How does a Non-Profit Fulbright Scholarship change the career trajectory of its winner? We speak to two winners to find out how the Fulbright experience – and experience at the community coalface – made them better leaders.

Win a Fulbright scholarship – whether it’s the Non-Profit Leadership version or those granted over the past 70 years to luminaries like John Steinbeck, Henry Kissinger, Milton Friedman or Muhammad Yunus – and it’s easy to assume that the Fulbright guarantees success.

Life’s not like that. According to Sam Sayers, Head of Origin Energy Foundation and someone who has been on the selection panel for Non-Profit Fulbright winners, the scholarship’s impact is more nuanced.

“I think the people who’ve won the Fulbright scholarship would say that it’s catalysed their success, not created it. Each of them came to the scholarship with a unique imprint of experience. They take an immense amount from the Fulbright and add to that experience in the organisations they work in or lead when they come back from America.”

“The Fulbright helped me see the power of innovation”

Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine

Layer upon layer

Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine is CEO of Health Justice Australia, an organisation that aids people experiencing complex need by breaking down the barriers between health and legal services. She won the Non-Profit Fulbright in 2013 and used it to examine the regulatory and reporting structures through which U.S. charities and foundations are governed.

“The Fulbright helped me see the power of innovation,” says Tessa. “Not just the shiny new stuff but that focus US institutions have on constantly looking for new and better ways to do things. What I think I’ve been able to layer onto that in the years since is the power of partnership. Of not trying to solve complex problems with a focus on a single lever.”

That combination of Fulbright insight and hard-won experience plays out in the day to-day of Tessa’s current role – knitting together partnerships that address problems that cross boundaries.  

“You can get a client medical help for a respiratory problem,” says Tessa. “But what if they go back to the same substandard rental accommodation that underpins the health problem? We’re trying to combine legal and medical solutions to help our clients. But, more holistically. there are a whole range of partnerships that would help the social sector’s clients if we can all start to think outside our own boxes.”

Dr Tessa Boyd-Cain

This is not yesterday’s NFP

David Ireland won the Non-Profit Fulbright in 2018He’s an expert in behaviour change and innovation whose resume includes launching start-ups, running accelerators and leading innovation at the CSIRO. What drives him today is the challenge of building a 21st century social sector.

“Look at fundraising,” he says. “Thirty-year olds today aren’t going to donate to causes they care about because they get an appeal EDM and a newsletter – they want ongoing social media insight into what their preferred charity is doing and what outcome that’s driving.”

“We need a social sector that is more innovative than the people it serves. Today the World Wildlife Fund Australia uses blockchain to verify a product’s sustainable production claims and tracks that product throughout its individual supply chain.  They are also developing an Amazon-style multi-sided marketplace to unite donors with NFPs. That’s the level of innovation that should become the normal for us.”

“The Fulbright was transformative”, he says, “I got to grips with new frameworks and new technologies – including things like AI – that can make us more effective in the social sector.”


For David, the Fulbright experience sharpened an existing focus on addressing social problems with interventions that will work. “The Fulbright was transformative”, he says, “I got to grips with new frameworks and new technologies – including things like AI – that can make us more effective in the social sector.”

David Ireland
David Ireland

Experiments don’t always need to work

What’s been layered on since then – in the range of leadership roles he’s taken on, are day-to-day lessons in the hard grind of doing things better. “The US experience I got from the Fulbright was great because they’re much more comfortable with a ‘good failure’ – an experiment that might not have completely delivered, but which yields crucial lessons.”

“Today, I’m trying to drive that approach through the organisations I’m involved with – we need to stop designing programs that don’t have a real interaction with the “customer” built into them. We need to test things, see if they work, then redesign and test again – with the end customer – till we know we’ve got something that will work at scale.”

The Australian Scholarships Foundation have offered the Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Non-Profit Leadership for 10 years in partnership with Fulbright Australia and supporting partners Origin Energy Foundation and Perpetual.

More information

Applications for the Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Non-Profit Leadership close Sunday, 6 July 2022

Palm trees

Fulbrighters become leaders in their field

Research by Pollinate into the impact of the Fulbright Scholarships for not-for-profit leaders in Australia reveals returned scholars do remarkable things. Read more here.

Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Non-Profit Leadership – 2022

A unique opportunity to travel to the U.S. for 3 – 4 months in 2023 to study, conduct research into, and gain experiential learning in leadership and the operations of U.S. non-profit sector organisations. Read more here.