Cayce Hill, the executive director of urban farming nonprofit Veggielution, works at a small desk in a centrally located downtown San Jose office. She’s surrounded by a host of colleagues who share virtually all that typical co-workers do—paperclips, spare pens, lunch breaks, professional advice and workaday banter—except for the same employer.
That’s because Hill works from NextSpace, a communal hub at the bustling corner of Second and Market streets.
Throughout the week, the nonprofit director rotates her desk with five other Veggielution staffers, which gives everyone a half- to full day to focus on work that doesn’t require their presence at the farm east of the Highway 101-Interstate 680 interchange. Like an increasing number of folks employed by cash-strapped nonprofits, the co-working arrangement is their best—and arguably only—option outside of working from home or jockeying for empty tables at crowded coffee shops.
“Not everyone on our team has a single-family home that has access to a separate home office situation or quiet space where they can sit and do that kind of work,” Hill explains. “Because we’re working on an urban farm, there’s not a lot of opportunities for quiet conversations, and holding meetings is a challenge in a rural setting.”
Silicon Valley’s headline-grabbing cost of living displaces more than just renters and homeowners: It squeezes out struggling nonprofits, too. But thanks to a national initiative by the All Good Work Foundation, charitable endeavors like Veggielution have a place to take root and thrive.
The foundation’s so-called social impact residency matches do-gooders with companies willing to donate office space. By giving nonprofits a stable place to work despite soaring commercial real estate costs, the tax-exempt community organizations can allocate more of their budget on their core mission. All Good Work launched the program two years ago in New York City and have since expanded to Silicon Valley, securing 32 donated office seats in San Jose, Los Gatos and Sunnyvale.
“People are looking for a professional environment that they can call their own,” says Amy Feldman, program director for All Good Work Silicon Valley. “Often it’s flexible seating, and in some cases, it’s a dedicated desk where you sit … every day. It creates more of a routine for the person that’s participating in the program [and] gives them that flexibility to not be worried where they’re going to be doing their work from tomorrow.”
As Feldman continues to connect nonprofits like Veggielution with donated workspaces, she says she’s heard dozens of stories from employees at other public-benefit organizations who work nomadically from coffee shop to coffee shop because they’re unable to afford a desk at even a coworking setup. At the downtown San Jose NextSpace, a monthly pass for one desk costs around $250. With the help of grant money from All Good Work, Hill says Veggielution is only on the hook for $50 a month.
“It would be much more of a stretch,” Hill says about paying full price. “Those are expenses that ... aren’t always covered in grants. Right now, where we are as an organization, it would be tough.”
The shared-space setup doesn’t work for everyone. Nonprofits come in all sizes, and some need dedicated programming space that makes coworking ventures unrealistic. Hill says she knows of one San Jose nonprofit that needed more room than just one desk and struggled to find an big enough location for less than $30,000 a month.
Northern California Grantmakers, a regional resource-sharing association of philanthropy groups, recently released a report on how the affordability crisis affects 180 nonprofits in Silicon Valley. Nearly a third of nonprofits surveyed for the study reported being forced to relocate over the past five years. Some 57 percent of those same groups cited high rents as the reason for displacement.
“If nonprofits are unable to find affordable space that’s in the community that they need to be, their ability to fulfill their mission is really compromised,” says Sarah Frankfurth, a manager for Northern California Grantmakers. “There can be really negative impacts on the communities they serve if these institutions go away [and] it can further destabilize communities that are already under pressure for displacement as well.”
To help create more stability for Silicon Valley’s public-benefit organizations, Northern California Grantmakers founded the Nonprofit Displacement Project. The regional initiative has helped nonprofits find and afford places to work by aiding in lease negotiations and educating them about paths to ownership. The displacement-prevention project played a key role in bringing All Good Work from the Big Apple to Silicon Valley.
Frankfurth says that’s just the beginning. The project is in the early stages of launching a real estate holding entity and exploring more ways to raise money for office space.
“It’s something we really need to think about all the time if we want to have strong, stable sustainable nonprofit organization,” Frankfurth says. “In our high-price real estate market, how do we support these organizations and make sure that they’re here and doing the important work they need to do?”
Part of the answer, she says, is to make sure nonprofits are part of the conversation and play an active role in carving out affordable spaces in the communities they’re dedicated to serve. “Because we’re in such a dire situation with housing, that’s really where people are paying a lot of attention,” Frankfurth says. “But this impact on nonprofits is really important as well because nonprofits provide services to people. They’re cultural institutions, and they are really crucial parts of our communities.”
For Hill and her Veggielution cohorts, the perks go beyond the dedicated work station, cost-saving and camaraderie with people from other organizations. It helps them grow the Veggielution name.
“When you have access to space like that and you’re connecting with more people, that comes with more ideas and relationships,” Hill says. “I’ve already met more people that learned about our work, and they’ve put forth ideas to me. I think that building relationships is at the heart of what our organizations does. It’s paying for itself.”