Five tips for fostering an engaged and impactful fellowship network
The Fellowships Alumni Network Study (FANS)—facilitated by IREX and supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—is a collaborative research initiative that brought together more than 20 partner organizations to better understand how fellowship programs can support their alumni as they create positive social change. The study identified the type of impact that fellowship networks can have at different levels of society and the characteristics in those networks that have been successful in supporting alumni to contribute to positive social change.
In total, over 1,000 fellowship alumni from 102 countries and 17 programs contributed to this study through surveys, interviews, and focus groups discussions. Participants included alumni from global fellowships like Atlas Corps and the Community Solutions Program, as well as regional and locally-focused fellowships like Library Aid Africa and the Cleveland Foundation Public Service Fellowship. In each of these data collection activities, alumni shared some of the benefits, challenges, and opportunities they experienced engaging in their respective fellowship networks.
This study advanced a significant gap in research and learning that exists in the fellowship sector – improving our understanding of the changes that alumni make, activities that contribute to those changes, and the role that networks play in the process. Notably, we learned that alumni credit their experiences in a fellowship to changes at every level of society. Sustained relationships in particular (i.e., the network itself) were highlighted as an important factor in achieving changes at more advanced levels of society.
The following tips aim to support fellowship practitioners in improving their engagement with alumni to build sustainable and impactful networks.
1. Make space to build personal friendships – it is an essential part of a sustainable network!
Sustainable networks are an important element to fellowship programs because they offer a space for continued learning, growth, and change beyond the initial program experience. Personal friendships were identified as an important component for alumni to build sustained relationships and engagement within their fellowship network. While professional topics were common entry points that alumni shared for building connections, personal friendships allowed those relationships to mature and be sustained – offering a stable point of connection as lives and careers change over time.
Next steps: Through surveys, focus groups, or even one-on-one discussions, learn about your alumni’s experiences in building friendships with others in the network. Identifying spaces and shared experiences that help foster those friendships can inform programming. Also, when evaluating the network itself in routine surveys or activities like a Social Network Analysis, try to capture the types of relationships that exist to illustrate the presence of personal friendships.
2. Prioritize three key experiences that alumni value from their network.
Access to one or more of the following three experiences were common justifications for why alumni want to engage with their fellowship network. They include:
- Building relationships,
- Advancing professional development, and
- Sharing and learning from diverse perspectives.
Next steps: When developing alumni activities or resources, consider the following questions to inform how they can complement one or more of these experiences:
- How can this activity or resource build or strengthen relationships between alumni and provide space to develop friendships?
- How can this elevate alumni experiences to support sharing and learning from one another?
- How can this improve alumni access to professional development opportunities?
3. Invest in three support strategies that alumni value engaging in.
While every fellowship program and network is distinct, the following types of support strategies were widely desired by alumni and considered effective in improving their work. They include:
- Leadership opportunities that place alumni in influential roles within the network and allow them to contribute to its dynamic. This could include alumni participating in fellowship selection, an alumni board, mentorship or peer-learning roles, and contributing to a technical training.
- Knowledge sharing and networking opportunities that provide an opportunity for alumni to connect with others across cohorts and share practices around common problems. This could include workshops, webinars, informal networking events, and digital resources where alumni present their work.
- Regional or local networks that can build stronger relationships with alumni in similar areas and allow for coordination that is not as dependent on program administrators. This could include regional advisory groups and informal network directories or events to help facilitate more proactive connections.
Next steps: Consider how your program is currently supporting alumni engagement and identify opportunities to improve or develop new ones that align with one or more of these approaches.
4. Learn, reflect, and refine how your program advances diversity, equity and inclusion issues. It is an important value for alumni!
Past research has highlighted that the fellowship industry is in the early stages of actively incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations and activities into their programs (see the Fellowship Industry Report for more). However, most alumni credit their experience with other fellows in their network with improving awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusions issues. This was cited in the following ways:
- Exposed alumni to diverse perspectives and experiences;
- Provided alumni with discussions that improved alumni’s understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices and how to incorporate them in their work and lives; and
- Increased alumni’s understanding of the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion and how they prioritize it in their work and lives.
Next step: Throughout engagement activities and discussions, learn how alumni may be growing in their understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion as a result of their program experience. Consider these types of improvements identified to reflect and refine the intentional and unintentional elements of the program that support them.
5. Advance learning in the sector by sharing your insights and experiences!
While this study identified meaningful insights relevant to the broad fellowship community, sharing individual program experiences of what works and why is an essential piece to inform actionable improvements. So, invest in opportunities to learn about your fellowship network and make sure you share what you learn!
Next steps: Invest in rich qualitative studies like interviews, focus groups, or outcome harvesting that can help understand the context around important questions to your network. This could include the following:
- How are your fellowship alumni contributing to changes at advanced levels of society (i.e., within communities and systems)?
- How might alumni engagement and experiences be different between demographic groups within your program?
- What is the influence of your fellowship network in advancing awareness of DEI issues.