The Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, the owner and operator of the Alliance Center, undertook a four-year “transformation” project of the 41,000 square feet building, constructed in 1908. In 2010, the five-story brick building, a former warehouse, was configured in a traditional, private suite layout that had little natural light and limited space for gatherings or collaboration.
The renovation sought both to “create a cost-effective, high-performing building model” as well as to identify a replicable approach that could be applied to other commercial offices and historic buildings.
When I lived in Toronto, I worked for an organization that made its home at the Centre for Social Innovation. The Centre had been open for just a few months, and it was great to be a participant in the burgeoning space as the tenant community gelled and management explored how it was going to best meet the needs of the center’s community. As someone who has spent much of their working life in nonprofits and studying nonprofit management, I was quickly hooked on this model of nonprofit shared space that looks to create efficiencies through shared amenities/office services and bolster effectiveness through peer learning and collaboration between tenant community members.
It’s happened. Your landlord isn’t going to give you the same deal on your windowless basement office as he’s given you for the last five years. You have twelve months to figure out where to move, and you don’t even know how to start. We talk to many Executive Directors in this position. Here’s some tips for you as you start the process.
Just back from a whirlwind trip to the Bay Area where I got to visit seven nonprofit centers: Tides Thoreau Center, Fort Mason Center, Ed Roberts Campus, Ninth Street Independent Film Center, David Brower Center, The Lab and The Flight Deck. Large and small, grassroots to institution-led, these centers encompass everything from the arts to serving those with disabilities. In addition, our trainings sparked some remarkable conversations. I thought I would share some of the highlights and lessons I learned.
Managing shared meeting space is one of the biggest challenges you face in a nonprofit center. I’ve seen everything from custom room booking systems that use room occupancy sensors to cancel room reservations to room schedules kept using pen and paper. Virtually everyone wants there to be a technology platform that does it all, at an affordable rate, or better yet for free. With the explosion of coworking space, more room booking systems are coming on to the market. Here are a few that are popular across the network.
I’ve seen a lot of nonprofit real estate projects destabilize the organizations they are meant to bolster. That’s why I’m passionate about nonprofits undertaking careful feasibility planning when contemplating a space project. Whether your organization chooses to rent or buy, whether the project is for your organization alone or with a cohort of other nonprofits for a shared space – the key objective is to do no harm and make sure that your new space enhances your mission and doesn’t undermine it. Occupancy costs are second only to personnel in terms of nonprofit expenses, but even the most sophisticated nonprofits often get tripped up by poorly planned real estate projects.
I first heard of Joanne Posner-Mayer when I was a consultant working with a fledgling shared space in Denver focused on international development in 2013. The project was in trouble. They had secured a lease for a building through the Denver Housing Authority, but it was a historic structure and the group needed to raise the funds for renovations and start-up costs. There was a gap between the projected costs and the actual costs and it wasn’t clear how the project could move forward. I remember thinking, another one bites the dust.
But I was wrong. The project succeeded because of Ms. Posner-Mayer and it is now one of the best examples of mission-driven shared space. Posner-Mayer is a Denver physical-therapist-turned-entrepreneur who invented the FitBall™, which is now ubiquitous in gyms and therapy rooms. She had deep roots with the Curtis Park neighborhood where the international development shared space center was being developed. Her father, a Polish immigrant, had a successful hardware store in that neighborhood. Ms. Posner-Mayer felt she could give back to the neighborhood that enabled her to achieve so much. I remember being so surprised at how it all came together – her contribution was truly pivotal to the center, the difference between life and death. Now in Denver we are lucky to have the Posner Center for International Development, named in honor of her family.
If that wasn’t tribute enough, a recent blog by the Rose Community Foundation reported that Ms. Posner-Mayer has been instrumental in another shared space project, the Rose Andom Center. The Andom Center is a one-stop shop for survivors of domestic violence and houses over 20 agencies in a central location. Previously, those affected by domestic violence had to travel to up to a dozen different locations to access services. Taking a client-centered approach will help stop the cycle of violence by improving rates of reporting abuse. Ms. Posner-Mayer contributed to the Rose Andom Center and is helping it establish an endowment so it can be financially sustainable for a long time to come.
I’m anxious to learn of other philanthropists who have embraced the shared service model as much as Ms. Posner-Mayer. In working with her at an NCN training event in 2015, we discussed the notion of mission-driven shared space centers as a kin to a mutual fund investment vehicle – invest in one shared space center and you’ve touched all the organizations who locate there. It’s a great way to address a pressing community issue in a holistic way. I’ve not heard of many who have invested in multiple centers, but I’d love to see it catch on.
At this time of year, it’s inspiring to think about the many ways our generosity can make a huge difference in people’s lives. The Posner Center addresses global poverty and creates opportunity for men, women and children around the world. The Andom Center is helping local Denver families find safety and peace. I can’t imagine a better example of what we all hope for in this holiday season.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is a video worth? Here are a few of our favorite videos to showcase the model of sharing. Take a moment to check out three different models of shared space!
Theme Center: Posner Center for International Development Denver, CO
Service Center: Together Center Redmond, WA
Multi-Sector Center: Carroll Nonprofit Center Westminster, MD
My consulting work takes me to all parts of the county, but so often I hear the same comments from community to community. “I can’t spend money on office space, because that takes away from my mission.” “How am I going to justify the overhead to my donors?” “If I spend $1,000 a month on office space that’s X number of people I can’t feed.” While every group I meet with has a unique flavor, the concerns are still the same. It’s an extension of the poverty mindset that most nonprofits live in. We need to move away from the idea that overhead is a necessary to evil towards thinking about all the ways that we can leverage our infrastructure to make a greater impact. Minimizing your overhead leads to other costs that can make a big impact on your work, particularly when it comes to office space.
“Making Do” takes time, and time is money. I recently discussed finding meeting venues with a group of nonprofit leaders. Many said they were fine “making do” with free spaces in town. Those free spaces take time to find and book, not to mention set up. Sometimes you event have to buy and set up your own AV. Is spending hours setting up chairs and projectors the highest and best use of your staff time?
The cost of decreased productivity. Free office space sometimes translates to “office space in need of major capital investment.” I recently heard the story of a nonprofit that has cheap rent, but in the summer one of the staff members must choose between running a computer or the air conditioner, due to the faulty wiring. I’ve also seen many nonprofit staff members shivering when the HVAC goes out and they can’t afford to fix it. You can’t be efficient and effective in these conditions.
Lack of visibility. Many nonprofits operate out of church basements or off kitchen tables with a webpage, an e-mail address, or a phone number. Without a physical presence, you could be missing out on a chance to connect with your stakeholders, especially those that don’t have access to the world wide web. Having an office raises your profile with funder too. For the vast majority of nonprofit organizations, you need to be easily found.
As you’re struggling to justify the membership fee for a coworking space or a month’s rent in a nonprofit center, I encourage you to think about all the ways that being in a high quality office space helps you meet your mission. It’s worth the investment.