Fellows Step Into Local Leadership Roles

A three-year partnership between SECU Foundation and a North Carolina nonprofit places high-achieving college graduates into community government roles to curb the state’s brain drain.

Top-Level Takeaways

  • Since 2015, SECU Foundation has connected college students with leaders in rural communities.
  • In 2018, the foundation partnered with a nonprofit to extend local government opportunities to recent graduates.

In 2015, SECU Foundation created an internship program that connects rising sophomore and junior students at 15 North Carolina state universities with local leaders to obtain real-world work experience while giving back to communities. The SECU Public Fellows Intern Program also helps curb the brain drain that occurs when college graduates move from rural areas to larger metropolises.

“The concept was to curb that drain,” says Jama Campbell, senior vice president and executive director of SECU Foundation, the philanthropic arm of State Employees’ Credit Union ($49.9B, Raleigh, NC). “Let’s start to get college kids interested in working for nonprofits or government entities in their hometowns or other small, rural communities in North Carolina.”

Jama Campbell, Executive Director, SECU Foundation

The program continues to grow as the foundation works closely with its university partners, including the University of North Carolina (UNC) and the Kenan Flagler Business School. In fact, it was through that connection that the foundation learned of a similar program targeting college graduates.

In 2018, four recent college graduates founded Lead For America, a national nonprofit that recruits, trains, and places young leaders in home state government and community impact positions. Lead For America offers paid, full-time fellowships located all over the country, from the East Coast to Hawaii. Lead For America also has six local affiliate programs, including Lead for North Carolina. Like the parent program, affiliates place promising graduates in two-year paid fellowships in local governments.

“North Carolina has a large number of government leaders retiring in the next few years,” Campbell says. “We knew we had to be part of this effort to find that next generation of leaders.”

Bridging The Opportunity Gap

According to Scott Southern, senior program officer for SECU Foundation, there is no pipeline for local governments in North Carolina to recruit recent graduates.

Unlike the IBM’s, the Lenovo’s, or even Walmart, governments aren’t sending recruiters for on-site interviews, he says. In order to fill vacancies, there needs to be a way to generate interest and showcase the opportunity.

Offering fellowships is one way to bridge that gap in a way that benefits both graduate and community.

Lead for North Carolina recruits and selects applicants to participate in fellowship opportunities, matching applicants to local governments based on personality as well one of four areas of fellowship focus: infrastructure and disaster recovery, human resources, development, and grant writing.

“We joke, it’s a bit like a dating game with how fellows are connected to the opportunity,” Campbell says.

To ensure they are equipped to provide immediate and lasting value, fellows take a five-week summer training course in technical skills, character and leadership traits, and equity-focused solutions. They also receive ongoing training through the two years of the fellowship.

For example, disaster recovery is an area of immense need in North Carolina, as the pandemic as well as a number of destabilizing hurricanes have hit the region in the past 18 months. In cases like this, trained grant writers help localities access publicly available funds.

“A number of these fellows have been able to bring federal funds into communities that didn’t always have the tools to get them,” the senior program officer, says.

Ultimately, governments benefit from two years of young, energetic graduates boosting productivity without draining resources. And for fellows, they get real government experience that allows them to decide if the work aligns with their long-term plans whether that means staying on when their fellowship ends, enrolling in a graduate program in public administration or public policy, or something else.

Rural? Yes. Lack Of Opportunity? No.

The partnership between SECU Foundation and Lead for North Carolina is primarily a financial one. Although the foundation was there from LFNC’s inception, its input has been relatively minor. That’s by design.

“We don’t want to overly restrict our partners,” Campbell says. “We want them to have the freedom and creativity to work their magic.”

With one exception.

Every year, the North Carolina Department of Commerce ranks the state’s 100 counties based on economic wellbeing. The state designates the most economically distressed counties as Tier 1; the least distressed receive a Tier 3 ranking. In 2021, the state designated 40 counties as Tier 1, 40 as Tier 2, and 20 as Tier 3.

SECU Foundation’s financial support of Lead for North Carolina is earmarked to benefit those Tier 1 counties, the localities most in need of the investment.

“Our funding specifically targets counties or communities that are in lower economic brackets,” Southern says.

For the program’s inaugural cohort of fellows, SECU Foundation provided a $500,000 grant to fund up to 20 $25,000 fellowships. So far, the foundation has been pleased with the results.

“On the government side, we wanted to see them put some skin in the game and want these fellows to succeed,” Campbell says. “We’ve seen a bond between these fellows and their new co-workers. It’s been more than an internship, it’s been a game-changer. They have a real appreciation for the communities they grew up in and what’s needed in the years ahead.”

That’s why SECU Foundation has doubled its commitment to LFNC, pledging $1 million over the next three years. Rather than locking fellows into a two-year commitment, fellows now have a one-year commitment with an option to extend for a second year. Campbell admits it can be difficult to numerically measure the program’s impact. So, the foundation looks for stories of transformative community impact of which there are many and the competitiveness of the application process to gauge whether the program is providing value to applicants and governments.

So far, so good.

In addition to its financial support, SECU Foundation provides networking opportunities for fellows to meet one another and offers access to its local advisory boards and branch leadership to make further inroads on building local relationships. Not having to administer the program itself frees the foundation to apply resources in other ways, namely to showing off what North Carolina’s non-metro areas have to offer.

“Maybe local government is not right for them, but there are opportunities in nonprofits and other organizations in rural North Carolina,” Southern says. “We want the fellows to understand that rural doesn’t mean void of opportunity.”

October 25, 2021

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