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BiksuTong/shutterstock

It takes a long time to staff up the U.S. government, which employs more than 2 million civilian workers.

While President Joe Biden doesn’t have to fill all of those spots, six months into his administration, he still has hundreds of appointments to make. He has, however, already tapped many willing and eager staffers from the foundation world, following a tradition that dates to the birth of modern mega-philanthropy.

“There’s a long history of revolving doors between the U.S. federal government and leading U.S. foundations (at least since the 1910s and 1920s),” said Maribel Morey, a co-founder and co-editor of HistPhil, a website that publishes works on philanthropic history, via email.

After reviewing a wide variety of roundups and announcements, we have counted more than two dozen individuals with past experience in philanthropy who have joined the Biden administration. At least one foundation veteran—Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough—holds a cabinet position, while many others have nabbed important spots as White House advisors or in key agencies, including several requiring Senate confirmation.

Most have come from the country’s largest foundations, such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has seen three staff members depart for Washington. But lesser-known funders are also among the institutions that will have former staffers in the nation’s capital, including the Markle Foundation, which appears to be leading the pack with four hires.

In most cases, philanthropy was serving as a way station, not a long-term home for these appointees. Many spent only a few years or fewer at foundations, often spending the Trump years as grantmakers after long careers of government service beginning during the Obama administration or earlier. (We’ve also omitted those whose lone philanthropic experience was at the Obama or Biden foundations.)

Yet even if that service was short, it may prove influential in today’s era of public-private partnerships. As Morey laid out in a 2014 article in The Atlantic, in the early days of philanthropy, Andrew Carnegie—the nation’s first mega-donor—was eager to team up with the Roosevelt administration. By her account, that relationship has changed.

“While the early 20th century White House was a powerbroker being courted by an admiring philanthropist eager to fund a project in the nation’s service, the White House today is doing the admiring and the chasing of private philanthropy,” wrote Morey.

Beyond explicit partnerships, there’s also a long history of elected officials relying on the high-powered world of foundations, think tanks and other top nonprofits to guide their policy making strategies on issues from healthcare to climate change.

Regardless of who is leading the way, any such collaboration between philanthropy and the Biden administration can rely on a great deal of insider knowledge. We’ll see in the coming years if that results in tighter collaboration or even groundbreaking new partnerships. For now, here is our list, organized by area of work:

Environment and Climate

Jonathan Pershing: Hewlett Foundation to U.S. Department of State

As the environment program director at the Hewlett Foundation, the field’s largest climate funder prior to the launch of the Bezos Earth Fund, Pershing is one of the most high-profile grantmakers to join the Biden administration. That said, Pershing has spent most of his career in government. Pershing served as special envoy for climate change at the State Department during the Obama administration. He was the lead U.S. negotiator to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, helping to finalize major climate deals with China, India, the E.U. and other governments. Most notably, he played a key role in securing the Paris climate agreement. He now serves as climate and foreign policy advisor, reportedly second only to John Kerry, who holds the new cabinet-level position of special envoy for climate change.

Jane Flegal: Hewlett Foundation to the White House

As a program officer at Hewlett, Flegal led the funder’s U.S. climate and clean energy grantmaking for a little over a year. She previously spent two years at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust in New York working on U.S. climate strategy. Known for supporting climate technology, but also concerned with equity, Flegal is one of several scholars selected by the Biden Administration whose work looks at how society shapes science. Flegal, whose Ph.D. dissertation was on the science, politics and governance of solar geoengineering, now serves as senior director for industrial emissions at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Shara Mohtadi: Bloomberg Philanthropies to Department of Energy

During two years with Bloomberg Philanthropies, Mohtadi helped lead two signature campaigns: America’s Pledge, which recruited states, cities, businesses and others to commit to climate action; and the foundation’s efforts to transition from coal plans to solar, wind and other clean energy, with a focus on Asia and Australia. She is now serving as chief of staff for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) at the U.S. Department of Energy. It won’t be her first stint in D.C. Mohtadi previously served as an advisor to the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration.

Jeremiah Baumann: Energy Innovation and Bloomberg Philanthropies to Department of Energy

Baumann is one of two former philanthropic staffers who spent seven months at Energy Innovation, the research and policy shop run by ClimateWorks Foundation founder Hal Harvey, before jumping to the Biden administration. He earlier served for two years on the environment team at Bloomberg Philanthropies, with a focus on state clean energy policies. But much of his recent experience is in government: He worked for nine years for Sen. Jeff Merkley, Democrat from Oregon. The Montana native is now deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Aimee Witteman: Energy Innovation and McKnight Foundation to Department of Energy

Like Baumann, Witteman spent a seven-month stint at Energy Innovation—in her case, as director of U.S. states policy. But the bulk of her recent work has been in philanthropy. She spent a decade at the McKnight Foundation, most of that time serving as program director of its Midwest climate and energy program, working on climate justice and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the region. Witteman now serves as deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Energy.

Sonia Aggarwal: Energy Innovation and ClimateWorks to the White House 

Aggarwal was co-founder of Energy Innovation, where for nine years, she led the organization’s policy programs as vice president, including guiding the development of America’s Power Plan, a roadmap for transitioning to a decarbonized power sector. She earlier worked at ClimateWorks, joining the year it was founded and serving for three years as the global research manager. She is now the senior advisor for policy and innovation, reportedly third in seniority after National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, in the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy.

Other Notables

There are several other Biden administration officials in key climate and environmental positions whose experience includes time in philanthropy, albeit typically for much shorter tenures.

  • Sue Biniaz, who was the lead climate lawyer for the Paris Climate Agreement and served at the State Department for 25 years, was most recently a senior fellow at the U.N. Foundation before rejoining the government as a climate and foreign policy advisor in the White House.
  • Janie Simms Hipp, a veteran of the USDA from the Obama administration and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, was serving as CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund before she was nominated to be the general counsel of the USDA.
  • Shannon Estenoz, who served as the chief operating officer and vice president of policy for the Everglades Foundation, was sworn in as assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the Department of the Interior.

Administration

Kiran Ahuja: Philanthropy Northwest to Office of Personnel Management

Now the director of the Office of Personnel Management, Ahuja is one of the nominees from philanthropy who required Senate confirmation, which she won in June along party lines with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris, overcoming Republican criticism of her comments on racial justice. Her four years as CEO of Philanthropy Northwest was an interlude from recent stops in government, including a previous 15-month stint as the OPM’s chief of staff during the Obama administration. Ahuja also spent six years as the head of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. She is the first South Asian woman and first Asian American woman to head OPM.

David Marsh: Markle Foundation to Office of Personnel Management

Marsh spent two years as a senior manager for state and federal policy at the IT-focused Markle Foundation. He also worked on criminal justice reform at Pew Charitable Trusts. During the Obama administration, he served in both the White House Office of Management and Budget and at the Office of Personnel Management. Marsh is now back at OPM as senior advisor to the chief of staff.

David Recordon: Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Office of Management and Administration

Recordon spent nearly three years as Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s vice president of infrastructure and security. But his Facebook roots run much deeper: He served for almost six years as the social media giant’s engineering director. Known for his work to develop the open-source OpenID and oAuth standards, he also is a founding board member of the OpenID Foundation. Recordon left his Facebook role in 2015 to join the Obama administration, first as a consultant and then as special assistant to the president and director of White House IT. He now has virtually the same role: special assistant to the president and director of technology at the White House’s Office of Management and Administration.

Austin Lin: Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Office of Management and Administration

Lin also joins the Biden administration from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, where he worked as group technical program manager for two years. It’s not his first time working at the White House: He held a variety of roles over three years during the Obama administration, ending as the deputy director of White House IT. Like Recordon, Lin has also worked at Facebook, albeit for only a year. He is now Recordon’s second in command, serving as special assistant to the president and deputy director of technology.

Other Notables

  • Gautam Raghavan, who spent two and a half years as vice president of policy at the Gill Foundation, as well as nearly two years as an advisor to the Biden Foundation, now serves in the White House as deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of presidential personnel.

National Security, Defense and Foreign Affairs

Denis McDonough: Markle Foundation to Veterans Affairs

A nearly lifelong public servant, McDonough joined the Markle Foundation in 2017 as a senior principal and for two years led a coalition of business, education and government leaders. He stayed on as a senior advisor until his nomination to the Biden administration. He had earlier served as President Obama’s chief of staff, and before that, as Obama’s deputy national security advisor. McDonough now serves as secretary of veterans affairs, making him the only current member of Biden’s cabinet with experience in philanthropy.

Jennifer Harris: Hewlett Foundation to National Security Council

Harris, the co-author of “War by Other Means,” joined the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in 2018. An alumna of the State Department, she helped shape the foundation’s Beyond Neoliberalism program, which seeks to replace the dominant, market-focused ideology of the past several decades with a new paradigm. The former Rhodes Scholar plans to continue that work as senior director for international economics and labor at the National Security Council, where, as she said in an announcement on Twitter, she’ll be “helping to build a post-neoliberal vision for our international economic policy and foreign policy.”

Linda Etim: Gates Foundation to National Security Council

Etim has spent most of her career in government, but before joining the Biden administration, she spent two years as a senior advisor for global policy and advocacy for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She had previously worked at the National Security Council, Department of Defense and USAID. Etim now serves as special assistant to the president and senior director for development and global health at the National Security Council.

Other Notables

  • Bonnie Jenkins, who served as program officer for foreign and security policy at the Ford Foundation more than a decade ago, was confirmed as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security at the State Department.
  • Sarah Cross, who spent two years as advocacy director for the International Migration Initiative at Open Society Foundations, now serves as deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Other Departments

Bruce Reed: Broad Foundation and Emerson Collective to the White House

After serving as Biden’s chief of staff for a couple of years during the Obama administration, Reed spent two years as the president of the Broad Foundation and three years as senior policy advisor to the Emerson Collective. He is now a deputy chief of staff in the White House.

Cristóbal Alex: OSF and Ford Foundations to the White House

Alex is a veteran of two philanthropic giants, with two years at Open Society Foundations and another three at the Ford Foundation, both times as a program officer focused on civic engagement and democratic engagement. Since leaving philanthropy in 2014, he’s worked on both the Hilary Clinton and Biden campaigns, and founded the Latino Victory Project. The El Paso native now serves as Biden’s deputy cabinet secretary.

Other Notables

  • Anne Milgram, who served as vice president of criminal justice for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation between 2011 and 2015, and also sat on the board of the Century Foundation, was recently sworn in as the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
  • Michele Chang, who served for three years as executive director of the Rework Business Network at the Markle Foundation, now serves as deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Commerce Department.
  • Ben J. Winter, who spent a year as a senior program officer for housing and economic opportunity at the California Community Foundation, now serves as the deputy assistant secretary for policy development at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  • Juliana Herman, who spent a year at the Markle Foundation as chief of staff and senior advisor, has now become the chief of staff of the office of planning, evaluation and policy at the Department of Education.
  • Erika Poethig, who spent eight years as associate director for housing at the MacArthur Foundation earlier in her career, now serves in the White House as special assistant to the president for housing and urban policy.
  • Carmel Martin, who recently served for nearly two years as managing director for the Emerson Collective, now works in the White House as deputy assistant to the president and deputy director for economic mobility at the domestic policy council.

Did we miss any key former members of philanthropy now serving in the Biden administration? Let us know.

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