Social Enterprise, Squared

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June 21, 2013; Forbes

Last month, the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), a 24,000-square-foot coworking space in New York City, opened its doors to social enterprises, nonprofits, startups and independent workers, all tied together by the common thread of having a social mission. Since the coworking movement is itself a form of social enterprise, you could say that CSI represents social enterprise, squared.

Like other coworking spaces in the U.S. and around the world, CSI offers its members a range of flexible work and meeting spaces, amenities (access to coffee appears to be ubiquitous in the coworking world), and technical support. What sets CSI apart—along with its parent organization in Toronto—is the emphasis on members who are committed to social enterprise.

So in addition to the values shared by many coworking spaces—collaboration, networking, professional development, and a strong sense of community—CSI is helping to raise the profile of the social enterprise sector within New York City. At the same time, it models behaviors consistent with the sector, like exchanging the use of workspace for volunteer time at the Centre and jump-starting the community by running an “Agents of Change” competition to provide free space for 20 mission-driven people.

Eli Malinsky, who runs CSI, reports that they have 50 members to date, and they expect that number to reach 150 by the end of the first year. CSI has turned away prospective members without a social mission. Here’s the kind of language they use to describe who they are looking for: “blending a mission-based project with a market-based sustainability strategy” or “combining the best of the nonprofit and for-profit worlds.”

Members of the Toronto Centre, which opened in 2004, have not only pursued their individual causes and collaborated on mission-driven projects, they also have become involved in provincial policy issues—something Malinsky would like to replicate in New York as the CSI community evolves.

The coworking movement, like the nonprofit sector, thrives on collaboration and a sense of community. There are professional organizations, conferences, and a wiki. There’s even a League of Extraordinary Coworking Spaces. This short video makes a compelling case for coworking.

Coworking spaces tend to be entrepreneurial and look for like-minded members who share a vision of changing the world of work. Some coworking sites welcome “indies” of all stripes and sectors, while others skew more toward technology and science, design and fashion, or other specific fields. Some even allow corporate teams to use their spaces.

Some coworking spaces welcome for-profit and nonprofit indies and organizations under one umbrella. CultureWorks, for example, houses both arts and culture organizations and for-profit creatives and other professionals. In addition to the shared space, the organization provides a range of infrastructure, shared services and support to its members.

The nonprofit sector should keep an eye on the coworking movement, and borrow from—and contribute to—its collective wisdom.—Eileen Cunniffe