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Chris Satullo: Their calling: Reinvigorate the region's nonprofits

Matt Joyce and Tim Ifill run a rising nonprofit in Philadelphia, one recently extolled by a fellow named Michael Nutter.

Matt Joyce and Tim Ifill run a rising nonprofit in Philadelphia, one recently extolled by a fellow named Michael Nutter.

Still, when they're out and about, people often mistake them for clients of their program rather than its founders.

Joyce and Ifill invented Philly Fellows. The Americorps program places top graduates from area colleges in year-long fellowships with local service agencies.

When you meet Joyce and Ifill, you can understand the mistake people make. They're 27, and look not a day older.

Yet these Haverford College alums, Class of '03, have pulled off an impressive feat of social entrepreneurship, deftly targeted to their city's challenges.

Philadelphia is a city of colleges, full of whip-smart students - likely to bolt as soon as they clutch their sheepskins.

Philadelphia is also a city of hard-working nonprofits with two traits: Demand for services usually exceeds the supply of staff. And the boss often has plenty of gray hair.

Civic leaders concluded years ago that reversing the brain drain was a vital step toward fostering the bustling "creative economy" this campus-rich region should enjoy. The Philadelphia Foundation, among others, has identified the aging of inspirational nonprofit leaders as an emerging crisis.

Enter Philly Fellows. The college roomies concocted a smart way to address both problems:

Recruit bright, public-spirited grads from local colleges. Deploy them into one-year stints doing meaningful work for local nonprofits, which contribute $10,000 to underwrite each position. Set the fellows up to live together, five to a house, in regular Philly neighborhoods. Make the housing free, and give each fellow a modest stipend, enough dough so he or she can sample what the city has to offer.

It's Real World in the real world, without the narcissistic drama. These housemates support one another as they seek to make an impact on poverty and need, rather than preening and misbehaving for the cameras.

"It's an instant group of friends, and a way to connect them quickly to the city," Ifill said. "That first job in a strange city is challenging; the housing situation gives you someone to talk to about what you're experiencing."

Philly Fellow Windsor Jordan Jr., a Swarthmore grad from Atlanta who ran a chess program for the ASAP afterschool program, said one nice surprise at his South Philly house was how older neighbors, particularly "Miss Thelma and Miss Dee," embraced their young, new neighbors. Hugs, not drama.

The third class of fellows, 20 strong, just started their year. Most of the 15-member first class ("For a crew of guinea pigs, as good a group as we could have had," Joyce said) has stayed in Philly. Two alums, Julie Woodward (Temple) and Jenn Rineer (Penn), now work as Philly Fellows staffers.

The Education Law Center is welcoming its third fellow, said co-director Len Rieser: "They've been fantastic. Matt and Tim seem to have a knack for picking exciting people who are genuinely interested in Philadelphia. There's a wonderful feel to these fellows; they're not just about adding another line to their resumes."

After only three years, Philly Fellows' biggest challenge is figuring out how quickly to expand. "The community feeling is a big part of what we do," Joyce said. "We don't want to dilute that."

The young founders note that timely help buoyed their experiment. Chip Roach, the real estate mogul, "invested" early on, much like a Silicon Valley venture capitalist funding a start-up. Roach said he met Joyce at a homeless program where Joyce worked: "He had a fearlessness, a gutsiness you don't see in many people."

Roach's aid gave Joyce and Ifill time to hone their idea, and sell it to the nonprofits, corporations and foundations that now support it.

Jordan, the maestro of afterschool chess, is evidence that Philly Fellows can be an antidote to the brain drain. As a Swarthmore undergrad, he rarely ventured into Philly. Now he loves it:

"Yeah, friends in Atlanta ask me what I'm doing up here, but Atlanta doesn't need me. There are plenty of 'me's down there. I made the right choice. There's a lot left to be done in Philly, and a need for young folk to do it."