I work with the program team at a regional education foundation, where it is often my job to provide feedback to applicants who were not selected to receive grants. These conversations are always difficult, but sometimes they can be particularly hard. I may find myself talking to a district superintendent, an educator with a doctoral degree and decades of experience, or a group of community members who have spent years developing a project that is about to lose some expected funding. From my perspective, I sometimes feel like it is my job to close a door on these people.
This is a hard thing for me to do, especially when I think about how I came to my job in philanthropy. I got my start through the Proteus Fund Diversity Fellowship (then sponsored by Associated Grant Makers), a program designed to bring new leaders of color into the field of philanthropy. This year-long program combines training, mentorship, professional development, and work experience to create an intensive introduction to grantmaking.
As a fellow, I worked four days a week at a foundation and spent every Friday in a learning community with other fellows. We learned about the mechanics of grantmaking and dove deep into the ethics, history, social responsibility, and future of philanthropy. I was connected to others in the field who shared their stories and experiences with me. Seasoned philanthropists also created workshops and spent time teaching us their craft.
Everywhere I turned, people were holding doors open for me and urging me forward. When I started searching for a permanent position at the end of the year, this community of people worked hard to help me find the right opportunity. Thanks to the fellowship and the many individuals and organizations dedicated to its success, that year was one of the most productive, intense growing experiences of my career.
I have tried to become one of the people holding doors open for others and encouraging them to come through. But the reality of the job is that our organization cannot fund everything, and sometimes our doors are closed. In those moments, I think back to my experience as a fellow and remember the generosity of people who couldn’t answer a question but always referred me to someone who could, or the people who couldn’t offer me a job but did forward my resume or provide me with connections at other organizations.
I realized as a fellow that this generosity with one’s influence, one’s knowledge, and one’s network is very important to philanthropy. Now, if I have to close our funding door I think about other doors that I might open: connections to other funders, constructive feedback on proposal writing, or more detail about how our decision-making process works.
I hope that the Proteus Fund Diversity Fellowship will continue to instill these values in its members. I hope more foundations will step forward to open doors for the new talent the fellowship identifies. And I hope that, once in a while, we can all take a moment to remember how we got where we are and to help make that journey easier for the next generation.
Lucas Orwig is a program associate with the Nellie Mae Foundation (a member of the Council on Foundations) and a 2009-2010 diversity fellow.