Virtual Fellowships Will Cultivate the Next Generation of Leaders for Your Association and Industry

Conferences aren’t the only programs shifting to virtual these days. Many nonprofits now offer virtual fellowships — and some of them like the idea so much they plan to continue them even after we get the “all clear” sign.

Consider developing a virtual fellowship program if your association wants to:

•    Cultivate the next generation of leaders in your industry—either students (undergraduate or graduate) or young professionals.

•    Help industry employers find rising talent, particularly students and young professionals from diverse backgrounds.

If “fellowship” isn’t the appropriate term for a program like this in your association, industry, or profession, you could call it a “leadership academy” instead. Take a look at some of the essential elements of a virtual fellowship program.

Virtual events for fellowship finalists and recipients

Every year, a few hundred MBA students from diverse backgrounds attend a spring event hosted by the Toigo Foundation. This event is one of the first steps in the selection process for Toigo’s MBA fellowship program.

This year, Toigo held a virtual summit where industry veterans led discussions, program alumni provided insight about the fellowship experience, and employers got a first look at future graduates. After the event, program finalists submit a video of their answers to interview questions. Toigo will select 60 of these students for the MBA fellowship program.

The next step for the Toigo fellows is a virtual “camp” where they participate in an introduction or refresher course on the technical skills needed to enter the finance profession.

virtual fellowships

Online educational programs for virtual fellowships

Most virtual fellowship programs last several months and include a mix of synchronous (live) and asynchronous (on-demand) educational programs as well as other group activities.

When developing the curriculum for your fellowship program, focus on supplementing the skills and knowledge your fellows are acquiring (or acquired) at school or in the workplace. For example, many fellowship programs offer:

•    Leadership training
•    Soft (human) skills training
•    Training in timely topics, such as emotional resilience, personal financial management, and mindfulness/wellbeing

The Environmental Leadership Program (ELP)'s Virtual National Fellowship offers seven monthly five-hour virtual sessions and assigns work before each one. Fellows also attend two immersive three-day virtual retreats.

Other fellowship educational programs include:

•    Masterclasses
•    Webinars
•    Ask-Me-Anything sessions
•    Video tours of studios, factories or other workplaces

Virtual fellowship community activities

For the past 112 years, a group of artists selected as MacDowell Fellows spent a few months together in the 32 MacDowell cabins in Peterborough, New Hampshire. This year, eight artists will take up a virtual residency instead.

Virtual MacDowell is “aimed at supporting artists and fostering a sense of community and meaningful connection during this time of isolation.” The fellows will meet for eight online gatherings over a four-week period. They each receive a $1,000 stipend to free up the time needed to take a day off on each of the gathering days.

The virtual fellowship is maintaining some of the iconic MacDowell traditions. For example, fellows receive picnic baskets like the ones normally delivered to their cabins at lunchtime. MacDowell also arranges deliveries from their favorite local restaurants for shared dinners.

Fellows also have access to a private online space where they can share and discuss their work with each other. A film night and virtual tour of the MacDowell campus is also planned.

Some virtual fellowships culminate in a group project. The MacDowell fellows may do a podcast about their experience. Your fellows might decide upon a community service project instead. Participants in the IDEX Virtual Fellowship Program work on a case challenge. The fellows partner with a sponsoring firm to develop a solution to an existing industry challenge.

virtual fellowships

Mentoring and coaching

Informal and formal mentoring and coaching are key components of a virtual fellowship experience. In the MacDowell program, two alumni fellows participate as guides. You could also:

•    Match fellows with alumni mentors who are five years ahead of them in their career.
•    Arrange matches with more senior mentors.
•    Schedule one-on-one Zoom meetings with other industry veterans.

The Toigo program provides coaching so fellows can assess their career focus and strengths. ELP fellows receive four hours of professional coaching and develop a Personal Leadership Plan.

The perks of virtual fellowship

The transformative fellowship experience is enough in itself, but many virtual fellowship programs provide financial support too.

Although not a fellowship program per se, ASAE’s Diversity Executive Leadership Program (DELP) covers the cost of ASAE membership as well as  registration, travel, and lodging to ASAE Annual and “other select education programs and events.”

In many programs, fellows are given lifetime access to the alumni network, which often means an online community as well as alumni social and educational events. Some programs provide a certificate or certification upon completion. You could also reward digital badges for those who prove their mastery of specific competencies.

Sponsorships for virtual fellowship programs

How does your association pay for a new program like this? Many of these virtual fellowship programs cover their expenses through sponsorships.

It’s in the interest of sponsoring firms to have exclusive access to future talent for recruitment, internship programs, brand awareness, and lead generation. Sponsors cover program costs as well as registration, travel and professional development expenses for fellows. In return for their support, sponsors participate in educational and networking events.

Associations and other organizations are engaging a much larger and more diverse audience thanks to virtual conferences and events. MacDowell’s executive director said, “We hope this virtual residency creates a new dimension of the MacDowell experience. It’s possible that it could be valuable to MacDowell’s future by supporting talented artists who, for whatever reason, cannot travel to New Hampshire or are otherwise not able to access the program.”

A virtual fellowship program creates educational and networking opportunities for students and young professionals and helps cultivate the next generation of leaders for your association and industry.


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