Julia Chang, a graduate student at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, started a warm Wednesday in May by pouring a cup of coffee, listening to a podcast, and then walking out the door of her apartment to catch the A train.
She headed to The New York Community Trust, eager to start her first day in its graduate fellowship program. There she would support program officers making grants in the arts and community development. She felt excited, charged, and nervous.
“The worst thing for me is sitting at my desk with nothing to do,” says Chang.
Her fears were swiftly allayed. She jumped right in, writing summaries of how nonprofits had used their grant funding from The Trust, and learning how to write reports on grant applications that had been turned down. Her managers provided ongoing feedback.
Trust President Lorie Slutsky attributes the fellowship program’s success, in part, to the vital professional projects fellows are asked to complete, as well as the support and feedback they receive from Trust staff.
“For me, the fellowship is a social contract,” says Slutsky. In exchange for their paid time and effort, The Trust exposes fellows to careers in the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors.
An Eye Opening Experience
Since its inception in 2000, 52 graduate students have participated in this selective, yearlong, paid fellowship program. Today, three fellows support The Trust’s grantmaking and funder collaboratives. In addition, a communications fellow writes for Trust publications and helps with digital media strategy, and a finance fellow completes reconciliations and reviews prospective grantees’ finances as part of the foundation’s due diligence.
“I applied for the fellowship because I’ve always been interested in working for a nonprofit,” says Benjamin Smith, 2019-20 finance fellow. “Although my major is in accounting—a field where jobs tend to skew towards publicly traded firms—I thought a great first entrance into the accounting world would be to work for a place that I was truly interested in.”
Years of feedback led to modifications of the fellowship program—resulting in an experience that includes a robust introduction to nonprofit organizational structures. The fellowship begins with an in-depth orientation to each Trust department. Fellows attend staff retreats and professional development sessions, such as courses offered through Philanthropy New York.
“My favorite part has been sitting in on meetings and going on site visits,” says Allyson Gatto, 2019-20 program fellow. “I have come in contact with leadership from city agencies, executive directors from nonprofits, and even researchers from Brazil.”
Fellow Career Paths
A 2017 internal assessment of the fellowship showed that the program is successful at setting up students for careers in the nonprofit sector. Three-quarters of respondents worked at nonprofits or in philanthropy.
“I did not expect that my experience would have such a strong and positive impact on my future career choices, but it has,” says Sherylynn Sealy, 2016-17 program fellow and current program manager for Grantmakers in the Arts. “I learned quite a bit about the needs of funders, the extensive amount of arts and community development organizations in the city, and how quickly funders can come together to address problems.”
Fellows also learn valuable skills that are needed to succeed in any career, including critical thinking, problem solving, and communications.
“One of the virtues of writing a dozen reports a day is that you begin to see the connections between groups, the connections between ideas, and the connections between disciplinary fields,” says Chang.
Although landing a job at The Trust is uncommon after completing the fellowship, a handful of fellows have continued working at The Trust as full-time or temporary staff members.
Envisioning the Future
In December, Julia sat at her desk, preparing for the busy weeks ahead. Finals at NYU approached, and end-of-the-year grant summaries were due two weeks later. Graduation (and the job hunt) were in five months.
When asked about her passions, Julia’s eyes brightened as she shifted forward, her posture determined.
“I’m concerned about making cultural narratives representative of and accessible to people traditionally excluded,” says Chang. “I’m motivated by questions of who is art for, and what does art do.”
The Trust, Chang says, is helping her find the right path.
The Trust hires fellows from graduate schools in the New York City area. Top candidates are brought in for interviews and are asked to complete a writing or accounting exercise. The selected candidates begin work in May or June. Information about applications for the 2020-21 graduate student fellowship will be posted to The Trust’s and school career websites in January.