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Highlights from NCN’s “Managing Shared Spaces During COVID-19” Webinar

Note: As with all things related to this current pandemic, information changes frequently. This blog represents this point in time, and we apologize if by the time you read this if some content is no longer as relevant.

The Nonprofit Centers Network has an active listserv as part of its membership. As various cities or states across US and Canada enacted shelter in place type orders, center managers started chiming in with questions and steps taken, and together our community began to navigate this unprecedented time.  It became clear that it was time to take this discussion into a webinar format and open it up to a wider community, not just members.

So on April 3rd, NCN hosted a panel discussion style webinar around Managing Shared Spaces During COVID-19 addressing concerns around financial sustainability, the logistics of an empty building and maintaining community. NCN’s new Co-Directors Alexis Paza and David Schrayer joined Saul Ettlin of Community Vision and NCN’s Steering Committee to dive into these topics, guided by pre-submitted questions and the listserv discussions. Below is a summary of NCNs suggestions around these topics, including tips shared in the chat box from some of our 80 participants.

Managing Revenue and Expenses

(NCN’s next free webinar on Monday April 20th will dive into this topic further with center manager representatives. Register here.)

What centers should do during this time will depend on whether you own your space – and still have debt, or lease from a landlord.

Ownership

  • If you do not have any debt, you can be more flexible with tenants. More on those options under leasing.
  • If you do have debt, reach out to your lender as soon as possible, seeing if you can put a pause on payment, interest or principal, and extend the loan to have the payments come out on the back-end, whether that’s 60, 90 or 120 days later. Consider refinancing to a lower interest rate as well.
  • If tenants cannot pay their full rent, offer to just cover operating expenses and/or CAM charges.

Leasing

  • Speak to your landlord to discuss similar terms. See if they will consider rent abatement – extending the lease by 3 months and not pay the rent up-front, or if the landlord will reduce your rent if you are not receiving full rent from your tenants.
  • Rent deferral is another option: for example, ask if you can defer rent for April, to be paid by October. This offer can then be passed on to your tenants.
  • Ask to reduce the rent payments to only cover landlord expenses and just collect those reduced costs from your tenants in the interim.
  • Draw down on sub-leased security deposits to offset monthly rent, with the understanding that tenants will build it back up down the road.
  • If your tenants are applying for SBA loan products (which they should do asap), a deferral is a better route than an abatement since they can show that as an accrued expense.

Some strategies from our attendees included:

  • reducing interest rate on mortgage to 1.75%; other centers are working on reductions as well
  • a 25% deferral until the end of the year for April and May rent
  • a 3-month loan forbearance or free 3-month tenant membership extensions
  • forgiving April rent outright and encouraging organizations to apply for all disaster relief available to them for future rent
  • case by case scenario with tenants on how to bridge any financial gaps; considering a sliding scale relief discount based on size of entity and level of preparedness
  • converting some leased space to coworking and opening up space for agencies needing cheaper space than commercial leases

Whatever avenue you pursue for you and your tenants, any changes in lease agreements should be put in writing as an amendment.

Centers should keep open communications with their funders, boards and landlords  around your ongoing sustainability plan, how you are moving through this moment and how you hope to come out on the other side. Ask these questions of your tenants as well so you can better understand their financial position and long-term sustainability. If tenants do not have a plan, share resources like. www.spacesforgood.org to help them create one.

Logistics of an Empty Building

Some centers remain closed, while others that are more human services focused remain open to serve their communities. For those that are shut down or have minimal staff on site, consider the following:

Mail

  • Staff minimally to process checks, for example – 1 staff on site/day for 4 days/week; forward mail if possible (go to usps.com to set up)
  • Switch to a lock box system where all correspondence can be opened by a 3rd party off-site – checks are deposited and mail is scanned for email distribution. Organize this through your local bank.
  • Consider an outside mailbox with people sorting on a limited basis or a kiosk with individual boxes, as one member shared

Security and Cleaning

  • For essential staff such as janitorial, alternate working hours, to address disinfecting, keep social distancing and maintain eyes on the building
  • Reach out to your local police department to see if they can provide assistance in monitoring your building
  • Consider simple security camera options like Blink or Eagle Eye Network – 2 recommendations from members.
  • Regular disinfecting cleaning is suitable, especially if your building is empty or has very minimal staffing on site. But, as one member notes – if you are serving as a COVID testing site or continue to provide services to your community, you likely have to adhere to stricter CDC guidelines of a deep clean by crew wearing PPE.

Cost Cutting Measures

  • Work with your maintenance team or contractor to adjust your HVAC system as it adjusts from winter to spring – no need to overheat or overrun the AC, depending on your climate.
  • Suspend your guest wifi to reduce internet costs.
  • Reduce janitorial or landscaping presence if the building/grounds are hardly being used.
  • Check with your local utilities’ companies as some are offering flexible payment options.

That said, wherever you can continue to pay vendors for as long as you can, do so. They are a financially vulnerable workforce at this time, and it is critical to think about them in your financial planning. These are not easy decisions to make, and one center noted the ethical dilemma he had in furloughing their full-time staff down 25% of the week already.

Maintaining Community

Tenants are likely prioritizing their financial concerns, understandably so. Your community engagement may not be as high on your tenant list right now, but there are ways centers can work to serve their needs.

Offering Value

  • Tenants are not utilizing physical meeting space, but you can offer them a virtual one. Expand the capacity of your meeting technology software to provide virtual rooms for your tenants. Possibilities include Zoom, WebEx, Google Meets, com (now offering free video options) and more. See Tech Soup for possible nonprofit discounts too.
  • As center operators, you may have more time than your tenant staff. Use this time to cull through the various resources out there and share them with tenants over a listserv platform. Some recommendations included Google Groups, Gaggle, Group Server, Online Groups and Slack.
    • Listserv platforms keep your email from getting bombarded, especially if there is a daily digest version. They can keep specific topics within one area too.
  • Share your center IT staff with your tenants beyond what you typically offered to provide tech training and support with these systems that may be newer to them.
  • Ask your tenants what would be helpful to them right now (outside of rent reductions) since physical space is unavailable right now.

Programming

  • Not all meetings need to be work or productivity focused. We all need a break from the multiple stressors triggered by this pandemic and are lacking the organic run-ins or water cooler chats. Whether it’s Virtual Fika Coffee breaks, Community-30 (standing 30 minute weekly check-ins), “Fursday” (with your 4 legged or other furry companions), Art and Mindfulness sessions, or Worry O’Clock (a safe place to vent), these sessions can fulfill some mental and social needs.
  • Utilize some of the listserv platforms above to recreate “office chatter” – have center or tenant staff take turns throwing out a topic to discuss.
  • If video call silence or audio delays causing awkward interruptions are making your calls uncomfortable, institute a daisy chain model: whoever is talking, call on the next person to chime in. This also helps keep your casual check-ins more informal and not feel “run” by one person.
  • Make sure the listserv includes as many staff as possible, not just EDs – so all virtual events are communicated to them too.

This is a long list and it still does not capture all the creative ways centers are striving for continual service and a sense of normalcy. At the same time, centers have to choose what’s possible and realistic for them – know your physical, financial and mental limits.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to us at info@nonprofitcenters.org and share your questions or strategies. We will continue to forge a path through this, together.

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