The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the “newspaper of the nonprofit world” recently published its Outlook 2012 edition. Collaboration remains a consistent theme. Strategic partnerships of all types will be critical moving forward.
I have always spoken about preserving missions over organizations and the nonprofit sector will have little choice other than to establish formal relationships between complementary organizations and seek more alignment and less duplication. Not only will this be what donors expect, but it has the potential to increase efficiency and impact of each agency. We should all ask: “What impact are we having beyond perpetuating ourselves?”
At the risk of beating a dead horse, anything that stands in the way of a nonprofit’s ability to maximize impact should be seen as a threat to its mission which donors and other funders contribute to sustain. At the end of the day, I believe what is most vital is making sure those services provided by the nonprofit sector find a way to continue to be available to all of us. Remember, the nonprofit sector covers an incredibly broad range, from libraries and historical societies to museums, educational, healthcare, arts and cultural organizations, as well as a variety of “neighbor helping neighbor” organizations. Absent the nonprofit sector, I am quite sure that we as a society would find alternate ways to keep alive the work we value the most, which greatly contributes to community quality of life for everyone.
While outright mergers and affiliations are always to be considered, there are interim steps that have worked in other communities. I recently spoke with some foundation colleagues and they cited examples where multi-tenant nonprofit centers have worked in their communities. The number of nonprofit centers has grown tremendously across the country since the 1990s. The Nonprofit Centers Network has a list of about 125 multi-tenant centers across the United States and Canada with another 150 more that have yet to be listed. The trend has been largely driven not only by economics but by the realization that there is great value to cross-organizational collaboration and community building within the sector itself.
So, what exactly is a nonprofit center? They are generally composed of multiple nonprofit tenant organizations that exist together within one physical site and are located in a central, convenient location. They share meeting space, Internet, parking, along with other staffing and infrastructure that was duplicated at each nonprofit. They have taken shape in newly built buildings or found ways to adaptively reuse existing buildings.
For some organizations, facility-related expenses are often the second largest expense after staffing. Successful ventures have spoken passionately about the mission enhancement aspect of shared space. The cross-sector collaboration has often resulted in a new synergy. Bringing nonprofits together under one roof can often nurture the building and development of relationships, shared office support services and the easier facilitation of collaborative initiatives. Others have mentioned that a common location also can increase the overall visibility and credibility of the nonprofit sector and of the individual organizations. While I hesitate to name specific organizations, my guess is that you can quickly think of a few that could benefit from being without the burden of maintaining, insuring and operating a large or aging, inefficient structure.
Would one of these be practical in our community? We don’t have the answer to that yet. What we do know is they have worked elsewhere and the great majority of nonprofits express tremendous satisfaction with the arrangement. Who wouldn’t want an efficient place where, in an environment of camaraderie, nonprofits can grow, work and dream together to better everyone in our community?
Taking innovative ideas to reality is another matter altogether. It will take government, businesses individuals, organizations and the nonprofit sector, working together so that all of our investments create more impact in making our community a better place. Again, the focus should be on the mission, not each separate entity. If our collective mission is a better community it only happens if we work together. This is one case where actions really can speak louder than words.