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In the Face of Rejection: a Fellow’s Perspective

Image courtesy of Atlas: DIY.

Failure is not a dirty word–but there is no doubt that it’s challenging to experience. As an organization that supports visionary leaders and helps to accelerate their impact, we see a lot of people who have experienced failure. Rather than succumbing entirely to the fear and pain of failure, people like our Fellows bounce back after failure and find a way forward.

Lauren Burke, a 2014 Echoing Green Fellow and founder of Atlas: DIY, is a prime example of someone who believed in her vision for change in spite of challenging odds. Lauren applied for the Echoing Green Fellowship three times before succeeding on her fourth try. Her story teaches us that failure doesn’t define your future–but your character and commitment (and a little help from your friends) can.

In the Face of Rejection

Lauren BurkeBy: Lauren Burke
Lauren is a 2014 Echoing Green Fellow and founder of Atlas: DIY, a cooperative empowerment center and online for immigrant youth and their allies, where young people access a variety of services, including legal resources, career and college prep, and arts-achievement activities. Follow Atlas: DIY on Twitter @AtlasDIY.

I have been lucky to receive numerous accolades in my life: I’ve received a Skadden Fellowship and have even been named among some of most prestigious innovators on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.  But I like to say that the honor of which I am most proud is being the “Losing-est Winner” of the Echoing Green Fellowship. That’s right; I applied for the Fellowship four years in a row until I was finally named a Fellow in 2014. In fact, I was told that my tenacity played a part in the decision process.

Let me back up a little. In May 2013 while I was doing my finalist interviews with Echoing Green, I was close to giving up on Atlas: DIY. For a year we operated out of a coffee shop and McDonald’s until we landed a shared space with a medical center. I was counseling clients on their legal rights next to eye charts and HIV test kits; all the while we were rejected by funder after funder. In the spring of 2013 I hired a very underpaid full-time staff member expecting a significant grant to come through–it didn’t, and it was a huge blow. I wasn’t on payroll and had to borrow funds from a board member to make sure my one employee got paid.

That rejection wouldn’t be our last. But even after I heard a no, I knew that what we were doing was important and needed. So when the acceptance call came from Echoing Green last spring, it made Atlas: DIY seem real; finally we were getting the recognition I knew my members deserved.

When Echoing Green called to give me the good news, I didn’t realize that the good news would just keep coming. My new Fellowship attracted new donors and gave new assurances to our past funders. I was able to hire additional staff, pay myself a living wage, and develop new programs. While all of this was positive, I felt conflicted because nothing about my dedication to Atlas: DIY had changed between not having the Fellowship and winning it.

While I have read a lot of articles about how to get accepted to Fellowships, there are few that discuss what to do when you are rejected. If you do choose to apply to this or any other fellowship or grant, or perhaps a dream job, I’ve compiled a brief list of what I have learned as Echoing Green’s “Losingest Winner” (a badge I wear with pride):

If you build it, they will come.

Crazily enough the project that got Atlas: DIY our first big grant was a series of YouTube videos made in my bedroom at home. If you know your idea will help someone, somewhere…just do it. Just start. Risk is a part of change.

Take pride in your failures.

As fundraisers, we’re told to always project success. But so often we give an illusion of stability when our roof is about to give out. You don’t want to make things seem dandy without a dollar in the bank, however, saying, “I am so lucky my staff worked far below the market rate but I know I will lose them if I can’t find a way to bring their rate to what they deserve,” or “we ran our CAMP on $4,000 last year and I can only imagine what we could do with twice those funds” can be incredibly effective.

When in doubt, ask!

Every time I felt close to giving up, every moment that I berated myself for choosing such a long, lonely path, I asked my members what they thought. We’ve implemented town hall meetings open to all of the Atlas community which has changed the way our kids feel about their role and agency in the organization. The more you can include your customers, staff, and clients in your decision-making, the more authentic your choices become and the less alone you feel.

I wish everyone could receive the Echoing Green Fellowship because I truly believe it is one of the best incubators, supporters and community builders on this planet. But, as I learned in the years in which I received that “no” email, you CAN make it happen regardless of a fellowship or fancy funder or big name press–and I’d argue these lessons learned extend to all facets of life.

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