Fagan Harris
Ashoka Fellow since 2017   |   United States

Fagan Harris

Baltimore Corps
Through a new citywide model for developing and retaining talent, Fagan Harris is activating networks to position talent as a city’s main “architecture” in which to invest, and in so doing upgrading…
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This description of Fagan Harris's work was prepared when Fagan Harris was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017.


Through a new citywide model for developing and retaining talent, Fagan Harris is activating networks to position talent as a city’s main “architecture” in which to invest, and in so doing upgrading the social impact sector’s capabilities, consciousness and collaborative capacity, thus empowering cities to solve their most pressing challenges.

The New Idea

Fagan Harris is building a new talent model for post-industrial cities in the United States. In a city which has historically struggled with racial inequity and declining opportunity, his organization - Baltimore Corps - is unique in its focus on the city itself as the unit of change. Its flagship program, the Baltimore Corps Fellowship, recruits and retains diverse professional talent into the city – first, by connecting mid-career professionals to high-impact roles across sectors; and then, by making an up-front investment in each Fellow’s social capital, local networks, and accountability to Baltimore City. By retaining these leaders in the city beyond their year-long term of service, Baltimore Corps endeavors to build the next generation of social, political, private, and philanthropic leadership for Baltimore and further catalyze a movement for its renewal.

Simultaneously, Fagan is building systems for robust data on social change and re-imagining a distributed sector as an integrated, aligned team-of-teams. By surveying hundreds of leaders and organizations – from the mayor to neighborhood churches – his team is developing the city’s first holistic mapping of needs and assets across the city, identifying the most promising solutions, and funneling new talent toward them. The new talent, in the form of the Fellows and a growing number of alumni, share the same professional development opportunities, operating system, and back-office, further wiring them together and strengthening the full social impact sector. This is a model open network with the Crops Fellows acting as nodes.

By building a diverse and cooperative network of change makers, Fagan and his team can elevate Baltimore's interests above those of any one organization, unlocking new opportunities and drawing in new partners. Not only is the network more effective, but by naming, interrogating and dismantling unjust systems, as well as by building new solutions to persistent challenges, it is building a more equitable city-wide social impact sector as well. Other organizations are already replicating this model (by hiring city-wide talent chiefs, for example) across post-industrial cities and beyond.

The Problem

Fagan insists that since, “challenges are started by people, they must be addressed by people.” But recruiting and retaining talent is the greatest bottleneck for the social impact sector – the public, private and social organizations explicitly working to strengthen a city. While all these organizations have incredible potential to transform lives, they routinely report a chronic inability to recruit talent into their organizations.

The talent challenge is a complex one, made even more complicated in a place like Baltimore which, in terms of population, has been getting smaller for the last 60 years. It’s also widely cited as a city with deeply embedded inequity; Baltimore was a model of rigid, white-black segregation of housing through the full first half of the 20th century and beyond, data clearly shows that poor people living in Baltimore still have diminished life chances, and it is among the most heavily incarcerated city in the nation per capita (which is the most heavily incarcerated nation in the world). Of Baltimore residents today, just 28% possess a college degree or greater. And while nearly 40% of local undergraduates and graduate students report that they’d stay in the city if given the chance, landing a job in the city, much less the social impact sector, requires expert navigation, patience, luck, and personal networks and resources. As Fagan has observed, “people come from all over the world to go to University of Maryland or Johns Hopkins - but they don't stay. [But] where we DO have talent, it's not equitable. More than 60% of this city is black, yet there are only a handful of CEOs of color in organizations with budgets over $1M, and Baltimore Corps is one of them.”

The experience of individual professionals in the current social impact sector is equally frustrating. Upward mobility isn’t a given in small, resource-constrained non-profits. So career moves take the form of leap-frogging from one organizational lily pad to another, which further taxes small social change organizations already struggling on the HR front. And for the employees the opportunity cost of staying in a sector with such obscure career paths compounded by the need for financial stability further contributes to the gentrification of the social change sector, where people of relatively higher means can take advantage of opportunities that the average resident cannot. As a result, overall participation of people of color in the social impact sector – not just at the highest ranks – is significantly less than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

This is problematic for many reasons. Diverse teams, in general, come up with more creative ideas and with better solutions. And in Baltimore, if the real experts on specific neighborhoods, local context, and historic challenges are not at the table - much less the head of the table – communities underrepresented in power have fewer opportunities to meaningfully engage. This, then, challenges the credibility of the problem-solvers and civic leaders, who in many cases are indeed impaired in their ability to truly transform the city for the better. Finally, until this talent challenge is addressed, racial inequity can actually deepen because it is from this current pool of talent that tomorrow’s public, private and social organizations will source their next Directors and CEOs, were the next founders will emerge, and where the future Mayor is developing her networks and honing her skills.

In mid-sized cites across the country, the social impact sectors’ constrained capacity to activate talent, its inequitable distribution of resources, and the limited transparency and utility around the use of data result in a basic failure to address inequity across cities and communities and an impaired ability to have a meaningful, widespread impact. Solutions that work in one neighborhood work don’t spread across town. Organizations that could be aligned compete. And resources – which everyone agrees are in short enough supply already – are used inefficiently.

The Strategy

Fagan was raised in Baltimore but left for college and it took him nearly a decade to “come home.” But when he did he was squarely focused on supporting the social impact sector and, in getting a lay of the land in Baltimore, was expecting to hear that fundraising was peoples' biggest challenge. He was surprised to find out it wasn't; it was talent. Baltimore was hemorrhaging young people, and it seemed the sector wasn’t doing much better holding on to the talent it did have.

Fagan came to see that while Baltimore's economy is strong, the city – like so many like it - had a “connection crisis”. After undertaking a comprehensive, functional mapping of the city’s needs and assets, he saw great talent in creative storytelling, data, and finance, though thousands of spots sat unfilled in organizations and companies because they couldn’t find the right people. Or the organization couldn’t find the funds to make the offers.

Fagan realized that the real problem was that leaders in the sector were not seeing the city as the unit of change. They were measuring growth and impact and retention at the level of their own organizations; in competing for funding and talent, they actually looked better when other organizations faired poorly. Fagan’s insight was to liberate talent from the parochial, competitive, inefficient grasp of the social impact sector’s individual organizations and position ‘people power’ as a key resource for the whole city. As soon as he did this, the set of stakeholders shifted. The way you measure success changed. And the profile of what you look for came into focus: a person who is committed to “ride and die” in Baltimore, who “does hard things,” and who will creatively and collaboratively work for citywide change throughout her career.

Several years later, the key stakeholders in his novel approach remain Visionary Cause Leaders, funders, and “Baltimore Corps Fellows”. Visionary Cause Leaders are systems-thinking leaders of non-profits, social enterprises, and government agencies who commit themselves to being active, hands-on mentors to year-long Fellows and – most importantly – to ensuring the Fellows’ focus on big, city-wide challenges and opportunities. With these projects in mind and the commitment from Baltimore Corps to source a Fellow, the dozens of Visionary Cause Leaders and their organizations secure funds for the Fellows’ salary. Because the Fellow is clearly working for the betterment of the whole city, is committed to a career in the city, and is part of a close-knit team of other Fellows working efficiently across organizations and sectors, the Visionary Cause Leaders have experienced great success in unlocking new philanthropic funding.

With local organizations (across private, civic, and government sector) independently generating demand and opportunities for new, high-caliber changemakers, Fagan and his team are able to focus on finding and supporting the most robust, diverse, and talented pool of emerging leaders committed to Baltimore. Fagan’s team of talent scouts start by looking for “pioneers” and people who “do hard things” based on a shared belief that taking on particularly complicated challenges organizes us, brings out our best, and “takes our game to the next level.” Over the years they’ve recruited, cataloged, and connected with thousands of emerging leaders, and placed well over 100 in fully-funded, year-long Fellowships across the city.

But these elements – under-resourced but committed Visionary Cause Leaders, funders with the city’s best interests at heart, and a diverse pool of talent committed to the city – are just the foundation. Fagan sees each Fellow as a node in a living network of peers that connect their organizations across the city, across sectors, and in line with a common agenda. According to Fagan, “Baltimore's success depends on our ability to put our city's collective interests above those of any single organization.” He believes that networks – not individual organizations – are best positioned to drive change because of their superior ability to collaborate, continuously communicate and activate the potential of a diffuse set of actors. The Baltimore Corps network of Fellows meets weekly for personal and professional development, collaborates closely in their work, and is powered by the same, shared “cause platform” software. This software – a custom build of the widely used Salesforce suite – allows all Fellows across organizations to share funding leads, hiring opportunities, job candidates, and impact metrics. Through talking with neighborhood associations, nonprofit partners, foundations, neighborhood reps, and thousands of potential Fellows per year, Baltimore Corps has what some has called the “most robust data in the city”, all of which is also shared across the network.

All these efforts allow Baltimore Corps staff to steward the careers of current and next generation leaders, providing the access, support and training necessary to drive impact (as well as to retain leaders over time). And Baltimore Corps has learned that they are uniquely well-positioned to address the core issue of racial inequity not just in building equitable pipelines into city leadership, but across our cities’ programming and systems. Through trainings, direct support to managers and Fellows, and by elevating citywide goals for undoing systemic oppression, they are directly tackling Baltimore’s complicated history of racial inequity.

Despite the inherent difficulties of re-wiring the social impact sector, the positive impact is already clear. The Fellowship clearly changes the calculus and trajectory of individual leaders. Exceptional people from elite universities as well as the ‘School of Hard Knocks’ (a meaningful percentage of Baltimore Corps Fellows do not have college degree) who – for various reasons - may have never given civic leadership in Baltimore a serious thought are thriving in complex roles, and nearly 90% of all Fellows to date are still working in Baltimore. At the organizational level, largely because of Fagan’s insistence that each Fellow reports to the principal (the CEO, commissioner, or owner of a given project), the practice of scoping big, city-wide projects and actively managing millennial talent (Fellows, on average, are in their late 20s) is rippling out across the organizations’ culture and human resources systems. And at the citywide level, with roughly 40% of Fellows placed in government agencies, the walls between the private, non-profit, and government sectors are coming down and real collaborations are springing up. And not only are Baltimore’s most forward-thinking Visionary Cause Leaders and emerging leaders modeling and normalizing transparent, open, and collaborative sharing, but they are promoting an equity agenda by influencing the practices and policies of social impact organizations and mobilizing a movement of leaders dedicated to dismantling institutional racism.

From Fagan’s shared office in Baltimore – intentionally adjacent to the mall parking lot at the center of the unrest following the death of Freddy Gray in 2015 - you’d only know that four separate organizations are housed there from the distinct logos on the door. Otherwise, everything about the way the group is working would signal that they are all on the same team. All the organizations’ leads have a cluster of small, shared desk space in the middle of the commotion. Ashoka Fellow Sarah Hemminger of Thread just ended a meeting with a funding partner by walking over and introducing Fagan, who she discerns is “probably a better fit.” In fact, Sarah notes that Thread and Baltimore Corps have raised over $50,000 this year for the other organization. Everyone is using the same CRM software to track fundraising efforts, one colleague holds all the event planning responsibilities, and scattered throughout Thread and Invested Impact’s staff are a handful of full-time Baltimore Corps Fellows and alumni - a portion of whose salaries are covered by funds Fagan and team raise and deploy city-wide. And this scene repeats itself around the city, with Baltimore Corps Fellows at the center of multi-org, multi-sector collaborations (from helping ensure every kids has access to glasses to rallying all the outdoor play organizations together as part of Play More B’More).

Going forward, Fagan sees that Baltimore Corps has the potential to change the behavior of key actors operating in the social impact sector of post-industrial cities across the country. By embracing the city as the unit of change, and talent as the city’s most precious, shared resource, Fagan presents a new focal point for philanthropists, current and next generation social impact leaders, and residents. He’s refined the tool and practices that those actors must invest in and activate to build the common infrastructure to enlist talent, data and resources to advance the most promising models of social impact. And he’s shown that it is therefore possible to activate a new generation of leadership dedicated to the advancement of equity, deep collaboration, and common effort across the social impact sector and our cities.

Since a key principle is deep local ownership, Fagan gets nervous about helicoptering in. He doesn’t think cities like Cincinnati or Detroit need another City Year or Teach for America-style Baltimore Corps ‘chapter’. But he does sense that, increasingly, Baltimore is to social change what New York is to finance or the Silicon Valley is to technology. Leaders across the city are challenging their peers – at other city-focused foundations or at other city health departments, for example – to ensure they, too, have a city talent strategy, and that they focus on, support, and measure city-wide talent retention. Organizations and communities across the country – from Birmingham to Chicago to Washington DC – are exploring and striving to replicate parts or all of the Baltimore Corps model. As more cities across “The Rust Belt” and beyond focus on building and maintaining robust, diverse talent pipelines, Fagan is encouraged that these cities “will transform the legacy of post-industrial America from one of deficit to asset, and elevate a new narrative to attract and inspire generations to come.”

The Person

Growing up, Fagan overcame a culture of low expectations, which pervaded his working class community. As he puts it, “I grew up in Baltimore and lived the reality of post-industrial America. I was educated in public schools that barely graduated half of its students and watched close family members battle addiction and gang life. I lost friends to those forces. Caring individuals pushed me to reach higher, which led me to Stanford University where I studied and graduated in 2009.”

While in college, he led teams, organized the community, and pulled together resources as Student Body Vice President. He was the national director of The Dream is Now, where he recruited and led hundreds of advocates for immigration reform. And as part of the founding team of the Franklin Project’s millennial efforts – along with folks like General Stan McChrystal – he worked to spur a national effort to revive national service in America.

But, despite all these experiences (and qualifications) it was the 6-months it took him to land a job in the non-profit sector – and his return to his native Baltimore – that finally spurred him to focus squarely on re-imagining the social impact sector’s talent pipeline.

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