By: Karen M. Radman Issue: Resource Management Section: Community
A Revolutionary Approach to International Development
A revolutionary approach to the way that international development nonprofits achieve their missions is making its way to the Mile High City. Shared resources, collaboration and economies of scale are the impetus for its creation. Between the climate of the global economy and the fact that there are over 19,000 public charities in the state of Colorado alone, nonprofit organizations must consider innovative and improved ways of conducting business in order to thrive—and survive. Rather than competing with each other for resources, progressive nonprofits are instead seeking ways to collaborate in order to best achieve their individual missions. Denver’s Greenhouse Project is the result of this kind of thinking.
Conceived in early 2011, by the international development organization, iDE, and former Colorado House speaker, Andrew Romanoff, the Greenhouse Project (Greenhouse) has quickly gained momentum. With over 100 internationally-focused nonprofits in Colorado, Romanoff started recruiting partners the old-fashioned way—by picking up the phone. Although predicated by iDE’s need to relocate its offices, the idea of forming an international development nonprofit center suggested many more opportunities than simply leasing a new office. Many of the organizations that Romanoff contacted recognized this potential. In only a few months, Romanoff was able to recruit 15 international development partners who plan to move in together, once the space is confirmed and renovated. Expected date for move-in is August 2012. Anticipated ways to share resources and maximize impact in the developing world is infinite.
The United States’ First Collaborative Center for International Development
According to its website, “the Greenhouse Project (www.greenhousefund.org) will be the nation’s first collaborative center for international development with a common goal to produce more innovative, effective, and sustainable solutions to global poverty.” By bringing together like-minded organizations whose missions complement one another, the Greenhouse Project intends to become a resource itself—by acting as an incubator for new business ventures for the developing world. Serving the global community, the geographic span of the work of the Greenhouse’s current 15 partners ranges from the Navajo Nation of the U.S. to Latin America to Africa to Asia. The focus of the work covers the fields of agriculture, education, health, microfinance, water and sanitation, girls’/women’s empowerment, infrastructure and technology—directly impacting many of the Millennium Development Goals set forth by the United Nations. By utilizing the skills and ingenuity of its partners, the Greenhouse aims to become known as an informational hub on international development, where ideas, best practices, and more, are shared. The facility itself will be designed to allow for the hosting of lectures, workshops, educational programs and community events—with the goal to draw acclaimed speakers and experts in the field of international development. “We also intend to generate new sustainable ventures—advising entrepreneurs on the viability of their plans, developing business models, providing field trials, etc.,” commented Romanoff. Numerous intersections between the programmatic work of its partners will open up many new opportunities for the individual organizations—but more importantly, opportunities will also increase for the people of the developing world who are being served by the Greenhouse partners.
As a nonprofit center, the Greenhouse will offer its partners office space, based on the individual needs of each organization, as well as shared conference rooms, kitchen, office equipment and services, all of which should reduce operating costs and increase capacity. The possibilities for shared back office services include phone, internet, IT support, printing, training, legal assistance, billing, data management, PR/marketing, design and more. Not uncommon with other nonprofit centers throughout North America, the Greenhouse will house not only nonprofit organizations but also private sector companies whose products or services are synergistic with the work of the nonprofit partners. To this end, there are several service providers that plan to sign on as tenants and three for-profit companies that offer low-cost products or economic opportunities designed for and targeted at the developing world who have joined as partners.
A 21st Century Approach to Capacity-Building
According to a first-ever study conducted this year by Nonprofit Centers Network (NCN), there are 212 operating centers in the U.S. and Canada and many more in the developmental phase. Since nonprofits are judged by the percentage of each dollar they spend on program work, administrative costs and fundraising, the increasing trend in the development of nonprofit centers is understandable. Every nonprofit strives to decrease overhead costs in order to apply more of its revenue towards advancing its mission. By collaborating with other organizations to share resources, nonprofits can cut back on overhead costs, while also building capacity that they may not otherwise have had. The organizations that have signed on as Greenhouse partners recognize this potential. As Robyn Long, Bridges to Prosperity’s director of operations commented, “Bridges to Prosperity is excited to join a collaborative space both for gained efficiencies of scale and to learn from other similarly-focused organizations’ experiences."
The NCN study demonstrates that the benefits that center partners experience are numerous, including: an increase in awareness and credibility of the organization, enhanced staff morale, higher visibility to funders, greater accessibility for clients and overall collaboration. Through integrating services and systems and eliminating duplication, nonprofits participating in a joint venture, such as the Greenhouse, are able to increase their organizational efficiency. Small organizations have access to resources that they would not normally have. Staff has access to a larger pool of volunteers, as well as peers with whom they can share ideas. Economies of scale are achieved, offering increased visibility of the individual organizations, as well as a unified voice and greater influence in society, business, government and public policy. Organizations gain the capacity to expand their programming and geographic reach. And, important to the sustainability of nonprofits, collaborations tend to attract more funders. Due to the role that philanthropic foundations have played in promoting collaboration amongst their grantees, proposals from collaborations have a higher potential to receive funding than from organizations operating in isolation. In fact, taking the lead from the Lodestar Foundation in Arizona, a group of prominent Colorado foundations joined together this year to create the Colorado Collaboration Award, which offers a $50,000 annual award to the most successful collaboration in Colorado. When nonprofits share ideas, work together and avoid duplication of services, the benefits are far more-reaching than to the individual organizations alone—they directly impact the communities they serve.
For the partners of the Greenhouse Project, these added benefits are already being realized. From the process of simply meeting to make the Greenhouse a reality, many of the organizations are already having discussions about how they can work together to advance their missions. The Greenhouse Project is evolving every day, and its partners are taking a strategic, deliberate and thoughtful approach to its evolution. Although still in the development phase, the partners are excited about the possibilities that the collaboration will bring. More than simply shared space, the Greenhouse Project is a 21st Century solution to not only a resource shortage but it will also create lasting change in the lives of impoverished people worldwide. Keep on the lookout as the Greenhouse Project evolves and occupies space—not only in Denver but also as a pioneer in the field of international development.
Karen M. Radman has 20 years of experience working in the nonprofit sector and currently serves as the development director at the international nonprofit, Friendship Bridge. She has a Master’s in Nonprofit Management from Regis University, where she focused her research on the strategic re-alignment and collaboration of nonprofit organizations.