By: Jenne Myers
February 16, 2022
More specifically – why can't nonprofits have nice office space? From the time I joined the nonprofit sector over 15 years ago, there was an unwritten rule: Don't have a fancy office, or donors might think you overspend on occupancy. But I soon learned the value of real estate and how pivotal a well-located, efficient and enjoyable space can be for an organization's culture and its ability to function effectively and meet its mission.
When I was the executive director of a small, $1 million education-based nonprofit organization, our offices, though conveniently located, were primarily windowless. The space was dingy, and as much as everyone tried to make it happy and bright, it was hard to do in an office that, by its nature and position in the building, didn't allow for it. When our lease was almost up, my top priority was finding something within our budget with windows. Eventually, we found a great space with spacious cubicles overlooking Lake Michigan. I watched everything change when we moved into that light-filled office; people were happier, they laughed more, and sometimes, they had to wear sunglasses because it was so bright.
All too often, nonprofits settle for what they can get their hands on, letting their office space work against them instead of for them. One of our current nonprofit clients runs a 24-hour helpline out of a windowless basement because it received the space for free. The space is prone to flooding, is incredibly dark and makes the client feel "forgotten." We are now assisting with site selection, working within their budget to find a location with natural light and dedicated space to collaborate or work solo – not too much to ask for, right? Nonprofits shouldn't have to operate in conditions that no for-profit company would consider. They, too, deserve the dignity of a well-functioning environment.
While I'm certainly not advocating for nonprofits to break the bank on their occupancy spending, I am advocating for them to consider spaces where they can maximize their spend. A great way to accomplish this, which is growing in popularity, is by leasing within a purpose-built coworking environment and sharing back-office expenses. At Transwestern, we work with many organizations doing just that. In Chicago, we’ve built a reputation for developing these "Vertical Villages" – our moniker for coworking spaces housing like-minded organizations that benefit not only from cost savings, but also collaboration opportunities. Whether the nonprofit takes the coworking route or not, its real estate solution should optimize efficiencies, and minimize occupancy costs, while capitalizing on savings uniquely available to nonprofits.
In our new world of hybrid work, employees want some of the same amenities that they enjoy at home: a couch to sit on and take that call, room to walk around and stretch your legs after a long meeting, an afternoon snack that you don't have to leave the building to find. No matter the mission, we all want to be in welcoming, engaging environments and increase our productivity. There's no reason why nonprofits should not enjoy the same comforts.
As someone who spent 20 years as an executive in the nonprofit and government sectors and is now representing occupiers, I aspire to change the paradigm in the funding community and to remove the judgment around nonprofits spending on office space because, as much as the sector is trying to rid the notion that nonprofit employees should be paid less than a living wage, I would venture to say that an industrywide shift could begin with nonprofits investing in space that not only supports organizational goals but bolsters culture and improves the daily lives of their employees.
Jenné Myers is Senior Vice President, Strategic Solutions for Transwestern’s Tenant Advisory + Workplace Solutions group. Based in Chicago, Myers leverages her experience as a nonprofit executive to support real estate occupiers nationwide, specializing in nonprofits, government organizations and corporations.
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