I’ve had several conversations with new NCN members just starting the process to see if a nonprofit center is the right thing for their community. People talking this project for the first time are some of my favorites to work with – the energy, the inspiration, the passion. Inevitably, at some point excitement transitions to overwhelmed, as leaders struggle to balance their vision with the growing workload. That’s where we come in!
Because how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! We’ve helped so many people break down their shared space project into manageable chunks, making their dream a reality. Here are my top tips for managing this process:
Write down your why: Whether it’s an official statement of purpose or just the top three reasons you want to see a shared space in your community, this is your guiding principle as you go through this project. Form follows function throughout this process.
Type the word “innovation” into Google, and you’ll get nearly 7 million search results; it seems that all companies and entrepreneurs are striving to make it a part of their brands. And while new technologies are important, the unchecked stampede for innovation may be draining energy from the full application of existing innovation strategies—some of which come with 3.8 billion years of intelligence and design practice.
Biomimicry distills life-sustaining patterns and strategies into a lens that can be applied to a diverse array of design challenges. Importantly, its primary requirement/constraint is that solutions be conducive to life. That means it cannot hide or mask externalities that actually drive up the true cost for pocket books, people, and the planet. Instead, it provides a framework for systems-level thinking that emphasizes interdependence and the emulation organizing principles that support the integrity whole system.
Nonprofits come in many shapes and sizes, but one thing they share in common is a desire to scale up their impact on the world. Collaboration has long been touted as the best way for nonprofits to scale up, but the actual practice of collaboration is often messy, making it hard to measure the impacts of these efforts.
At The Alliance Center in Denver, CO (home to the headquarters for The Nonprofit Centers Network), over 50 nonprofit and for-profit organizations work under one roof. We are a mission-driven nonprofit with an event and collaborative working space which is dedicated to bringing people together to create a sustainable and inclusive future. As the operator of a collaborative working space, we strive to create a work environment that is inspiring, inviting, and that promotes constructive interactions between tenants.
The Alliance Center recently underwent a brand realignment process to reconnect with our mission. As part of this process we changed the name of the organization from the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado to The Alliance Center. For many years, the building that houses the collaborative working spaces was named The Alliance Center while the nonprofit organization that managed the building and created programming was called the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado. This caused considerable confusion. While we are excited to have one name for all aspects of our work, changing our name to The Alliance Center is about a lot more than simplifying our moniker.
Would the nonprofit community in upstate New York’s Capital Region be willing to try something new? This is the question we have been considering for some time. As partners on a number of initiatives targeting social and economic justice in our community, SEFCU and Siena College’s Center for Academic Community Engagement (ACE) have supported organizations that address the needs of poor and marginalized populations.
As we assessed the impact of this work, we began to question whether our current model might actually be a barrier to our goals—that is by providing safety net and capacity building support (financial and otherwise) are we thwarting the community-based collaborative efforts necessary to address the multiple needs in our region? It seems so—our traditional model encourages organizations to compete for funding instead of addressing community-wide problems of service duplication and gaps. We are not encouraging nonprofit professionals to consider together the overarching needs and assets of the community when formulating initiatives. This design cultivates an antagonistic environment where organizations have become increasingly distrustful of each other.
We began to explore whether a shared services/shared space model could lay the groundwork for the multi-organizational interventions crucial for community impact. The subsequent 2016 NCN Feasibility Study of Shared Services/Shared Space explored whether or not our community was open to collaborative initiatives bolstered through shared resources.
While the data showed nonprofit organizations were willing to collaborate on certain projects or initiatives. Many respondents suggested that this collaboration should begin “some time in the future”—possibly suggesting a time when said respondent no longer works at the organization. Additional data confirmed that there was distrust among community stakeholders, organizational parochialism, regional resistance to change, and critical funding concerns (from the findings of the 2016 NCN Shared Services Feasibility Study, Planning Committee Meeting, August 2016)
After analyzing these data, NCN recommended implementing a low stakes communications platform which could build trust and social capital among nonprofit professionals and community members, increase awareness of shared interests and the exchange of information, break down the barriers that have thwarted our community goals, and lay the groundwork for future collaborative efforts.
We have already seen progress in this effort. A team of NEXT Fellows has evaluated various online community platforms and selected one. They plan to implement a beta test in early 2018 with a group of early adopters and community ambassadors. The portal should be fully operational by the end of the Spring 2018 semester. SEFCU and ACE have been promoting this initiative in the community and our nonprofit partners are excited to participate. A NEXT team will continue to administer the platform for the upcoming year as we assess the model, develop and implement effective practices and policies, and market the portal to the nonprofit Capital Region Community.
*Statues of Nipper the RCA dog were placed on buildings all over northeast during the 1950s. The last remaining Nipper statue resides in Albany, NY. It is an iconic landmark in the NY Capital Region. Nipper the RCA Dog, License, Bill Morrow, No changes made
Does shared space really matter? The data doesn’t lie! The following facts draw from the 2015 State of the Shared Space Sector Survey. If you want more, you can download the report.
So that we’re all on the same page, here is how NCN describes a “typical” nonprofit center: 35,000 sq ft facility, 250 people served weekly and $488,000 in revenue. These centers also have around 12 tenant organizations and 70 total employees. With that in mind, an overwhelming majority of organizations surveyed say they have improved services, seen significant cost savings, and can better achieve goals now that they are part of a shared space. Here are the biggest ways we found nonprofits are benefitting from this kind of collaboration.
“Mommy, I don’t want to lend Nicholas this toy because he might not give it back,” says my 4-year old the other day. Nicholas is just over one, so in some ways, my child might be deducting a logical conclusion. (See This American Life’s endearing Kid Logic episode.) He is learning that a toddler barely understands what sharing is, and we have to help teach him that. On the flip side, my son has had many sharing experiences where he does get his toy back. Still the idea of handing something over that is near and dear to him is a scary proposition.
As much as us adults try to teach this to children, we must continually re-learn this aspect as well. It is something NCN actually talked about in our 2016 Event, Streamlining Social Good. And now we are spending a whole day in November focused on sharing AND innovation – another spooky term.
Those two little words strike fear into leaders’ hearts. I hear “It’s too expensive!” or “We don’t have time!” or “No one ever fills out surveys anyway!” Earlier this year, we set out to help shared space managers tackle this question with the support of Laura Sundstrom and Elena Harmon of Vantage Evaluation. Through a combination of structured learning webinars, peer learning and hands on homework, we worked with approximately ten different shared spaces to see what methods we could test. While we are still crunching the quantitative and qualitative data, here are my preliminary take aways.
Have a clear goal for your collaborative work. What are you trying to accomplish through shared space? Break it down as simply as possible and unpack common jargon-filled phrases. Trying to show the impact of collaboration? Make sure you know what that looks like in your community?
The Discovery Center & Pier are a shared campus to five water-based nonprofit organizations in northwest Michigan:
• Great Lakes Children’s Museum
• Maritime Heritage Alliance
• Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay
• Inland Seas Education Association
• Traverse Area Community Sailing
The Traverse Tall Ship Company operates from the campus as an affiliate business partner.
The organizations, while co-located on the 15-acre campus, largely operate from their own buildings. Obviously, having access to a deepwater port and more than 11,000 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline make this facility different and uniquely suited for organizations with boats and/or a connection to water. (Only Great Lakes Children’s Museum does not operate a boat.)
The owner is a division of the local Rotary Club. It is mainly managed by the member organizations through a separate nonprofit. A plan is being developed for a new nonprofit center that would house most of the partners’ operations under one roof.
What do a café Manager, Member and Program Coordinator, nonprofit Executive Director and Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst all have in common?
Well, last week the café Manager, John, and I organized an open mic during our building’s monthly tenant Happy Hour. Our responses were slim, but two brave, busy souls, Craig (the CAIA) and Michael (the ED) reached out to share that they played bass and guitar, respectively. John, a New Orleans native, plays guitar and sings and I play violin (trained) and sing (not trained). We forged ahead with no time to rehearse, but just some scattered emails throwing out ideas for tunes, who could sing or play what, and a few charts in case any of us miraculously had time to practice on our own.
Michael had just got back from traveling but thanks to an unclaimed guitar left it in a Car2Go vehicle, whose office is in our building, he had something to play. It took some time to get a working bass amp for Craig, but we started to hit a groove and kept at it for an hour and half. Two others jumped in and we crossed a generation of artists, from Patty Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison to Bo Diddley. People showed up, and they even cheered! I’m not saying we’re the new hottest band this side of the Mississippi, but we had fun and sounded good!
Outside of us all knowing John, because well, he makes coffee (‘nuff said), we now all have a reason to say, “how you doin’?” to each other in the building. We found common ground between folks I otherwise may not have met. Is this going to lead life changing, mission-oriented collaboration? Doubtful. But together we contributed to a culture of creativity and fellowship in the space, through a medium completely unconnected to our building’s theme of sustainability.
A leader in our community recently challenged a group of us to get out and talk to people who don’t look like you, who may fall into a different “category” of life, because we are getting trapped in our own bubbles. We are missing out on the diversity of life, which stifles our own experience in this world. I’ve always felt music is one path towards connecting people, and this was just another instance that reaffirmed that for me.
People have been asking when the next jam is and we’re planning for October. We plan on opening it up outside the building walls and even asking the guy who regularly plays jazz flute on the street corner outside our building. One of John’s friends who is without a home plans to join us when he gets his guitar fixed.
It might not be music for you. But what opportunities do you have to find common ground that may or may not fall outside your line of work? It doesn’t always have to be epic. In the world these days, sometimes we just need space to feel good, together. I’m grateful shared space cultivates these opportunities, and it’s just another reason I like going to work each day. And that can carry us a long way to our respective missions.
We’re super pumped at NCN about the upcoming Sharing Innovation event. It’s honestly like no event we’ve ever done before. You’ll get to hear about groundbreaking collaboration happening all over the country. No matter the size or scope of your organization, our speakers will have actionable advice and creative strategies you can tailor to meet your goals and needs. You might just get so excited you come up with your own ingenious idea…