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Eight Tips for Building a Fellowship Program

  • Jennifer Storelli
November/December 2017

This article is a sidebar to "Using Supply Chain Skills for Global Good."

For companies looking for ways to give back, a corporate fellowship program provides the opportunity to donate money, employee time and other resources to causes around the world. Here are a few tips from company leaders who manage these types of immersive programs at West Monroe Partners and Merck.

1. Ensure the program addresses professional strengths and personal aspirations. West Monroe requires employees to put together a proof of concept and then present it to a fellowship board, explains Chief People Officer Susan Stelter. This ensures that the candidate has researched and is passionate about his or her project. Once chosen as a fellow, individuals work with a steering committee to finalize project details, including the exact organization served, the participant’s role, project timing and project costs.

As a different approach, fellowship program leaders at Merck match applicants with a project based on information provided in their applications and interviews. Merck keeps a list of vetted nonprofit partners that are looking for assistance and places personnel in the needed roles.

2. Consider the costs of the program to determine the number of fellows your company will sponsor each year. Merck covers employee travel expenses; in-country accommodations and ground transportation; the employee’s salary; and additional expenses incurred by the nonprofit partner for project management, office space, supplies and other resources. In total, Merck spends about $40,000 per fellow, says Theresa McCoy, associate director of corporate responsibility.

Alternatively, West Monroe fellows put together a proposal of program costs, and the company reimburses applicable expenses. In general, employees are given 50 percent of their regular pay plus money for travel and application expenses, Stelter says.

3. Have a list of criteria for your applicants to meet. For example, West Monroe prefers that applicants have worked for the company for at least two years, have good standing as employees, and commit to working at the company for at least one more year after the fellowship ends, Stelter says.

4. Conduct thorough candidate interviews to ensure employees are a good match with their projects. Bryan Baylis, who served as a Merck fellow in 2014, recalls Merck’s in-depth interview process. “It’s essentially like looking for a job because you’re filling out an application with various questions about why you want to be a part of the program, what makes you a good fit for the program, what you intend to get out of the program, and how you can take what you’ve learned through the program and apply it to your job,” he explains, adding that candidates who pass the initial application screening meet with a Merck expert to verify technical expertise.

“Once you get through that process, there is a part where you meet with the office of corporate philanthropy,” Baylis says. “They’re really looking to make sure that the interests that you have match up with the mission of Merck.” Based on these reviews, Merck leaders select approximately 30 fellows to participate in the program each year.

5. Prepare employees for their experiences. At Merck, fellows participate in extensive training and preparation, culminating with a six-day, in-person onboarding workshop designed to enable the fellows and the partner organizations to successfully complete their projects.

6. Determine how an employee’s office work will be handled. At West Monroe, fellows are encouraged to keep an open dialogue with their career advisors and managers to ensure visibility and appropriate planning prior to their departures. Because most work at West Monroe is project-based, fellowship program leaders try to schedule fellowship experiences in between projects so as not to leave teams in a lurch, Stelter says.

Again, Merck often taps other employees to assist with a fellow’s work during his or her three-month leave of absence. This gives employees in the office the opportunity to take on new challenges and leadership roles, Baylis points out.

7. Encourage employees to apply lessons learned. Upon their return, Merck fellows make an impact plan that describes how they can take their learnings and use them to positively influence the company, McCoy says. Plans typically cover personal development, process improvement at Merck, knowledge sharing and collaboration, and developing external partnerships.

8. Implement a fellowship program for the right reasons. “While some companies may see corporate social responsibility as a box they need to check off when developing their company image, [fellowship programs] should be much more than that,” Stelter says. “By going all-in with ambitious, employee-driven initiatives. . . companies can ensure that participants are truly passionate about their work, and [employees] are more likely to grow from the experience and translate new lessons and skills when they return to the office.”

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