I can name nearly a dozen nonprofits that are struggling with space.
They don’t have enough. They can’t afford more. What they can afford needs repair. Or worse, they won’t make it a priority, because after all, this is a nonprofit, isn’t it? Everyone here makes sacrifices.
One development director recently told me that she is required to work from home because there is literally nowhere else for her to work. On the other hand, another development director shared how three people are trying to operate out of one small room and they are not given the flexibility to work from home.
We worked with a client several years ago that had to prioritize their investment in space through the design of their new building. The concern was a familiar one: “What is the minimal office space needed to keep costs as low as possible?” They made a strategic decision to dedicate nearly every inch of their new building to program. From day one, they could not house the people needed to manage the organization’s growth.
Another organization just made a big investment in administrative space because they couldn’t continue to function with senior leaders doubled and tripled up in the midst of children learning and playing. But that investment comes at a cost.
When nonprofits invest in office space, it increases overhead expense. When overhead goes up, so do the eyebrows of some funders and donors. All too often, the sector is pushed to the brink because we are starving them of the resources needed to be efficient and productive.
This has to change.
First, board members should ask themselves, “Could I work in this environment?”
If the answer is “no,” then why is it okay for the organization to function that way? Talk to other board members about the situation and made a decision to focus time and energy on the issue.
Second, chief executives should ask themselves “What can I do in the short term to give my team the support they need to be successful?”
The answer may be working from home, becoming a member in a co-working facility, buying new desks and chairs, and so on. Determine an initial step to improve productivity and culture.
Third, boards and chief executives should debate, “What are the decisions needed to improve space function in the long term?”
This could be part of a strategic planning process or it could be a series of board meeting discussions. Either way, it is essential to look beyond the needs of today. If your finance, fundraising, marketing, and administrative teams can’t focus, they can’t function well. If they can’t function well, the organization struggles.
Fourth, building owners should ask themselves, “What surplus space do I own that could be used for charitable purposes?”
We know that high vacancy rates exist in certain pockets, sometimes in downtown areas that were once prime. As cities develop and companies move to the newest best location, landlords need to adjust their perception of an ideal tenant. And, potentially receive a tax benefit for renting at below market rates.
Fifth, funders and donors must ask themselves, “Is overhead truly the best measure of an organization’s worth?”
We invite everyone to read the “Letter to Nonprofits in America” and the “Letter to Donors of America” on the Overhead Myth website. Share these letters with your nonprofit constituencies and host conversations to change perceptions. It’s mission critical that we do.
Article by: Kerri Laubenthal Mollard, Founder & CEO