“Urban fellowships are a relatively new type of urban investment,”

–Tom Burns, managing director of Urban Ventures Group, keynote presentation at the Promise of Urban Fellows Symposium, November 2014.

The Landscape for Urban Fellowship Programs

Tom Burns, Urban Ventures Group, and co-founder of CUREx


The roots of urban fellowships in the United States go back to the establishment of national programs such as National Urban Fellows and local initiatives such as the New York City Urban Fellows in 1969, as well as international organizations that include fellowships, notably the German Marshall Fund of the United States (founded in 1972). These programs focus on leadership development, social change, and a distinctly personal engagement in the challenges and needs of cities, primarily within or aligned to the capacity of city governments.

Since the early 2000s, urban fellowships have received renewed attention and investment, and have been reshaped and reinvigorated through such locally sponsored programs as Capital City Fellows (CCF), established in 2000 in Washington, D.C.; and the Detroit Revitalization Fellows (DRF), established in 2011 with generous support from numerous foundations. The energetic leadership of philanthropists, universities, and the federal government have been a hallmark of 21st Century fellowship programs, from the Center for Urban Redevelopment Excellence (CUREx) at the University of Pennsylvania (2003-2006, supported by the Knight Foundation) to the federal Strong Cities Strong Communities (SC2) initiative (2012-2014), established by the Obama White House and carried out through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with key support from The German Marshall Fund’s Urban and Regional Policy Program and Surdna Foundation.

Tom Burns, an acknowledged national expert on leadership development and a key architect of CUREx, kicked off the first Urban Fellows Symposium in Washington, D.C. in November 2014, with an overview of urban fellowships.

“Urban fellowships are a [relatively new] strategy among a variety of strategies. Some of what we are now doing with urban fellowships goes back to lessons that were learned decades and decades ago.” –Tom Burns

With the support of the Knight Foundation, Burns looked at a wide variety of urban leadership development strategies, including fellowships. Among his findings:

  • governmental leadership development and capacity-building initiatives;
  • national foundation fellowship programs that complement an area of funder interest;
  • stand-alone training programs such as the Center for Creative Leadership;
  • international exchanges such as the German Marshall Fund;
  • relatively new problem-solving strategic programs, “almost a SWAT team that is dropped into a place and is given the resources and in some cases sufficient attention and authority to confront an intractable problem”;
  • programs for mid- and late-career leaders that are “almost sabbatical-like, with time to think, time to get out of the groove, the overwhelming assault of things you have to do to be able to think more creatively about the things you have to do and then to go back in.”

“Fellowships tend to begin as the solution to a particular problem. At Penn, the solution was a perceived need for a kind of technical expertise around complex real estate strategies in complex settings. That was the germ that created the platform for the CUREx fellowship. It became something more; it morphed into something else, but it began as an approach to a particular need.…In New Orleans, which was the second generation of the CUREx model—it was really the post-Katrina moment and the need to import new talent into that devastated system, but with some particular ideas about the kind of expertise that would be needed around rethinking the rebuilding of neighborhoods and affordable housing, and there were values embedded in that program around mixed income and a variety of other particular thoughts about what the need was in New Orleans.” –Tom Burns

Often, the original notion must be revisited, reshaped—and sometimes abandoned completely—as the program grows must respond to real conditions. In Detroit, Burns said, “the original notion was probably flawed. It was bring external talent to this city to fix this incredibly broken city. How does that sound if you’re a Detroiter? But it was a way to get started. And it’s clearly more than that already. It’s evolved; it’s evolving.

Of the SC2 program, Burns said, “when I saw it, I thought, they’re doing all this other stuff, and they’re doing these fellowships. It was clearly meant to be kind of a complement to all the other issues…and yet it had some purposes of its own.”


Burns asserted several common traits among fellowship programs:
Mid-Career Focus: “They are not internships in the way that word has tended to be used … They’re really intended to be opportunities for people somewhere in the middle of a career. There is a lot of complexity about what we mean by mid-career. Is it early mid-career? Is it later in a career? Is it very seasoned near the end of a career but wanting to do something different? We don’t know. But it’s clear that you have to arrive to the fellowship with a bundle of assumed talent, seasoning, knowledge of what might work, and you’re thrust into a situation in which you get to extend that knowledge but also draw [upon new knowledge].

Retention: “In most places I’m aware of, the assumption is that you hold onto people after they’ve done their stint. And they may stay with the organization where they have a placement. They may hook up with a new partner and get embedded in the city. That was a great part of the Detroit story. They get embedded into the place, and they don’t leave. That has something to do with how long you keep people—18 to 24 months tends to be the number. There is the assumption in the fellowship that you will become connected with the place if you’re from outside the place, and you will stay. I think it applies to fellowships that recruit from within the place; that you become more deeply engaged with the place, that your thoughts of leaving the place may be reduced.”

Cohort: “You’re part of a group, in a fellowship, and there are various efforts to connect you to the group: some painful and overwrought, some organic and loose and evolving. But there is the assumption that, in addition to your lonely work in the role you’re in with the organization, you are part of a group that is learning things together and supporting itself as a group.”

Leadership Development: “You’re learning in real time, through experience, about your own leadership and problem-solving abilities. Your ability to make sense of and accomplish something within the context in which you are placed. It often has very little to do with what you thought the job was. It has almost nothing to do, usually, with what the employer through the job was. You’re in a situation and you learn, in the context of that situation, what you are about and what your resourcefulness might be in drawing on what you know or what you could learn to make a difference in that situation.”

Networks “are very important because, midway through, you could be pretty miserable in this kind of situation, absent some peer support from others.“

Learning.” And finally—not always; I think the CUREx model was a great example—there was the assumption that you’re going to learn some new stuff as a part of the experience, in terms of technique, in terms of theory, in terms of best practices, a whole variety of things. So there is often substantive learning component that goes with.”

Burns also highlighted the typical components—and troubling challenges—of urban fellowships.

Typical components include competitive selection, a relatively long term (up to two years, usually); a commitment to reflective learning – “Not marching through course work, but really learning that is very based on what is happening to you the day before, or the week before, or what’s happening to you over the context of your time in your role;” group identity (“lifting up the members of each cohort as a unique group”); professional development. (“it’s a little scary to think of a program without some version of coaching or mentoring”); and access to high-level leaders. An emerging, critical commonality is “growing knowledge that you’ve got to spend more time than was thought in earlier versions of urban fellowships with the employer organizations,” said Burns.

“It isn’t just compliance, and setting up that ‘these are the rules, you get this good stuff, you have to do these things.’ I think it is getting to be more and more complex. This was one of the results of recent work we did, with support from Knight Foundation, was looking at more concrete ways that fellowship programs are trying to bridge potential problems that develop between fellows as a special-status person in the organization and the other individuals in that organization who are the fellow’s peers; the other leaders in that organization who are continually ‘pissed’ that the fellows are running off to this and that thing, or they’re off to an airport to go somewhere new, and managing that inside an organization.” –Tom Burns

Challenges inherent in urban fellowship programs include matching the fellows with employers under time pressure, making sure employer expectations meet with fellows’ actual strengths and interests; as well as routine change as people relocate and look for places to live, arrange expensive moves, deal with family needs such as school.

Cost is “maybe my biggest worry about fellowships,” Burns said. “These things cost a lot of money. I’m not saying they’re not worth it. I’m saying tit opens up, inevitably, sooner or later, the problem of can you sustain it. Can you maintain or share the burden of the cost of this program over a long period of time?”

The special status of fellows is itself “an emerging issue in a lot of places, especially programs that are trying to stay around: how do you not remove the special status, but how do you acknowledge and work with the fact that by design there is a special status that applies to the fellows; and how to do address what that means in the context of the organizations. Because it creates barriers, it creates resentments, it creates a have/have-not situation; it creates a whole bunch of problems for the employer to try to incorporate and make the fellowship work.”

“So if we say this is a field of practice,” asked Burns, “if we say this is the first of multiple gatherings, maybe, to talk about these things, what are we talking about? I think we start this process today.”