Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

As Baltimore Corps goes independent, looking back on an extraordinary partnership

Baltimore Corps Fellows from 2018

Many in this city are familiar with the remarkable success of Baltimore Corps, which in just five years has established itself as a powerful force for social change in Baltimore, with a focus on leadership and talent development, especially for communities of color. 

What they may not know is that Strong City has been with Baltimore Corps since its very first steps as the initiative’s fiscal sponsorSince its inception in 2013, Baltimore Corps has operated under Strong City’s 501(c)(3) status and structure, allowing the initiative to be innovative, agile, and well supported in the extremely challenging environment that new nonprofits usually face. At the beginning of July — after six years, thousands of meetings and phone calls, hundreds of grants and contracts, countless emails, and a few late-night beers — Baltimore Corps launched as an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. The process of separation and preparing for independence took about a year. 

During this momentous transition, Strong City and Baltimore Corps are reflecting on what has been an important relationship for both sides. 

I want to thank Strong City Baltimore for six years of partnership,” said Fagan Harris, CEO and President of Baltimore Corps. “Their fiscal sponsorship services proved essential to the success and ongoing development of our organization.”  

“We look back with great satisfaction on this partnership and what it has been able to achieve for Baltimore,” said Karen D. Stokes, CEO of Strong City Baltimore 

“The story of Baltimore Corps’ beginning really shows the best and highest function of fiscal sponsorship, I think,” said Tyson. “At this time, it is so important for established organizations, like Strong City, to ask themselves, ‘how can we do the most good?’ It may be that the most good is done by stepping out of the spotlight and supporting new and dynamic leaders using the knowledge and experience we have gained over 50 years.” 

A Meaningful Impact 

Strong City helped Baltimore Corps launch its first cohort of Fellows within six months of forming; offered strategic program development assistance along with our standard fiscal sponsorship services; and provided innovative infrastructure support, especially around hiring. 

 “The services Strong City provided to Baltimore Corps during its startup phase were critical to our success. With them focused on the operational details like payroll, benefits, general human resource and financial management, our staff could be laserfocused on the core mission, added Baltimore Corps Board Vice Chair Charlene Moore Hayes.

That mission is “to enlist talent to accelerate social innovation in Baltimore and advance a citywide agenda for equity and racial justice.” Baltimore Corps accomplishes that through a suite of interconnected programs: Fellowships, which recruit professionals from inside and outside of Baltimore to help create impact within leading local organizations; Public Allies, an apprenticeship/training program focused on building racial justice and equity in a wide array of sectors; Place for Purpose, which connects talented and mission-driven job seekers to social impact career opportunities; and Mayoral Fellowships, 10-week summer internships for college students in City Hall.  

In addition, the annual Elevation Awards provide grants and personalized support to Baltimoreans of color pioneering novel approaches to strengthening the city; and athe local operating partner for the microloan program Kiva, Baltimore Corps works with small business borrowers throughout the loan process to help them succeed. Throughout all of these programs, Strong City was right there behind the curtain, managing financial and administrative operations and supporting Baltimore Corps leadership. 

Supporting the Vision 

It all started when Baltimore Corps co-founders Fagan Harris and Wes Moore brought their idea for a new kind of social innovation organization to Strong City in late 2013After hashing out the possibilities and going over the business plans, Baltimore Corps came into operation in April 2014 as a fiscally sponsored project – one that would eventually grow to become Strong City’s largest initiative, with an annual budget of more than $3 million. 

Tyson W. Garith, Strong City’s Director of Operations and the chief architect of its fiscal sponsorship program, recalls how, from the very start, this relationship went beyond providing typical fiscal sponsorship services such as auditing, HR, and accepting tax-deductible contributions.  

“This was an early instance of Strong City offering intentional capacity support as part of fiscal sponsorship,” said Tyson, noting that he was able to bring significant experience in program and leadership development from overseeing Strong City’s (since closed) AmeriCorps VISTA program. “[Fagan and I] collaborated really closely in developing and launching the first full year of the program. 

“Within six months of being with Strong City Baltimore, we placed the first class of Baltimore Corps Fellows,” Tyson recalled, noting that in at least one case, Strong City was tapped to legally function as the employer of a Fellow who was working with a city entity. Even though Baltimore Corps was a brand-new initiative, its Fellows were placed with major agencies like the Baltimore City Health Department and top local nonprofits such as Thread. “Without Strong City’s involvement,” Tyson added, it’s hard to imagine how Baltimore Corps would have launched with a class of 10 Fellows – especially with that level of placements – after forming its organization just six months prior.” 

As Baltimore Corps expanded in its second and third years, Strong City innovated to provide HR services in a way that served the burgeoning organization’s needs. There was a growing demand for Baltimore Corps Fellows to fill key roles at the Health Department and other municipal agencies, but a frozen hiring structure made it impossible for city department heads to hire them quickly. In stepped Strong City, which provided employment services to the Fellows on behalf of Baltimore Corps. The unique styling of Strong City’s payroll system made the work of these Fellows possible – to the benefit of not only Baltimore Corps but the entire city, which otherwise would not have gained such dynamic talent. 

The Fellows program has since been immensely successful, recruiting and developing well over 100 leaders in dozens of organizations, growing from nine graduates in Cohort 1 to 40 in Cohort 4. 

One continuing legacy of the partnership between Baltimore Corps and Strong City is the Elevation Awards, which is funded by the T. Rowe Price Foundation and provides local innovators of color with $5,000 to $10,000 grants, personalized support, and an opportunity to showcase their project to prospective funders after the nine-month grant period. Some Elevation Award winners chose to also join Strong City as fiscally sponsored projects. Those current and former projects include MOMCares, Kindred Community Healing, The Board Room, Reflection of Kings, H.O.P.E. Baltimore, Comm+University, and Brown and Healthy.  

Our Place in a Strong City 

Throughout its history of direct programming and fiscal sponsorship, the organization has seen initiatives evolve in countless ways. Many have chosen to remain fiscally sponsored by Strong City indefinitely, while others, like Baltimore Corps, become independent 510(c)(3)s. This was the case, for example, with Experience Corps Baltimore, an intergenerational volunteer tutoring program that was a major Strong City initiative for more than a decade before becoming independent several years ago; and with the Jones Falls Watershed Association, which separated from Strong City and evolved into the environmental nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore. Still other initiatives close their operations entirely due to lack of funding, time, or a variety of other challenging forces in the nonprofit sector.  

“The story of Baltimore Corps’ beginning really shows the best and highest function of fiscal sponsorship, I think,” said Tyson. “At this time, it is so important for established organizations, like Strong City, to ask themselves, ‘how can we do the most good?’ It may be that the most good is done by stepping out of the spotlight and supporting new and dynamic leaders using the knowledge and experience we have gained over 50 years.”