Hilary Dunne Ferrone: Shared Space

Sep 28, 2017

It’s nice to be back in the WAMC studio. I took the summer off from my commentary to work with some new clients, but I was constantly coming across news items related to nonprofit management and philanthropy that I wanted to write about: mismanagement and malfeasance in nonprofits; disaster relief; the responsibility of philanthropists and nonprofits to speak out against hate…The news this summer provided many instances for reflection on such critical issues. However, another news item from this summer, the mega lottery jackpot, really got me dreaming… What would I do for my community if I had that kind of money?

In downtown Chatham, near my home, there is a large empty brick building. It has been a furniture store, a light manufacturing site, and a car dealership. Religious services were also held there for a year or two while the Catholic Church was being renovated. Nobody has been able to figure out how to make it financially viable to invest in the necessary renovations and make the money back through a business. This is where my dream comes in: nonprofit co-location.

Our region is so lucky to have many small nonprofits, led by passionate volunteers and small, dedicated staffs, who provide really meaningful services in our communities and also create a sense of place from which we all benefit. Many of these groups struggle to secure operating support and many executive directors feel disengaged, lonely and overwhelmed by the demands put on their time and their – usually – tight budgets. Many years ago, in a focus group for executive directors, I learned that there is great desire for collegiality, collaboration and brainstorming among these professionals. But who has the time? Who can justify taking an entire morning to meet with a non-donor colleague? And, virtual meetings are just no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

If there was a central office building that housed non-profits where organizations could share the overhead costs such as copy machines, meeting space, technology, support staff, even a kitchen, they would be able to apply a greater percentage of donations to programs, not operations. There would be lively impromptu conversations. Leaders of small nonprofits would have a community of professionals to bounce ideas off of, for a better feeling of connectivity. The idea of competing would be replaced with the ideal of camaraderie.

A result of co-location and regular professional interaction would be true collaboration among organizations. These days, collaboration is every grantmaker’s favorite standard. I understand why an organization would make this part of grant requirements, but I don’t think they’re going about it the right way; putting the cart before the horse. What is collaboration? Many times it’s ended up with shared mailing lists, or borrowing something from another organization and calling it collaboration. A lot of this is because organizations don’t know each other very well. They may be in the same geographic area, or they may have similar missions, but few have the opportunity to learn about the other and to see how they could support each other. The chance to see one another day in day out allows for true collaboration to occur organically, and results in greater impact. At the same time, community investment would be allocated more efficiently.

The idea of co-location is nothing new -- Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago was based on this theory -- but it is currently happening across the country. There are co-location programs in Nebraska, California, North Carolina, Florida and Colorado, as well as a national program supported by the Tides Foundation (The Nonprofit Colocation Revisited: Why It Is a Better Option Than Ever Before By Larry Levin, September 13, 2017).

So, while I didn’t win the lottery, I don’t want to give up on my dream. Instead, I’m going to speak with donors and ask them to collaborate! To collaborate on providing a space for the many nonprofits dotting our region and better support those groups as they serve our community and make it a place that we’re all so lucky to call home.

Hilary Dunne Ferrone has worked in the nonprofit and government sectors for the past 20 years, including serving on the policy team in the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery.  She currently serves as a strategic advisor for Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, and is on the board of the Fund for Columbia County.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.  They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.