Starting a non-profit in architecture - where to start?
August 30, 2012 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I am an architect and recently laid-off. I want to use this time as an opportunity to start an architecture non-profit that assists communities to create their own public spaces. Think community centers, playgrounds, libraries, farmer's markets, etc. I am relatively young, naive, and idealistic. Where do begin? Whom do I speak to? How do I start? Any words of advice will do.

I've held this idea in my head for the past dozen or so years. My graduate school study centered on community building, so it's been with me my entire professional career (I'm in my late 30s). Unfortunately, I've worked with companies that did nothing of the sort. I myself crew up with meager means, so gaining a level of economic self-sufficiency after school became important, if only not further burden my parents. The more time I have to think about things, to more I feel I'd like to give back to these communities, similar to the ones that raised me. What I am thinking of starting is something like a cross between the groups "Architecture for Humanity" & "Habitat for Humanity". The former buildings community centers in far-away countries, while the latter builds homes in local neighborhoods. I want to build community centers in locally (I'm in So. Cal, but across the country).

I start this endeavor without any money of my own, as architecture hasn't paid much through the years. I also have a family with two young children (1 & 5 yrs) so half of my time is caring for them since childcare is less affordable. This is to let you know that I have all the desire in world to get this done - though my time and energy is divided, with very little startup money.

Within those constraints, I'll do all that I can. I just need to know 'what' to do. Thanks.
posted by spoons to Work & Money (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"Naive and idealistic" sounds like a lot of entrepreneurs. So, think of yourself as an entrepreneur of a sort. Successful entrepreneurs who fall into the naive and idealistic trap surround themselves with trusted advisors who are neither naive nor idealistic (lawyers, accountants, CFOs, etc.)

Structure your non-profit venture such that you're its public face and all the administrative detail is handled by people other than you with personalities appropriate to those roles.

Non-profits are, of course, businesses, though they are businesses established with an intent other than to generate profit. They should be run like a business, with an executive committee, a Board of Directors, etc.
posted by dfriedman at 11:23 AM on August 30, 2012

Well, starting an NPO isn't easy. Starting an NPO whose primary mission is essentially ongoing capital campaigns for new facilities is very not easy. That said, it could be done with the right people.

The first thing you'll need to do is get your tax exempt 501c3 status. Until you have that, raising money won't really be possible, and raising money is the other first thing you need to do. You'll have to look into the specific CA laws on what you need to get your 501c3 status. Here in Oregon, it isn't too difficult, and the chief requirements are things like having a mission statement, at least three people on your board, agreeing to the legal requirements, etc. But you will have to build a board, get a plan together, make a website - the stuff you'd do for any new business.

Once you get your status, you need money. People always want to jump to grant funding, which is something that certainly should be on your radar, but before you start looking for major gifts from the California Community Foundation or what have you, you'll really need some major gifts from private donors on board, especially since your NPO would be building facilities, which is hugely expensive. If I were you, after I got my status I would pick a flagship project and then run it essentially like a capital campaign. Get some major donors on board first in a silent phase, do some grant funding, have a public phase to finish it off. Easier said than done.

How do you get major private donations? Yeah, that's the rub. People devote their careers to it. Use the connections you have. Network. Major gifts don't have to be a million dollars. You could start with $10,000 or whatever seems appropriate given the costs of your project. But it's unlikely you'll be able to build a community center for less than a few million though, would be my guess. So let's just say the community center will cost $5m. Okay. You'll need half of that in private donations before you go public. So you'll need to convince some rich people to dive you $2.5m. With that pledged, you can apply for grant funding. Maybe you'll get one capital grant worth $1m, a few in the $100,000-$300,000 range. Okay, then finish it off with a public campaign through your website, social media, smaller grants, fundraisers, etc. Get a major donor to do a matching grant to finish off the last $100,000. There are lots of ways to run a capital campaign, but that's the general outline.

Alternatively, you could partner with other organizations that would have an interest in building a community center and basically act as a fundraiser/project manager for them. It would be easier to leverage funding that way, but partnering is its own bag of worms, and you'd still have to raise your own operating costs and compete with all of the other consulting firms that exist to help NPOs manage major campaigns.

Running an NPO, like running any business, is mostly about acquiring money.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:37 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's a few terms of art to help you in your quest (and good for you!). The type of activities you're describing are often lumped together as "Placemaking." Resources for this work include the Project for Public Spaces, Sustainable Online, LISC (Local Initatives Support Corporation), as well as many other organizations that help young non-profits get off the ground; you might find that Planetizen includes useful articles and discussions. You may wish to hold some neighborhood meetings or charrettes to find out what people would like to see happen and how they can help. If your thoughts run more to using your architectural skills in an applied way, check out the structure and funding used by the various Urban Design Centers around the country. Asheville's and Chattanooga's are among the well-regarded. Regarding the organization itself, it sounds like you want to start a Community Development Corporation. CDCs which can do many things besides promote neighborhood stability by stimulating affordable housing and economic activity. If you want to start smaller than that, check this out for inspiration.

PS Since you mentioned being in California, you might also find out what organizations are stepping in to fill the void left by last winter's dissolution of all of the local redevelopment authorities-- your city's planning department, main street organization, BID (business improvement district) offices may have insights. There may be new projects afoot that would be a good way to get involved with your area's community change agents.
posted by carmicha at 11:55 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Very good advice, thanks! I've heard that starting a non-profit is a lot like starting a business, and that's what makes me the most nervous. Having seen my father risk my family's income on a couple unsuccessful ventures has left me timid about the whole idea of a "business". But I get where you're coming from, that the organization needs to be financially sound at its core and have a public face. The idea that I need to obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to start is intimidating and from where I sit (on my kitchen table) seems unrealistic right now - but perhaps a 5-year goal? Hopefully. Therefore I like the idea of starting small. Especially since I have a non-existent network and know so few people. I've only lived here for a couple years, and feel I need things I can do myself and in my current time, so I appreciate the links to small projects.

Steps I should take is to establish a 501c3, see what a local community may want, present a proposal to the neighborhood and city for approval, get funding (kickstarter & grants), build it, then success?
posted by spoons at 12:59 PM on August 30, 2012

Your state most likely has an association of nonprofits (think AIA for nonprofit orgs). Google them up and give them a call. My wife works at the one in our state, and they field a lot of calls from people like you and help clear up some of the very basic questions so you can determine if it's a realistic possibility to even get started.
posted by that's candlepin at 1:22 PM on August 30, 2012

Each branch of Architecture for Humanity works in their local area, it's just that the main office primarily works on and publicizes the work abroad. If there isn't a local chapter near you, it's easy to start one, if not necessarily easy to grow it (or possibly I just suck at that part). You can use their 501(3)c status, which saves a huge part of the process.
posted by sepviva at 6:34 PM on August 30, 2012

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