approach, my experience at TPF will have been the best it could be, and I will be better for it.

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