Sharing precious space in NYC

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With office space at a premium and many nonprofits working with thin margins, one New York City partnership is aiming to serve as a model for helping nonprofits handle one of their most taxing overhead line items: rent.

The New York Foundling recently “adopted” fledgling nonprofit She’s the First in a partnership dubbed Adopt a Cause that hopes to match larger organizations with smaller ones that need affordable space in New York City’s costly real estate market.

She’s the First is a relatively young group with a $1.5 million budget and a handful of employees working to help young women in developing countries become the first in their families to attend college. It has operated in co-working spaces and even in coffee shops, but since January 2016, it has enjoyed the stability of occupying a sizable space on the 13th floor of The Foundling’s Chelsea offices.

Bethany Lampland, The Foundling’s chief operating officer, said the partnership seeks to create an ecosystem to connect nonprofits that have extra space with others who need it. For-profit companies, which might be more likely to have space to share and be looking for an affordable way to boost their corporate social responsibility efforts, might also be interested in Adopt a Cause, she said.

“This is not about She’s the First or The Foundling,” Lampland said. “We’re a great first test case of something that needs to be much bigger. Because not for profits are desperate for support in this area and they really can’t flourish without a home.”

They launched a website and campaign, and opened it to other organizations. The aspirational Adopt a Cause network currently exists as a LinkedIn group with 25 members and a website with a case study and testimonials from the two nonprofits. “Our goal is really to lead by example,” said Tammy Tibbetts, the founder and CEO of She’s the First.

There are some major differences in the two nonprofits: The Foundling has its roots dating back almost to the Civil War and focuses on alleviating poverty across the New York City area. She’s the First, founded in 2009, has a handful of employees and a budget of less than 2 percent of its host, and works primarily with nongovernmental organizations across 11 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. To date, at least 2,200 people have gone through She’s the First’s program, according to Tibbetts. The Foundling, by contrast, serves 27,000 children and families each year.

But the similarities among workers committed to humanitarian causes – and the shared bureaucratic and technical hurdles – outweigh differences in size and mission.

Along with office space, She’s the First has access to computers, desks, meeting rooms and an address that can gain the confidence of donors. The space also allows the group’s interns – who can sometimes outnumber the nonprofit’s five employees – to sit in the office and share in the professional environment. She’s the First can also access human resources, information technology and other services that aren’t often accessible to resource-taxed organizations. The less they worry about those needs, the more they can focus on the core mission and build collaborations that include a network of high school and college chapters that advocate and fundraise for a scholarship program benefitting She's the First participants.

While the benefits to the “adoptee” are clear, the host organization can also see benefits. Beyond the esprit de corps of having more young, committed workers in the office, She’s the First helped the Foundling with social media efforts for its campaign against child abuse.

The Foundling, which owns or has long-term leases on about half a million square feet of real estate across New York City, hosts roughly 300 of its nearly 2,000 employees at the building, Lampland said. Along with administrative staff, the building houses services for the deaf, an emergency nursery and other programs.

The partnership developed partly by chance. In 2013, The Foundling completed a renovation of its Chelsea headquarters, which it has occupied since the mid 1980s, according to The New York Times. The new open office plan left some desks vacant on its 13th floor. In 2015, Tibbetts and Lampland met at a Forbes women’s summit where they were connected by mutual colleagues.

The “bridge real estate” arrangement allows She’s the First to use the space as a free business incubator. As the group requires a bigger footprint and gains resources, She’s the First will look for its own space.

She’s the First had spent two years working in turnkey business rental spaces and in the offices of startups before collaborating with The Foundling. When they had to leave one space before the other was ready, they spent one month working in friends’ conference rooms or coffee shops, Tibbetts said.

“Panera never knew that they were, like, our temporary office, but those days especially make us all appreciate how nice it is to come into a very calm, stable office environment,” she said.

From her earlier experiences with space sharing, Tibbetts learned to ensure that each side’s responsibilities are clear when it comes to public relations, resources and other issues. “It’s the same way as when you moved into your college dorm and you had a contract with your roommate,” Tibbetts said. “It’s just really important to have upfront conversations so that everything goes smoothly.”

While the groups hope to pioneer a solution that offers a consistent plan for nonprofits seeking space, there are some ad hoc solutions for nonprofits seeking low- or no-cost spaces. The New York City Economic Development Corp. has tools for nonprofits that include an “incubator and co-working space network.” The Nonprofit Coordinating Council of New York has listings for local organizations offering workstations at varying costs. And last year, Google gave 6,000 square feet of free space in its offices to Black Girls Code.

Paul Wolf, co-founder and co-president of Denham Wolf Real Estate Services, which specializes predominantly in nonprofits, said that the city’s pricey real estate market has been a perennial issue for 15 years, as nonprofits have sought to renovate their workspaces or move to outside popular neighborhoods to save money.

Wolf has also seen issues of affordability evolve since the firm opened in 1998. He said, “Nineteen years ago, it was: How do we get free space? Then it was: How do we get cheap space? Now it’s: How do we get any space?”

Wolf recalled that in 2002 the Alliance of Resident Theaters, a service organization to help off-Broadway theaters, combined nearly two dozen theater groups into a shared building. That offered a sense of community and incidental hallway meetings that not only inspired collaboration, but helped the groups function as a bloc to lobby for causes, Wolf said.

But those collaborations can have their downsides. Some groups may not be financially or organizationally prepared to stay viable after the partnership, he said. And some donors and foundations haven’t always seen the economic rationale for co-locating different uses, complicating their financial asks. For those reasons, he discourages clients from renting out more space than they need purely to offer it to others – at least not without having a viable partner in mind.

“When it’s forced, it doesn’t work so well. It has to be organic and people have to want to participate in it,” Wolf said.

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