Our personal ad would read, “Aspiring impact funders and nonprofit entrepreneurs seek likeminded for experimental relationship; willingness to cohabitate a must and hoping for more.” The experiment in question is a pilot effort being spearheaded by a small group of funders, funding collaboratives, philanthropy advisors and nonprofit organizations, including the authors of this article, at the Friends Center, a LEED platinum retrofit at 15th and Cherry Streets in Philadelphia. And despite the current trend towards incubators, accelerators and collective workspaces, this effort stands apart by bringing together a group that’s not always known for its collaborative energy: philanthropy. In literally breaking down the walls between a group of funding organizations and those representing funders, we’re looking to leverage one another’s strengths, expand our collective networks, and share what we’re learning through our investments.
Shared Space in Philadelphia
It has to be noted that shared workspaces are not new to Philadelphia. They go by multiple names and descriptions including accelerators, incubators, hubs and labs, and there are differences in the models to be sure. Many of these accelerators have a technology-focus, working hard to foster talent, bring good ideas to market and enmesh new or growing companies in a supportive network of mentorship and seed funding. Our group was inspired by these efforts and we’re looking to learn from our peers at Indy Hall, the Science Center and Technically Philly, each of which has a different approach to supporting innovation and entrepreneurship.
Indy Hall: Their tagline is, Better work starts with better coworkers. They have created a working space and community for designers, developers, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, educators, small business owners, telecommuters, marketers, videographers, game developers and more. Their point is that just by working in the same space a person can be happier and more productive.
University City Science Center: Holds the title of oldest (founded in 1963) and largest urban research park in the United States. The Science Center supports technology commercialization and technology-based economic development by providing business incubation programming and lab and office space for start-ups, growing and established companies. Additionally the Science Center has been awarded the “Global Soft Landing” designation by the National Business Incubation Association, in recognition of the support it provides to international companies opening up sites in Philadelphia. The Science Center’s goal is to support innovation and entrepreneurship in emerging technologies facilitating the movement of new products into the market in order to benefit society.
Technically Philly / Philly Tech Start Up: Their tagline is, A better Philadelphia through technology. As a news organization, they are focused on building community through technology. The core of their work is organizing Philly Tech Week, an open calendar of events celebrating innovation in Philadelphia. Beginning this fall, Technically Philly will join venture capital firm First Round Capital and several of its portfolio companies in a shared office (and former bowling alley) in University City.
Shared Space for Philanthropy
It may not seem immediately obvious to group together impact funders with Mountain Dew-guzzling tech entrepreneurs or lab-coated inventors at the Science Center. But missing that connection may be precisely the problem. There is a palpable energy that accompanies transformative invention, and too frequently funders miss the boat as high-potential ideas get siloed in disconnected funding streams, both public and private. The intention behind coming together is to strengthen existing networks and establish new ones, create greater connectivity between ideas that show promise, and develop opportunities for collaboration. It will require colleagues who are willing to share their energy and creativity with their peers and challenge the natural tendency toward isolated or exclusionary approaches to work. Our vision for developing this community is equal parts informal relationship building, casual conversation around the water fountain, and low-key program development, including lunch-time peer learning and an occasional speaker series.
Borrowing from incubation models pioneered by existing organizations such as the Science Center, we also see this as an opportunity to support emerging social impact organizations with common space, shared networks and idea exchange. It will focus on homegrown entrepreneurs launching high-potential new programs, as well as organizations with a track record of success in other cities and a desire to build local knowledge and partnerships here in Philadelphia, such as Spark, a national organization that provides apprenticeships to middle school children.
The benefits to working this way are self-propagating, driving one another like concentric rings started by a skipping stone. The innermost ripples are tethered to the practical, finding economies of scale in shared office infrastructure and connecting colleagues who may otherwise work in isolation from lone cubicles, home offices or local coffee shops. From the proximity of shared space are born deeper connections and support through regular engagement with colleagues, multiplying the experiences, skills and knowledge, informing the work of each individual organization.
Collaborative space becomes a way of increasing organizational capacity. Examples of the benefits of this type of knowledge sharing abound. The Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) and the GreenLight Fund have been sharing space since the summer. JOIN was awarded a Social Innovation Fund (SIF) grant through the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2010.GreenLight got the good news that they too received SIF dollars this July. The opportunity to share practical information about managing a new federal funding stream, from the mundane to the profound, provided a unique opportunity for both organizations to learn from one another on an ongoing basis.
The deepest level of collaboration we envision is potential co-investment in organizations or initiatives. We want to emphasize that this is not an assumption embedded in this project because there may not be a compelling reason for us to co-invest in work. However, we want to maintain a clear-eyed view on the possibility of working together in this way and fostering the kinds of connections and partnership that may lead to collaborative grant-making.
Labels can be limiting and names for efforts like the one we’re undertaking too often feel like catchphrases rather than descriptors. For now we’re calling this project The Exchange, because ultimately we are looking to share space, experiences and knowledge in a way that will leverage our work, and create a “whole” that is greater than the sum of the parts. This project is about growing collaboration organically through the exchange of ideas and increasing the impact of our philanthropic work in the Greater Philadelphia region and beyond.
It is not coincidental that we’re housing this venture at the Friends Center. Tucked into a quiet corner of Center City, the Friends Center is a natural light-filled hub for a diverse set of organizations, housing venerable Quaker institutions like the American Friends Service Committee, established in 1917, and more recent innovators, such as the Drexel Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, established in 2006. As they’re quick to point out on their website, the Friends Center has “hosted difficult and sometimes fractious groups, realizing the space would encourage dialogue by providing an atmosphere of respect and peaceful problem solving.” We anticipate only minor bumps in the road of our communal space sharing, but plan to benefit from this history of peaceful problem solving nevertheless. We are excited, and a bit humbled, to inhabit a space that has housed Lucretia Mott and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning American Friends Service Committee. In 2009, the Friends Center undertook a tremendous renovation to become LEED platinum; today the space is carbon neutral and brimming with amenities, from on-site showers and in-house daycare to a central courtyard that encourages quiet reflection.