January 2016

January 2016

Updated by
Matt Ehlman

By applying for the Bush Fellowship I thought that I would be able to complete research and finish writing my PhD dissertation. Additionally, I had been brainstorming with my colleagues about creating a nonprofit that would focus on rural philanthropy. My friends and I floated the idea to colleagues, academic researchers, nonprofit leaders and philanthropists about an institute that would be located in rural America, focus on rural philanthropic issues, build capacity for rural nonprofits and hold resources that would be important to the third sector and broader society. In my Bush Fellowship application, I honed in on these two goals, all the while feeling that the two together would be a stretch to accomplish in the two years, but both are tangible goals and, with effort, could be reached. Now after the multiple Fellowship application rounds, the interviews, the announcement of the Fellowship and the Fellowship retreat, what I have reflected on the most are the words from the Bush Foundation staff person, paraphrased here: “. .  .we believe you are going to accomplish the goals you have outlined in the application, but what we are investing in is the next ten or twenty years and what you want to do over the decades. . .”.  

The Bush Fellowship has provided opportunities that were well outside any possibilities that existed pre-Fellowship. It has provided time to focus on my immediate goals, my goals for the time of the Fellowship, but most importantly, thus far, it has challenged me to think about ten and twenty years down the road. This is not to say I have identified all that will happen or that I have planned that far in the future, but rather, I have identified what I need in order to be an active community member and to continue to offer fresh ideas for the common good.  

The Fellowship has certainly broadened my network and has increased inquiries about our company, The Numad Group, our co-working space, which we call ‘The Garage,’ and our various events, most notably ‘The Morning Fill Up’ which invites members of the community to a dialogue with a prominent leader in the region or an expert in a relevant topic. These guests have included the South Dakota Governor, the President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Executive Director for the Kentucky Health Exchange and the President of the Bush Foundation, among many others. We have benefited from the interest and the cache that the Bush Foundation’s name provides, and has been important to recognize the potential that exists in promoting the people that have made the co-working space flourish, making our consulting firm successful, stretching capacity at public events, and envisioning community-wide collaboration. 

The Fellowship is an opportunity to highlight the people that make all of this work. I have learned this is a difficult message to get across to those interested, because it is easier for people to focus on the Fellowship and the recipient of the Fellowship, instead of recognizing that, in my case, the only way I am a Fellow is because of a number of other people and that the only reason the goals of the Fellowship are met is because of the generosity of many. During the first six months of the Fellowship, I recognized how important it is to advance the important work of others. The Fellowship is a wonderful tool to promote the good work of good people whom we all get to celebrate in our communities. 

I have also learned to appreciate the significance of the Bush Foundation and the credibility or social capital that it gives a Fellow. In part because of the prestige of the Fellowship, a significant endowment donation has been pledged to the idea of the rural philanthropy institute. The gift has been made despite the fact that the organization is still in concept form. Additionally, the donor has committed to help raise additional funds to build an endowment. This experience is one of many reminders that people want to be a part of positive movements, of advancing their community and are willing – without even being asked – to support it. 

Those words from the Bush Foundation staff member are important and the challenge to look ahead to the future is critical, but focusing on today and on the dissertation and on establishing the mission, vision and legal framework of the Rural Philanthropy Institute is also necessary and the only way to accomplish that is to find a balanced approach to work and life. The first six months of this journey have allowed me to evaluate, plan, and make intentional decisions to do the work. This has not been as easy as I had anticipated and looking forward to the next six months, I will deliberately carve out more time for accomplishing the work in front of me and better balance opportunities for the future.

The question with which I will end this entry, but with which I will continue to grapple, and is perhaps the most important lesson of this journey thus far: How am I using this Fellowship to support those around me and supplement their good work?