[TheThinkTank] Losing Our Space, Looking for Strategic Guidance & Advice

Gordon Hamachi gordon.hamachi at gmail.com
Fri Sep 23 16:29:25 PDT 2022


Josh:

Sorry to hear that you're losing your space.  Every organization that
doesn't own its own space needs to have a plan for what to do if this
happens.  Therefore, thank you for sharing news of your current crisis with
the rest of us.

A few years ago, my local nonprofit bike shop lost its space and had to
scramble to find a new location.  Having experienced that fire drill, here
are some actions you could take, in no particular order:

   - Plead for more time at the current site
   - Raise funds to purchase the current site
   - Find and rent a new space
   - Shrink your space footprint if you can't afford market rents
   - Become a distributed organization with no specific location
   - Appeal to local government or business
   - Partner with a compatible and sympathetic non-profit that does have
   space

*History*
Philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying that those who cannot
remember the past are doomed to repeat it.  In this case, let's remember
the past because we *do* wish to repeat it.  How did you get your current
space?  What are the chances that you can do the same thing again?

My own organization had been in a space behind an auto repair shop for over
20 years, because the property owner liked what we were doing.  He was
willing to rent us space at well below market rates.

A few years ago the property owner died and one of the heirs insisted on
selling the property.  The property was certainly worth millions, so buying
it would have required raising big bucks.  We had months to deal with
this.  Instead of trying to raise that much money, we chose to look for a
new place.

*Time Horizon*
I agree that it is critical to know how soon you need to vacate.  In the
worst case you have less than one month before you need to be out.  Do you
need to move NOW, or do you have months in which you can apply for grants,
and make the rounds of various elected officials, agencies, and friendly
non-profits who *do* have space?

*Space Needs*
Think about your minimal and ideal needs.  How much space do you currently
occupy?  What percent is bike storage, tools parts and supplies, retail
space, work space?  How much could you shrink your space?  Are you willing
to temporarily go dormant and store everything while you work on finding a
new space?

Where I live in California, we can generally wrench on bikes outdoors all
year long.  At minimum, we need warehouse space to store bikes, tools, and
supplies.  Our shop was only open on weekends, when we could expand out
into the adjacent parking lot.  When it is sunny or rainy we work under
pop-up canopies.

One idea that I floated that didn't gain traction was to become a virtual
organization with no specific operating location.  We could distribute
bikes, tools, parts and supplies to our members.  Each member could host
small popup neighborhood bike repair activities at or near their homes.
Repaired bikes (that were ready to be donated) and broken bikes (that
needed repairs), could be picked up and dropped off on demand.  This model
might need warehouse space somewhere, and occasional use of a truck or van.

It is also helpful to think big.  Ideally, how much space would you want?
Where is the ideal location?  Would it include retail space?  Shop space?
Bicycle storage?

*Elevator Pitch*
In the world of tech startup companies, founders hone their elevator
pitches before seeking funding.  This is a brief 30-second presentation
that summarizes what you do, what you need, and what benefits will ensue if
they give you what you want.  Write and practice delivering a compelling
pitch.  There is plenty of advice on how to do this.  For example:

https://blog.hubspot.com/sales/elevator-pitch-examples

The goal of an elevator pitch is to receive an invitation to make an
extended presentation.  You'll want to refine your extended presentation
before you start beating the bushes for money.  Find the best person in
your organization to make the presentation.  Do dry runs.  Get feedback
from business people who have experience with PowerPoint.  Refine your
slide deck.

*Finding Money*
If you're going to be asking for money, start by knowing how much to ask
for, and where it will go.  Do you simply need funds to move?  Do you need
money to purchase real estate or build out a space you intend to rent?  If
you're considering a purchase, talk to a local commercial real estate agent
to get an idea of how much money you'll need.

The good news is that in places with high real estate prices, there are
bound to be lots of rich people.  Some of them are looking for
opportunities to do something to benefit the community.  You need to find
these people and cultivate relationships with them long before you have a
need.  With luck, you already know some of them.

For example, one wealthy friend of mine was interested in creating a "Maker
space" where bike repair activities would coexist with artists needing
machine tools, welders, plasma cutters and space to fabricate large scale
projects.  She might have been willing to put up 1/4 to 1/2 of a property's
price, if Maker activities could happen there.  That proposal didn't go
anywhere, I think because our executive director didn't want to share a
space.

Various charitable foundations may be good sources of money.  They usually
have a grant application process.  Sometimes their current emphasis might
be in one particular area.  It's best to phone them to try to assess how
well your organization fits with the foundation's current priorities (in
other words, what your chances are of being funded).  Foundations don't
want you to waste your time or theirs, if it seems unlikely that they would
fund your grant request.  They should be willing to tell you the size of
grant that they typically make, so you'll know if your request is going to
be in their ballpark range.  Foundations seem to want to grant large sums
for things like new programs or even a new building, rather than for normal
operating expenses.

If you're going to ask for donations of any kind, it's best if you are
already an established non-profit in the eyes of your State and Federal
Government.  I could be mistaken, but my impression was that the Mechanical
Gardens had not jumped through the necessary hoops to do that.  It seems to
take a long time to obtain nonprofit status, so you should get started on
that if you haven't already done so.

If you're applying for grants, you're going to need to document the public
benefit that your organization has provided to the community.  Many
nonprofit shops publish an annual public impact summary to boast about the
number of low income people served, the number of bikes repaired and
donated back into the community, or the like.  If you don't already have
this information, start assembling the data (if available) to show your
historic growth trend in measurable output.

I'm personally not that high on crowdsourcing for major capital campaigns.
In my opinion, the amount that you'll need to purchase a property is just
too large to gain traction.

*Appeal to Elected Officials and Local Businesses*
Your local government probably controls a lot of space.  The ideal time to
get the attention of elected officials is during their election campaigns.
Candidates seem more open to hearing about your needs, especially if you
can explain the larger problem that nonprofits--that benefit the
community--need operating space in an area where rents are sky high.  They
may be aware of city-owned spaces that you could use.

One of the best values of good politicians is that they know a lot of
people.  Perhaps they can hook you up with a company that is looking for a
way to give back to the community while boosting its public image.  Perhaps
they know a business owner who is a bike enthusiast and make space for you
to operate.

*Appeal to Other Nonprofits*
It might be possible to get space from another nonprofit.  Our shop donates
repaired bicycles to the needy; a local church that has space might be
willing to give us space if we could supply more bikes to the people they
serve.

*Appeal to Everyone You Meet*
It probably doesn't hurt to explain your situation and needs to everyone
you encounter.  The next person may have the ability to help, or know
someone who does.

*Here's What We Did*
A large tech company near us has been buying up entire blocks of properties
to build more office space. They had a warehouse that they were willing to
lease to us for well below market rate, but it was a month to month lease
because they might decide to start building at any time.  We can be asked
to vacate with 30 days notice.  Fortunately, a neighboring business on the
block does not want to sell, so it could be years before the large tech
company can acquire the entire block and commence construction.  The
pandemic-inspired popularity of working from home might also mean less
pressure to build offices and more surplus property available for
non-profits.
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