Environmental Defense Fund’s Tom Graff Diversity Fellowship Program

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is a non-profit environmental advocacy organization based in the United States. EDF is known for its work on issues including global warming, ecosystem restoration, oceans, and human health. At EDF, advocates leverage sound science, economics and law to advance environmental solutions that work.



  • Fellowships are an effective programmatic means to increase staff diversity in the least amount of time, especially for entry-level positions.


  • The most effective fellowship programs include resources and investments separate from department budgets. This way departments can have an additional staff member without drawing from their own resources.


In 2009, EDF launched the Tom Graff Diversity Fellowship Program, which seeks to find diverse candidates looking for a professional experience in environmental advocacy. Fellows are placed in a year-long position, focused on a project that is integral to EDF’s work. Each year, two fellows are given the opportunity to develop core professional skills while engaging in EDF’s market-based approach to environmental issues. The 2016-2017 fellowship focuses on opportunities available within EDF’s U.S. Climate and Energy programs. Through close work with staff on their significant project, fellows develop a deeper understanding of environmental advocacy as a career path. The fellowship is an exemplary programmatic framework that effectively promotes an increase in the diversity of entry-level staff.

Inspiration for the program arrived during a 2008 EDF staff retreat, when the staff suggested a bevy of organizational activities. When faced with the question of how to make a substantial and measurable impact on the overall diversity of the organization, the EDF diversity committee identified the fellowship model as an effective programmatic means to cultivate the greatest degree of diversity in the least amount of time.

With strong senior leadership, the diversity committee created internal buy in by leveraging the structure, culture, and needs of the organization. The committee strategically made an ask of the senior staff – a one year, $100,000 investment in fellowships as a pipeline to entry level positions. With funding secured, the committee was able to make EDF’s internal program teams an offer they could not refuse. By offering programs an additional staff member that would not draw resources from the program’s internal budget, the diversity committee was able to create not only excitement and urgency but also a productive sense of competition around acquiring new diverse talent.

The roll-out of the program occurred in two phases. The committee began internally by announcing the fellowships and requesting proposals from programs. The committee then operationalized a proposal review and fellow selection processes by establishing an independent selection committee which included the Senior Vice President of Programs and at least two members of the diversity committee along with other internal staff. By including senior leadership, the diversity committee created senior level investment in the outcomes of the fellowship program as well as a strong desire to garner success and see it continue. This strategic decision was also advantageous in that it created an opportunity for greater insight into not only where staff need existed, but also which managers were best prepared to take this on.

Having selected the best proposals, the next phase was to utilize the networks of the diversity committee and target the appropriate programs – such as school affinity groups … – to bring news of the program to people of color. Once candidates applied, they engaged in a three-part screening process. After being selected, fellows were paired with someone on staff that could provide one-on-one mentorship throughout the program.

In order to evaluate the success of the fellowship, the diversity team relied on surprisingly simple metrics that were directly tied to retention. While the explicit purpose of the program was to diversify entry level positions, retention of new talent created opportunities for diversity to spread throughout the entire organization and delivered empirical proof of the advantages diversity provides. Additionally, the creation of the fellowship program had a substantial influence on EDF’s policies and outcomes surrounding diversity and inclusion.