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Non-profit Centers Find Sustainable Success Through Collaboration

RP Siegel | Wednesday June 22nd, 2011 | 1 Comment

Call it serendipity. But when the Tides NonProfit Centers Network set out in 2004 to provide education and resources for the creation and operation of quality nonprofit workspaces across North America, they did not realize the kinds of synergistic benefits that would accrue from the co-location of nonprofit organizations. We’ll take a look at a couple of examples in a minute.

What the study found was that these diverse groups with parallel missions, all aimed at improving quality of life in their respective communities, one way or another, formed spontaneous coalitions around issues of mutual interest that were:

  • Responsive to the needs of the community
  • Financially viable
  • More efficient in achieving their missions
  • More highly visible and
  • Overall, more effective

While non-profit centers have been around for a long time, many new ones, particular those based on specific themes have emerged in the past five years. There are obvious advantages such as the use of shared kitchen and bathroom facilities, conference rooms, and lower rents, all of which allow these organizations to operate at lower cost, but it is the collaborations, that truly take these centers to a new level. A study conducted by Tides found that 46% of the 2600 organizations they studied, representing 130 centers, reported collaboration on at least a monthly basis. Of those organizations, 56% reported a substantial improvement in their effectiveness as the result of co-locating in a center, while an additional 30% reported a moderate improvement.

In Los Angeles, for example, there is the Magnolia Place Community Initiative which aims to help 35,000 children in a 500 square block radius. At the heart of the initiative is the Magnolia Place Family Center, which houses 15 organizations that focus on parenting, school readiness, health, and economic development. The Center was the subject of a tour recently given to attendees of the Building Opportunities Conference so that they could share their model with other communities around the country. One advantage of this collaborative approach is the ability to take a broad multi-disciplinary approach to difficult issues like preventing child abuse by addressing all of the diverse elements that collectively constitute the root causes of this tragic issue.

Non-profits, by definition, only deal with only two of the three elements of the triple bottom line, both of which are well represented among the centers that Tides studied. Certainly, the collaborative aspect of these geographical juxtapositions also enhances the sustainability of all participating organizations, in the literal sense, for all of the reasons mentioned above.

Sustainability, in the sense we generally use it around here, is more at the forefront in the day to day operations of the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado. With 35 nonprofits focusing on sustainability housed under one roof, the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado has been able to continually deliver on its mission to advance sustainability/triple bottom line values through collaboration among nonprofits, business, government and education. The center is a model for how to foster, create and implement tangible action and results around sustainability.

The Alliance building in downtown Denver has two LEED certifications and is working on a third. Tenants include: American Rivers, Bike Denver, Environment Colorado, Green America, Sierra Club, and many more. So it should be no surprise that among the 50 bills that the alliance has worked on bringing to the state legislature were bills dealing with things like green building standards, electric vehicles, energy efficient affordable housing, and water conservation, all of which have passed into law.

The Alliance is proposing a formal statewide network focused on sustainable development in Colorado, based on the blueprint developed by the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (draft), which, in turn derived from work originally done at Fort Carson. The network will be maintained through a series of round-tables among the various regional councils.

Last year, the Alliance gathered some 52 green building professionals to think through what would go into a “kit-of-parts” for converting the Alliance Center toward a net zero energy building. Besides modeling a super energy-efficient building, and generating legislation, the Alliance does a good deal of outreach and education on everything from climate change to community design, economic development to energy, population to public health, materials & waste, social equity and water.

But just because that have a strong environmental focus, does not mean that they are not business-friendly. In fact, their Sustainable Business Network has 47 businesses and organizations as members. Even more impressive is that fact that they have convened with over 22,000 businesses in Colorado on various aspects of sustainability.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that collaboration yields great results. But how do we get all of the great minds that are busily at work in the for-profit sector to adapt this model when it comes to things that really matter, like keeping our planet safe for living things?

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Anna Zawisza

    As someone who’s worked for the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado for 3 years, I can say that I see collaboration happening on a regular basis – in fact, almost daily if you can believe it. By co-locating so many nonprofits focused on sustainability, there are lots of impromptu meetings and serendipitous run-ins that allow people to share ideas and support one another’s work. I can’t imagine working anywhere else!