May 6, 2020

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the NewsHe was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The U.S. national government is failing in its response to the pandemic. One recent example: A month ago, on March 20, the United States and South Korea had about the same number of coronavirus deaths: nearly 100 in South Korea, versus somewhere over 200 in the U.S. Since South Korea has a much smaller population—about 50 million, versus more than 300 million for the U.S.—its per capita death rate was actually much higher. One month later, South Korea’s death total had risen to only 236—while that in the U.S. was rising quickly past 40,000. With adjustments for population size, the current U.S. death rate is more than 25 times higher than South Korea’s.

Out of necessity, the rest of the nation is trying to take up the slack. Governors, mayors, nurses and doctors, hospital administrators, teachers and students, business owners and employees, civil servants and trash collectors and bus drivers and delivery people and grocery workers—these and tens of millions of others have taken the operations of America onto their shoulders.

Of course, in the long run there is no substitute for national-level and international responses to a crisis of this magnitude. A recent New York Times editorial, “The America We Need,” did an admirable job of connecting the national challenges of the 2020s to other convulsive transformations in American life. More thought, planning, and proposals in this vein are appearing every day.

But right at this moment, most of what’s positive in the country is happening at the local, statewide, and regional level—rather than that of national guidance or coordination. Not as a substitute for national policy, but as a guide and spur for it, these efforts deserve attention. Recently, Deb Fallows wrote about how libraries are expanding their virtual reach, now that their physical spaces are closed down. And I described how the most populous state, California, is trying to reorient its citizen-service program, for the era when people cannot easily gather in groups.

Today’s update is the first of three about small-to-medium-size organizations, all relatively new, which are rapidly adapting to match the emergencies of this moment. Each of them had developed a system of networked projects across the country. Each emphasized the idea that Americans of different generations and backgrounds were looking for more than strictly material rewards and could be drawn to opportunities to serve. Each was based on innovative ways of matching business operations with efforts from governments and nonprofit groups. Each has now had to shift its emphasis during the pandemic. They are FUSE CorpsNationSwell, and the Innovation Collective. We start today with FUSE.

What it does: FUSE is a nonprofit organization, with offices in San Francisco and Boston, that applies what I think of as an improved version of the familiar Peace Corps or Teach for America models. (By the way, FUSE isn’t an acronym; it’s their preferred capitalization, for the concept that their programs would fuse together contributions from diverse realms.)

The familiar-sounding part of the FUSE approach is placing people who want to serve in locations that need a particular kind of help. Among the differences is FUSE’s emphasis on choosing “executive fellows” who, in additional to idealism and willingness to serve, have long-established, specific experience relevant to the projects to which they will be assigned. To spell this out: Teach for America takes fresh college graduates and gives them crash-course training in classroom techniques. FUSE takes experienced, usually mid-career professionals and matches them with local-government projects that call on their skills.

FUSE was founded nine years ago, by a group that included entrepreneurs and tech-world figures; officials from existing NGOs and civic-service organizations; and veterans of the Obama Administration’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. One of its founders, the entrepreneur and author Peter Sims (who was also one of the forces behind the “global generosity” movement Giving Tuesday), wrote a blog post announcing the ambitions for FUSE. He said it aimed to be

an innovative social venture that will pair some of America’s top entrepreneurial leaders with governors, mayors and community leaders across America to drive meaningful social change. We identify concrete projects in local communities that address a national priority (such as education, economic development or health care). We then recruit and deploy highly-skilled and passionate professionals to help develop and implement innovative and lasting solutions.  

You can also see a TechCrunch story from 2011 about FUSE’s launch. Since the first group of FUSE Executive Fellows was selected and assigned in 2012, more than 155 of them have worked on projects in more than 30 cities and counties around the country. The local organizations pay FUSE a flat $150,000 fee for each project. That money may come from a combination of city and county budgets, local philanthropies or businesses, or other sources. From that fee FUSE recruits, selects, and trains a fellow; convenes meetings of fellows and covers its other costs; and pays the fellow an annual stipend. According to James Weinberg, CEO of FUSE, fellows generally take a significant pay cut from their previous roles to pursue this opportunity for service.

The two proof-of-concept statistics the organization highlights are, first, that 90 percent of the communities that have signed up for one project, return to sign up for another; and, second, that 50 percent of the people who serve as fellows end up working in “civic leadership” roles after their fellowship is done.

What are these projects? You can find an extensive listing at the FUSE site. James Weinberg went through several examples for me. In New Orleans, a FUSE fellow happened to arrive just as torrential downpours were causing widespread flooding across the city. She worked with the local sewer and water board, which over the next year made extensive improvements—in pumps, drains, data systems, and maintenance. “A year later, at the end of her fellowship, there happened to be a storm with identical rainfall,” Weinberg told me. “This time there was no flooding at all.”

In San Francisco, fellows have worked on police-civic relations in the wake of a Justice Department consent decree; on financing seawall improvements, to cope with rising oceans; on homelessness; and on the city’s other crises. Elsewhere around the country they have worked on health-care systems, on traffic problems, on urban revitalization, on educational inequities, on addiction, on racial-justice matters, and on similar deep problems that mayors must actually cope with, rather than just giving speeches about.

Why people serve: Through the late 1970s, the parents of my wife, Deb Fallows, had their own small sales business in the industrial Midwest. Because of a premature health scare, they decided to sell the business while in their early 50s—and after a brief time of travel began what they described as the most satisfying period of their lives. Under the auspices of the International Executive Service Corps, a sort of Peace Corps for retired business people, they spent much of the next two decades based in South Korea, then Indonesia, Egypt, and Kenya, advising businesses there. They received only a small fraction of their previous income but felt happy and engaged.

When James Weinberg described his FUSE corps members, I recognized what I had seen in my parents-in-law. The people who applied for fellowships, he said, were often 20 or more years into their career, in their 40s or 50s. “They may have been thinking for quite a while about a shift, into some kind of service,” he said. “They didn’t know what form it could take, or how they really could be useful.” One of the purposes of FUSE, he said, was to give a specific answer and outlet to an individual’s general desire to do something different, something more “meaningful” in life.

Fellows can re-up for a second year of service, and about half do. Weinberg said that—as with other service projects—during the year there was a foreseeable arc of emotions. “By the six-month mark, there’s usually a dip in energy and faith that ‘Anything is possible,’ because the work is so much harder than they thought—often facing some of the biggest challenges of their careers,” he told me. The “cohort model” of the program, in which fellows on different projects got together periodically to compare experiences, was valuable in creating a sense of going through the struggles together.

“When they end their fellowship, they’re acutely conscious of the gaps that still remain,” Weinberg said. “Then they look back later and say, ‘We did that! What more can we do now?’”

What has happened now: The problem for FUSE is the problem for nearly all of America’s city and state governments: The need for services is going up, while the money to pay for those services is going down. That’s an emergency for next week, and next month and next year.

The emergency for today is shifting resources to help cities deal with their crises in health care, homelessness, food bank, small-business survival, domestic violence, and other areas. Weinberg gave these examples in an email:

FUSE Fellows are restructuring hospitals to prepare for an influx of critical patients; ensuring food delivery to the elderly who have been ordered to stay inside; providing temporary housing to clear densely populated homeless encampments; reaching out to immigrant communities about their rights to access the public health system; transforming educational systems to online learning while schools are closed; supporting the justice-related needs of those trapped in legal systems that have ground to a halt; helping prop-up small businesses and low-income communities; and much more…. This is all part of an emerging FUSE Covid Response Strategy.

Like many other organizations, FUSE is now working on medium- and longer-term plans, to help cities with their economic and civic reconstruction, whenever the current devastation has passed.

Why do I mention all this? Not to endorse every specific project, since I haven’t seen them myself. I’m not seeing anything but my own household these days. Rather it is to illustrate the creativity and energy with which much of civic-level America in responding to a medical and economic emergency unprecedented in our lifetimes. Next up: What NationSwell is doing to the same end.

More from this series

James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the NewsHe was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.