Humans are inherently social animals. We thrive when we work together towards common goals – drawing expertise, finding support and deriving strength from the social bonds that we can create under the right circumstances.
This theory of human system interaction forms the core of what is known as cluster or co-location theory and is premised on the notion that sharing space can be an effective way for smaller non-profit or social enterprise organizations to reduce their costs, expand their services and achieve their operational goals.
In order to assess the veracity of these claims, I conducted community based, participatory research under the auspices of the Social Enterprise Centre (SEC) – a newly operational shared space model in Winnipeg, MB. I compiled the conclusions drawn from this research into a larger article which explores whether and to what extent the SEC can unlock the full potential of co-location communities and start reaping the social, political and economic benefits to sharing space.
Though focused on the SEC, the recommendations within the article are applicable to the larger social enterprise and non-profit landscape and hold valuable insights for the future of the third sector. The following represents a preview of what the article covers. In fact, the research on co-location over the last two decades has found that the social, political and economic advantages of sharing space are profound.
Simply put, by sharing space with like-minded, talented and driven individuals, we are able to capture and harness the resulting creative energies to create scale economies, increase political influence and generate social innovation. This is particularly important for non-profits or social enterprises that are more often than not: understaffed, underfunded and overworked.
Benefits of sharing
At a very mechanistic level, sharing space can reduce the administrative burden on non-profits through cost-sharing for common tools such as advertising, printing, heating and water costs etc.
There are also political advantages to sharing space: the political leverage that can be exacted from having strategic clusters working together on bids or lobbying can be significantly more than a singular organization working towards the same ends.
Arguably the most important benefit of sharing space is the potential to generate social innovation. It is important to understand that simply by sharing space your organization will not be positioned to unlock the full potential of co-location. Appropriately animating the community that you are creating through shared space is of the utmost importance and can be accomplished by following a relatively systematic prescription: technical, social and physical animation (CSI, 2011).
The article covers these elements more in-depth, however a high-level overview can demonstrate the nuanced approach to animating shared space communities:
- Technical Animation: email sharing, member portals etc.
- Social Animation: summer picnics, yoga classes etc.
- Physical Animation: community boards, couches etc.
My research synthesized several epistemological approaches to co-location ranging from experiential to academic learning and this is important because it allows for a more comprehensive understanding of how to properly implement a shared space community – readers are furnished with a set of tools and guidelines which serve to delimit the parameters, define the issues and highlight the successes of a variety of shared-space models.
Drawing from the more experiential approaches, my article provides advice around the intangible and yet persistent aspects of human character (What does sharing a kitchen space actually mean? Whose turn is it to take out the garbage? Did someone forget to pay the electricity bill?) that are hard to articulate from the theoretical or academic ways of knowing.
Similarly, drawing from the academic literature underlines the importance of the theoretical mechanics involved in shared human experiences which in turn leads to the generation of social innovation.
For example, the academic literature covers the necessary preconditions before social innovation can occur (Morosini, 2002):
- Providing a leadership role which is dedicated to managing the community animation aspect: someone who is a champion of co-location and can motivate and energize the community to engage meaningfully to create social innovation.
- Facilitating knowledge interaction is also paramount to a successful co-location model. Having formalized methods and timelines for sharing technical and practical information are absolutely necessary to ensure that plans are being developed collaboratively and that ideas are being generated to solve mutual problems (such as poverty in the inner city or environmental degradation).
- Communication rituals are also important for the effective functioning of a co-location model. This differs from the last point insofar as it is primarily concerned with developing the community identity of the shared space tenants. These rituals should foster the collaborative spirit and serve to strengthen connections between the organizations and their staff. These connections will create the familiarity and trust that is critical for generating social innovation.
The overlap between the academic and experiential literature reinforces the validity of co-location theory and underscores the importance for non-profits and social enterprises to engage with this model.
But you really don’t have to take my word for it: whilst conducting the primary research for this article I was privileged enough to speak directly with the managers of some very successful shared space models throughout North America who gave first-hand accounts of their experiences.
The Non-Profit Centers Network (NPCN) likened the shared space experience to the delicate dance between new lovers, finding that choosing the right organizational partners and settings are of the utmost importance: “It’s like when you first start dating someone. You have to first get to know each other, go on a few dates and see if your interests align [environmental or social goals?]. If they do align, hey maybe you can move in together.
But moving in [sharing space] doesn’t necessarily mean it will all work out. You have to build that trust in the relationship that will allow you to share freely [information and resources]. Once that trust is there, you can get married and start having kids – or in our case, collaborating on joint projects!”
This definitely would not be found in the academic literature anywhere! But you can see the benefit of having such insight! The NPCN also expounded the benefits of sharing space noting that, “[the NPCN] has saved over $18 million since 2004, and we have been able to reallocate this overhead cost towards mission related impacts.”
Similarly, in speaking with tenants in shared space communities the theoretical assertions are mirrored in lived realities: “The energy in the building is synergistic. Being surrounded by like-minded organizations has created more information exchange and positive information flow.”- Social Enterprise Centre Tenant (Winnipeg, MB).
Likewise, there seemed to be a visceral understanding (none of the participants I spoke with had undertaken formal research on shared space communities) that the underlying reason for sharing space was that, together, we can make the world a better place – faster. Tracy from The Hub in Halifax, NS intuitively understood that, “Community work can’t be done in isolation…. I believed that if we brought people together from different backgrounds that there would be some kind of social innovation that emerged.” The Hub (Halifax, NS)
So I’m not making this up folks – given the academic and real-world evidence I’ve found, I believe that this is the real deal and I strongly suggest that if you are a non-profit and you are struggling, seek out a way to share space with fellow non-profits and start reaping the benefits of co-location! It will take time and effort to setup and to maintain, but it is worth it and together – we CAN make a difference!
Andi Sharma is a recent graduate of the Masters in Public Administration Program and holds a Bachelor of Commerce from the Asper School of Business. She has worked in the community economic development field in Winnipeg’s inner city for the last 7 years volunteering with a diverse array of organizations ranging from the Social Enterprise Centre to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. She is currently a Research Analyst with the Province of Manitoba.