Brain Power: A Foundation's Fellowship Program Puts Policy Grad Students in City Halls

Los Angeles City Hall

Los Angeles City Hall

It was the early 2000s, and Los Angeles City Hall faced that perennial problem in municipal government: too much work, not enough staff. Busy with the daily grind of managing the nation's second-largest city, mayoral staffers found it difficult to dig deep into long-term issues like homelessness, public transit expansion, and housing. 

But 10 miles or so to the west, another group of smart people was already tackling those very issues, if only for “practice.” At UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, graduate students in public policy, urban planning, and social welfare itched for a chance to apply their education to actual civic challenges. In hindsight, the opportunity for a mutually beneficial partnership was obvious.

That’s where philanthropy came in. A small group of acquaintances, including Michael Dukakis, Torie Osborn (then a deputy mayor at City Hall) and Barbara Nelson (then dean of the Luskin School) first made the connection at a dinner party hosted by L.A. philanthropist David Bohnett. He's known mainly for his major LGBT rights giving, as well as funding the arts in L.A., especially through the L.A. Philharmonic. Listening to the dinner conversation, Bohnett offered to pay for a leadership program connecting City Hall with Luskin’s best and brightest.

That offer grew into the David Bohnett Mayoral Leadership Programs, now operating in Los Angeles, New York City (through NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service), and Detroit (through the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy). Each year, the David Bohnett Foundation pays for graduate students to work directly with city staff on substantive projects: research, policy implementation and the like. In a sense, these are internships, but they’re also a lot more than that. 

I spoke with Bohnett Foundation Executive Director Michael Fleming, who is proud of how easily the fellows (as they’re known) adapted to fill vital needs in L.A. City Hall when the program first got its start. At first, Fleming’s team feared that the “interns” would be saddled with extraneous duties like fetching coffee and taking notes, but those worries were unfounded. 

According to Fleming, the foundation made sure those initial L.A. fellows would work directly with deputy mayors, gaining the experience to eventually take up similar positions themselves. In return, the city got much-needed personnel to dive deeper on policy. 

In a way, the foundation is subsidizing city government, since the fellows basically become city hall staffers during their tenure. Such an arrangement raises concerns about the appropriate role of private money in public life: Should a wealthy funder really be able to cover the costs of de facto government employees who may have real influence on urban policy? It's a good question. In practice, the intermediary role played here by the universities helps the foundation maintain an appropriate distance from city politics. In each of its three cities, the program’s academic partners work with city government to choose the fellows without undue input from Bohnett. The foundation covers the fellows’ tuition over a two-year period and provides stipends for two years of summer work with the city. 

The Bohnett Foundation has spent over $3.7 million on the program since its inception. A total of 69 graduate students have participated to date: 34 in Los Angeles, 18 in New York, and 17 in Detroit. For the last five years, the foundation has brought all of its fellows together in January for another perk: attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington D.C. to network with civil servants from across the country.

The program’s expansion from L.A. to New York and Michigan happened a while ago, but Fleming says the foundation has no immediate plans to expand it. He is, however, pitching the idea to other local funders who might be able to replicate the program in their own cities. Have these fellowships taken off? 

Fellowships abound in city government, often with philanthropic support, but these often engage full-fledged experts in their fields rather than grad students. Even more common are funder-supported fellowships and scholarships for grad students within their universities. But Bohnett’s effort to install grad students directly in city government, doing meaningful work, is still quite rare.

There are some comparative programs. The Chicago Mayor’s Office Fellowship Program selects graduate students to spend a summer in city hall, but there appears to be no philanthropic involvement or direct partnership between city hall and universities in Chicago. In Tallahassee, a Mayoral Fellowship Program brings grad students from Florida A&M University and Florida State University to city government for a summer program. Again, philanthropic involvement is minimal. 

Growing out of an older nonprofit program called City Hall Fellows, the San Francisco Fellows Program mirrors Bohnett’s program in its generosity. Fellows work full time for 11 months on City projects. Unlike the Bohnett fellowships, this new initiative doesn’t partner with academic institutions, nor does it focus only on grad students (applicants need to be, at most, three years out from their undergraduate degrees). But the aims are similar, and the program claims to involve fellows in substantive work. 

City Hall Fellows, an original partner of San Francisco Fellows before the city took it over, operates a similar program for civically inclined young people in San Francisco, Houston and Baton Rouge. Again, there’s no direct partnership between graduate institutions, city halls, and philanthropy, but the nonprofit does receive funding from the Annenberg Foundation and Echoing Green, as well as a variety of local donors. 

It's worth noting that the David Bohnett Foundation itself also funds another fellows program in partnership with the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Institute that is specifically geared to boosting LGBT public officials. Fellows participate in an intensive three-week program at Harvard's Kennedy School designed for senior-level executives working with state and local governments, including government officials and elected office holders.