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Some Cities Are Getting Millennials' Aid for Free

The David Bohnett Foundation is funding a pipeline -- albeit, small -- of young people who want to work in local government.

A young black woman taking notes during a meeting.
A young woman takes notes at the first Bohnett Fellows Summit in Detroit in October 2014.
(Flickr/Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan)
Private foundations are no stranger to government. Most of them exist to help address public issues --poverty, crime, blight, you name it. 

Bloomberg Philanthropies, for instance, which was started by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars making cities’ solutions to big problems more innovative and data-driven. 

But at least one foundation is going deeper than that. It’s getting at a root of the public sector’s problems: workforce shortages.

Without the ability to match the wages and salaries for most private-sector jobs, the public sector has long struggled to attract talent. And there’s reason to believe that won’t change anytime soon: Degrees in public service are on the decline, and as we previously reported, public service students appear to be increasingly choosing to work in corporations or nonprofits over government agencies.

That’s where the David Bohnett Foundation comes in. It’s building a pipeline -- albeit, small -- of young people who want to work in local government.

Some cities have their own fellowship programs, but Bohnett's doesn't cost the government. Since 2006, the foundation has invested $4.3 million in the David Bohnett Mayoral Fellowship Program, including $532,637 in the current school year. Fellowship grants are given to three universities, each of which have a graduate school for public policy: the University of Michigan, New York University and the University of California, Los Angeles. 

“These aren’t interns who make copies,” says Michael Fleming, the foundation's executive director. “Most are assigned to a deputy mayor.” 

They work on a range of issues, from reducing homelessness to expanding public transit. The fellows are paid a stipend and have some of their tuition costs covered.

“At first, I thought I’d report to people in a prescribed way,” says Dan Caroselli, who is currently executive officer to the deputy mayor of budget in Los Angeles -- a career that began with a Bohnett fellowship in that city. “But I found that there were way too few people working for the city compared to the needs. So, if I just decided to pick up a shovel and start digging someplace, people were grateful for it.”

Though Caroselli’s background was in economic development and urban planning before the fellowship, he’s now devoted to performance management and innovation. The mayors’ offices make every effort to match a student’s skills and interests with available projects, but there's little limit to what they might work on.

Over the 10 years the fellowship has been operating, the foundation has placed 79 students in mayors' offices, according to Fleming. The limiting factor for Bohnett fellows is largely tied to the all-too-rare time it takes university staff to provide each of these graduate students with the best program possible.

Even after the fellowships, most continue working in government.

At the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, 22 Bohnett fellows have graduated -- at least half of whom are still working in the Detroit mayor’s office. Only two of the 22 have left public service, according to Beth Soboleski, associate director of student and academic services at the Ford School.

UCLA notes a similar experience.

VC Powe, director of career services and leadership development at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, says most of the fellows there wind up working for the city -- or another one. 

"We’re teaching them both academic theory and also practice -- the ability to take what you learn in school and apply it to real life," says Powe. "It also fulfills universities’ mission of community service."

Some of the fellows have even launched a political career. Stephanie Chang, who participated in the program in 2013, was elected as a Michigan state representative in 2014 and is now running for the state Senate. 

“I was working on street lights during my fellowship,” she says. “The legislature had created a mechanism for cities to set up a lighting authority, but in Detroit, the grid was ancient.” 

In fact there were some places in the city where, if one light went out, so did dozens more, much like the ripple effect on Christmas trees. Chang helped create the city’s comprehensive street lighting plan that guided the work of the authority. 

Fleming hopes to expand the number of schools with Bohnett fellowships in the coming years. But given Bohnett's success at building a pipeline of local leaders, why aren’t more foundations jumping in? 

“You could replicate this in any city,” says Fleming. “But you need a foundation to stand up to it. And one of the challenges is that, for too long, many foundations have been scared of interacting with government because they think it looks like they’re favoring a mayor.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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