Public Allies lauded for civic impact

By Leslie Williams

When Paul Schmitz joined Public Allies more than a dozen years ago, it was a fledgling organization aiming to infuse the nonprofit sector with new, energetic leadership. Today, it has placed 2,000 people in apprenticeships in the sector and recently received the 2006 Civic Change Award from the Pew Partnership for Civic Change.

Schmitz now serves as president of Public Allies, an organization that works to strengthen the skills of young people to serve in the nonprofit sector, partly by placing them in apprenticeships with nonprofits through AmeriCorps.

He founded the Milwaukee affiliate of Public Allies in 1993 so his home city could take part in the then-budding national program.

“My initial desire, frankly, was to become a participant in the program,” he says.

But when he learned there wasn’t an affiliate in Milwaukee through which he could apprentice, he started one himself.

Schmitz first learned of Public Allies when he met one of the founders at a conference when the program was four months old and had just 15 allies working in nonprofits in Washington, D.C.

He was enchanted by the idea of inserting oneself into a community to serve on a deeper level, he says.

“It was something I had been looking for but I didn’t know what it was,” he says.

Today, Public Allies operates in 13 communities across the U.S., recruiting young people from within the community to serve local groups, and recently opened affiliates in Louisiana, Phoenix and Pittsburgh.

Paul Schmitz

Job: President and CEO, Public Allies

Born: 1969, Milwaukee

Family: Children, Maxwell, Maya and Olivia

Education: B.A., political science, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Hobbies: Reading, music, travel, spending time with his kids

Currently reading: Biographies of each American president, currently Millard Filmore, “who is actually more interesting than Zachary Taylor was.”

Favorite quote: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill

Allies participate in leadership training and team-building workshops, and work in a nonprofit during their 10-month apprenticeships through AmeriCorps. The organization’s growth has been bolstered by the nonprofit sector’s recognition that it needs to do more to recruit the next generation of leaders, says Schmitz. “Fervor has grown in recent years because the sector is really struggling,” he says. “There’s more value now for what we do.”

He is excited about the growing demand for organizations like his to place young people in nonprofits, he says, but says that 13 years ago he and other Public Allies staff members had an even grander vision of where the organization would be now. “I think we thought we’d be in 50 communities by 2000,” he says.

He talks about those tough, early years as a time when the “sobering reality about what it means to grow a nonprofit” set in.

But he is energized about the organization’s growth, he says.

He points to the agency’s efforts beyond AmeriCorps, which he says will help create more change in the nonprofit sector by working with organizations to help them better recruit and train young people.

“We see it as a way to kind of disseminate our work to a broader number of people,” he says. “The influence that can happen is tremendous.”

And he says that apprenticeships through AmeriCorps create a learning experience that is often just as beneficial for the nonprofits as it is for the allies.

In year-end surveys of supervisors, about six in 10 report their skills as managers improved as a result of working with AmeriCorps apprentices.

While Schmitz says people in the nonprofit sector have become more open to young people and what they can contribute to public life, he thinks the underlying values of allies in the program remain constant.

Though Generation Y may be more cynical about politics in America, he says, young people who become involved in Public Allies have carried on the inspiration of the founders, who believed the power of young people to affect change was not being harnessed.

And while Schmitz concedes that growing an organization like his is “just a drop in the bucket,” he believes the younger generations can have a transformational impact.

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