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The Nonprofit Colocation Revisited: Why It Is a Better Option Than Ever Before

Wednesday, September 13, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jennifer Blair
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by Larry Levin

Life is sharing” by Alan Levine

Back in the 1980s, a primary care clinic and a mental health clinic in Lincoln, Nebraska, sat side by side, with a shared waiting room between them.

“They were governed separately, the patients were seen as different, they had different funding streams,” said Lori Seibel, president and CEO of the Community Health Endowment of Lincoln. “The only thing they shared was a waiting room. It was problematic with the kids in the clinic and mentally ill people in the same area. We thought we should figure out how to separate. No one challenged us in that move.”

After the two were physically separated, Seibel said, research and data emerged showing the connections between general health and mental health. The need to treat those with mental health issues holistically and without perpetuating stigmas came to the medical forefront.

“I thought, ‘My goodness, what have we done?’ I personally began a recompense for being part of the wrong way of doing things.”

The result, after many years and various efforts, was the Health 360 Integrated Care Clinic, which, as its website indicates, “integrates mental health, substance use and primary care services to produce the best outcomes for you. Integrated care proves the most effective approach to caring for people with multiple healthcare needs.”

The creators of Health 360 took advantage of another changing business sector; it occupies a former OfficeMax retail and distribution facility. More importantly, Seibel noted, the clinics very intentionally now share an entrance and waiting room.

The Lincoln example shows how progress is so often marked by the unusual becoming commonplace over time. The story of nonprofit colocations—facilities in which groups come together to share space and potentially other operational resources—represents one such progression. As more education, training, support, and encouragement have developed, colocations, a one-time outlier in the nonprofit world, are evolving into an important and more common method for the efficient allocation of community investment.

Once a marriage of convenience among nonprofits in a similar sector, the growing trend of colocation shows it can be based on any number of factors, including a shared desire for geographic proximity to a community resource or the goal of serving as a catalyst for community change. There’s even a push to see nonprofit facilities and nodes play a significant role in urban and regional planning.

With each passing improvement in the colocation movement, the possibilities for collaborative space—ones that might not have ever materialized in the past but for a fortuitous discussion or connection, not unlike the history in Lincoln—are growing at a fairly rapid clip. 

Hard Work and Design

The support of community and national leaders in this effort is turning blind luck into, to paraphrase the words of baseball innovator Branch Rickey, “the residue of hard work and design.”

The origins of nonprofit colocation go far back, notably to the late 19th-century efforts by pioneers such as Jane Addams to create settlement houses for immigrants. Chicago’s Hull House offered a model for a community facility providing a wide range of assistance, including education, arts, sports, and social services. A number of types of shared spaces grew out of that movement, often in a building or campus organized around a common theme. A typical example was the grouping of religiously based facilities or campuses, which could bring together multiple nonprofits with similar world and community views. Still, for the longest time, individual nonprofits realizing the benefits of connecting physically represented the exception rather than the norm, a series of one-offs in a sea of geographically scattered agencies.

The happenstance of a vacant building as instigator, as in Lincoln, is hardly uncommon to the story of nonprofit colocation. Teaching sector leaders how to think about the broader possibilities, on the other hand, is a relatively new phenomenon, as Katie Edwards, Nonprofit Centers Network Interim Executive Director, explained.

The Nonprofit Centers Network was created in 2004, a project of the Tides Foundation. Tides had created its own shared space in the 1990s, the Thoreau Center for Sustainability (now Tides Thoreau Center).

“People wanted to know how they had created this building,” Edwards said, “and [Tides] decided to host a conference to talk about different models across the country. They expected 50 attendees, and 200 attended.” Clearly, the enthusiasm for sharing space was growing.

Helping to encourage solutions such as the Lincoln clinic is something Edwards’s group can do by expanding community leaders’ vision of what’s possible. “A lot of communities have problems with vacant buildings, but it takes a commercial owner with sense of vision and social responsibility to think about transferring that property [to a nonprofit],” Edwards said.

The Network carries the work forward in this way, by creating education, resources, and sharing about the colocation movement. As a result of more knowledge and intentionality, a variety of sector-specific colocations have cropped up in creative and meaningful ways.

One innovative example is the Ninth Street IFC in San Francisco, which houses film and media nonprofits serving three distinct cultural communities. Having their festivals at different times allows for efficient use of the facility, and the emphasis of the building as a film hub allows for outside groups to put the site to use as well. Another sector-specific facility on the other side of the U.S. is the Food Runners Collaborative in North Carolina. A project of the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Meals on Wheels of Wake County, the initiative lets the food agencies “focus on feeding the elderly, teaching new job skills to the homeless, providing food for children and working families through hundreds of local agencies, and making our community a better place for all our citizens.”

Beyond sectors, however, one of the ways education and intentionality have impacted the colocation exercise is leading nonprofits that might not have commonality in their mission to think about sharing space. The availability of a building for unrelated groups who don’t need to be in a particular locale, or alternatively, or even ones that do, can ignite a project. The Jessie Ball duPont Fund converted a mid-century Modern former library building in Jacksonville, Florida, to house a dozen nonprofits of different types and sizes. Groups devoted to speech and hearing, public education, civic and nonprofit engagement, and technology advancement are among the tenants.

What makes the duPont Center notable, though it’s becoming more common in the colocation movement, is innovative space that serves the myriad needs of the tenants and the broader nonprofit community. Along with individual tenant spaces ranging from 500 to 19,000 square feet are “hot desks” that can be rented by the day or week, an audio-visual studio, and a variety of formal and informal meeting and conference spaces.

Even as more eclectic groupings of nonprofits come about through better knowledge of colocation, same-sector collaboratives are finding new reasons to join together. Sometimes, the basis is economic incentive from funders, encouraging their grantees to find more cost-efficient solutions in the form of sharing space. Physical partnership can lead to shared administrative costs and, ultimately, to more interactivity and idea exchange.

Other times, what drives the need may be geographic proximity to a resource, like government buildings in a downtown setting. But rents in such an area can be prohibitive with a traditional commercial landlord. Alliance for Sustainable Colorado overcame this hurdle in 2004 by purchasing a century-old warehouse structure in Lower Downtown Denver (known to locals as LoDo). The resurgent area would command rents that many nonprofits could not bear, but the creation of the Alliance Center has enabled groups to locate near the agencies and others with whom they do work.

When geography and sector collaboration come together, the impact can be especially powerful. That was the case in Toronto, with the creation of the Co-operative of Specialty Community Legal Clinics of Ontario. The effort spurring the co-op derived partly from a negative perspective; the clinics’ funder, Legal Aid Ontario—the hybrid public-private entity overseeing clinics—was seeking significant administrative cost savings, but it sought to reclaim the reduced expense for purposes other than the benefit of its clinics and their clients.

“It ended up in a bit of a political battle,” said Lenny Abramowicz, who runs the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, which is housed in the new co-op. “The provincial government came down on our side and an agreement was worked out. The compromise was that clinics would seek administrative savings, but the tradeoff was any administrative savings would be reinvested into clinics in the system.”

The good news was that the reinvestment allowed for the possibility of a new colocation. But the geographic criteria for the project were significant, Abramowicz said, as the space needed to be “near courthouses and transportation hubs,” the latter to ensure clients of varying means could reach the office. “There were a surprisingly small amount of places, (given) a community legal clinic limited budget.” In addition to the choices being scarce, “a number of places that met the criteria turned us down, they didn’t want our clients. They didn’t want people who use our services in their building.”

Yet they did find a space, and, according to Marisa Fortune Hall, the co-op manager, it has many appealing physical attributes that, while the co-op is still in its early stages of operation, will encourage collaboration and intergroup connections. Among them is an open and inviting stairwell between the floors. One clinic was so enamored of the open concept it chose to have a space unencumbered by separation from the common area.

One could hardly imagine the diversity of legal aid needs in the absence of seeing them all in one place. Sector-specific clinics, many of which serve not only Toronto but the entire province, include those with expertise in the environment, disabilities, tenants, small landlords, income security, injured workers, HIV/AIDS, and children and youth. Eight different clinics occupy the building, with spaces ranging from about 1,500 to 4,000 square feet, along with the association run by Abramowicz.

There’s little question that an investment in colocation by a government agency makes a huge difference, as there are now a number of colocated facilities in Ontario that are provincially supported. Tides Canada and Nonprofit Centers Network played a role in encouraging nonprofit sharing north of the U.S. border, as the report “Building Capacity, Sharing Values” illustrates. 

The Future of Colocation: Looking to St. Louis

The cutting edge of colocation keeps getting pushed ahead, as what were once daring projects are being assimilated more regularly into the status quo. The next steps appear to be about using colocation not only for the benefit of the participating nonprofits, but as an economic and community development tool, to spur or expand redevelopment nodes in need of investment.

Such an attempt is underway in St. Louis, as one of the nation’s leading entrepreneurs is leading a major colocation effort in an area that has suffered from serious decay and inattention. Maxine Clark, founder of Build-a-Bear Workshop, is in the pre-development process for Delmar Divine, a project that would convert a former hospital into 180,000 square feet of nonprofit and community service office space, along with 160 dwelling units. The name is a play on the Delmar Divide, named for a street known for being a racial and economic splitting point in the city.

The estimated $90 million cost of this major project will require a complex funding mechanism, including tax credits. If successful, the project would not only potentially bring disparate nonprofits together in a highly innovative adaptive reuse, but would also help reduce the stigma of building north of Delmar. The federal promise zone in the area has already received national attention for the award of an almost $2 billion facility for the National Geospatial Agency. It’s these types of ambitious and currently unusual projects that can form the basis for the next iteration of colocation planning and thoughtfulness.

Another glimpse of the future also comes in St. Louis, as a comprehensive planning effort for regional nonprofit location is underway. This initiative is led by Social Innovation St. Louis (SISTL), which recently hosted a colocation conference among the area’s nonprofit, real estate, government, and thought leaders, with participation from Edwards’s Nonprofit Centers Network. The current work comprises examining the community’s existing nonprofit footprint and identifying whether there are nodes in which colocations can serve a constructive role to fortify and stimulate community reinvestment.

It’s hard to even get to the broader picture, said Paul Evensen, who leads SISTL, given the complexities of the transactions themselves. There have been relatively few shared models for how to get the significant colocation projects done—and the amount of work and capital required can themselves be overwhelming enough. Still, Evensen is trying to get everyone on the same page by bridging the gap in how civic leaders, planners, funders, and nonprofits talk about community-wide planning. The hope is that colocations can be part of a framework of intentionally designed hubs that support neighborhoods and the broader community.

The language, he said, sometimes gets “a bit academic. We become removed from caring exchanges, making it harder for donors and civic leaders to see it and hear it when language teeters into areas where it’s harder to communicate.”

By providing the connective tissue, Evensen hopes his group can help provide stronger intentionality for nonprofit integration with community needs. As SISTL’s website says, “it takes a collective and intentional push across sectors, organizations, and communities to create a stronger region. We have the passion to do this work. We lack the precision.”

It’s interesting to look at Evensen’s work in the context of where the colocation movement began more than a century ago. The work that SISTL is doing to build community infrastructure through nonprofit location and services is not all that different from how Jane Addams built community nodes in the late 19th century.

“Shared services accountable to neighborhoods are more akin to the settlement house movement,” said Evensen. “They’re more akin to a collective self-help movement, a more modern manifestation of how organizations continue to abide by that philosophy.”

But it’s now being done with data, intentionality, urban planning, and cooperation that collectively hold the promise to help shape an entire region. That’s the next frontier for colocation, and with the help of Edwards, Evensen, and others, the future appears promising.

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