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Nonprofit facilities communicate, and we need to be more conscious, thoughtful, and vocal about what they say about who and what our organizations value. A dilapidated and dysfunctional facility communicates that the work conducted inside it is unimportant, the people served deserve no better, and the surrounding neighborhood is forgotten and forsaken.

In contrast, a facility with functional—even beautiful—design sends a clear, edifying message to its occupants, visitors, and the neighborhood that they are important, with intrinsic value and a realizable vision of hope.

For years, I have directed IFF, a community development financial institution that specializes in nonprofit facilities lending. In fact, before we expanded to a multistate region, our initials stood for Illinois Facilities Fund.

One of our greatest challenges is serving clients who are so accustomed to a mindset of scarcity and workaround that they struggle to envision operating any other way. For example, I recall asking a health clinic with which we worked, “How big should the waiting room be?” The response was: “Tiny, so we can use the money for more sinks.” Each nonprofit sector has its own version of this scarcity mindset. In childcare, for example, that scarcity mindset is often the importance of toilets in the classroom.

The urge to economize is expected. Nonprofit management is always prioritizing precious dollars: specific needs take priority over general wants; the tangible is more important than the intangible; and it can be challenging to think about the concerns of tomorrow until today’s crises are addressed. In the process, the big picture about overall facility needs often falls by the wayside.


A Hierarchy of Nonprofit Facilities’ Needs

After 30 years in community development, I have come to think of nonprofit facilities as existing on a continuum of need. Psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized a hierarchy of human needs, a motivational model that transitions from basic physiological needs like food and shelter, through safety and security, to self-esteem and self-actualization. As I suggest in the graphic below, nonprofit facilities exist on a similar hierarchy—with physical, psychological, and economic needs that must be met before an agency can transition to the next stage of its work.


At the most basic level, a nonprofit facility needs four walls, a roof, electricity, a bathroom, and running water. This setup can barely be described as a “facility.” It is simply a “space.”

Nonprofit professionals—particularly those working in under-resourced communities—know this makeshift setup well. Smaller, younger, poorly resourced agencies that are providing vital services on a shoestring budget often occupy such spaces, which are usually auxiliary spaces in a larger facility—borrowed, donated, or rented for a nominal fee. Such spaces tend to be a large, poorly lit room, maybe in a basement with few windows and with bathrooms located elsewhere in the building.

The cash-strapped organizations that work in such conditions often feel fortunate to have a space at all, for at least it offers them a place to assemble and provide services. But staff spend as much time managing the space as serving their clients. It is too hot or cold. Electricity is spotty. Plumbing is unreliable. There is little privacy and storage. There are noise problems, access issues, building code violations, and other problems over which the nonprofit has no control. Adapting the space for the agency’s programmatic needs is impossible—making licensing requirements difficult to meet—and virtually no accommodation can be made for clients’ comfort and dignity.

Basic Function

The next tier is a space that provides an agency with more control and privacy. Often originally designed for a completely different purpose, such a space can be adapted and made to work, providing some comfort and even privacy and allowing for distinct areas dedicated to the agency’s different functions. If the space houses a childcare center, for instance, it may have classrooms that technically meet licensing requirements with curtains or movable partitions, but it may lack more ideal floor-to-ceiling walls and doors. If the space is a health clinic, it may have designated exam rooms, but perhaps these are curtained-off areas providing minimal privacy. The space may have its own entrance, office, and storage areas that can be locked. Heating and cooling systems provide basic comfort. Electricity can accommodate modest technology requirements. Toilets may be elsewhere in the building.

Agencies have more control in such a space, and staff spend less time managing problems. But the agency is still adapting—and often compromising—its programs to fit a space that was not designed to facilitate them.

High Function

Here, we can start to use the word facility versus space. In this category, facilities were created for their current use, and their physical elements enhance agency programs. More space is available, allowing for areas with dedicated purposes and ensuring privacy where needed. The facility has separate entrances with lobbies, as well as meeting rooms, kitchenettes, and bathroom facilities. Heating, cooling, and electricity support programs and comfort.

A facility like this allows staff to focus on programs and clients instead of constantly managing space limitations. It is utilitarian, providing staff and clients with high levels of satisfaction and the organization with the opportunity to excel.

Interior Beauty and Inspiration

The next level up is a facility designed not just for function, but with attention to how staff, clients, and stakeholders feel when they are in it. Form both enhances and goes beyond function, making allowances for beauty, mood, and the physical and spiritual sensations good aesthetics can create.

In this type of facility, intentional design creates a tone and mood consistent with the agency’s purpose and the services it provides. For example, the facility can be designed to generate feelings of warmth and security, calm and focus, or light and inspiration, putting staff and clients in a mindset that matches a nonprofit’s mission. Such spaces foster learning, inspire, energize, and create a sense of safety.

Far from trivial or superficial, these are essential considerations for effective programming. Considerable research documents the positive physiological and psychological effects that sound architectural design has on wellbeing. Studies show that design helps people heal, learn, and feel calm, safe, and cared for in a range of spaces—including childcare facilities, schools, and healthcare facilities, among others. For example, childcare facilities should be designed to facilitate sensations of learning, play, security, warmth, sleep, and recreation throughout the day. Health clinics are most effective when they radiate competence and cleanliness and their clients feel safe, welcome, and treated with dignity. A well-designed facility bolsters the confidence and self-esteem of staff and clients alike; it inspires.

Community Inspiration

Finally, at the top-most level, a nonprofit facility can signal both the value of its mission and the people it serves. Such a facility not only honors and inspires staff and clients who use the building, but the surrounding neighborhood as well. The full impact of facility design—when viewed from this perspective—is almost impossible to quantify.

Aligning Financial Resources with Values

Nonprofit agencies need financial resources to move from scarcity to inspiration. Even with resources, however, such evolution seldom occurs in a straight line, and the marriage between form and function is rarely without conflict. Exemplary nonprofits operate effectively from imperfectly adapted spaces, creating facilities that are not only functional but beautiful and inspirational in their own right. And even the most expensive building can fail to support an agency’s programs or create an atmosphere that complements the agency’s mission.

Too often, nonprofit leaders remain mired in a scarcity mindset that every available dollar must go to programming.

“How much space do we need? What can we afford?” These are often the first questions nonprofit leaders ask when considering a real estate project, but the answers are more complicated than calculating square feet. Not captured by the math are intangibles, like how a space that was not designed for your programs can waste staff time, undermine sustainability, and create negative experiences for clients and stakeholders. Or, alternatively, how a space designed with your programs in mind can support smooth operations and inspire everyone who moves through it.

Can we put a simple dollar value on these tradeoffs? No, but we can align our financial resources with what we value.

Too often, however, nonprofit leaders remain mired in a scarcity mindset that every available dollar must go to programming. As a result, enhanced facility design, inspiring aesthetics, or staff and client comfort are treated as unaffordable luxuries. Instead, limited funds go to addressing building code violations, fixing century-old plumbing, upgrading electrical systems, and installing new HVAC systems, leaving little money for functional improvements, let alone beauty and inspiration.

Even more insidious are the psychological pressures that accompany these financial decisions. For many agencies—particularly in formerly redlined neighborhoods—staff and boards are accustomed to being surrounded by other devalued and barely functional buildings. So, even where the funds exist, nonprofit leaders feel pressure to not be “the nicest facility on the block”—to not spend precious program dollars on facilities that honor and inspire.

Nonprofit leaders face many competing pressures. But I would argue it is time for our nonprofit ecosystem to recognize these tensions; to free nonprofit leaders and their boards from the psychological oppression these economic pressures have wrought; and to understand that facilities have value beyond services.

Quality nonprofit facilities are community development.

Perhaps, if those of us who care deeply about nonprofits—and particularly about agencies dedicated to serving low-income communities—name and discuss these tensions and the underlying value choices involved, we can start to prioritize, manage, and mitigate them. Here are a few ideas on how to begin:

  • Board members: Stop challenging your agency directors about facilities that look “too good.” Resist the insinuation that quality facilities will make it more difficult to convince donors that your agency needs money.
  • CDFIs: Stop limiting loans to nonprofit agencies in response to property appraisals. Appraisal-based lending severely limits lending for nonprofit facility projects, particularly in formerly redlined communities where decades of devaluation have made it nearly impossible for nonprofits to obtain the resources needed to develop their facilities. Appraisers are never going to value the hope and inspiration that comes from a well-designed nonprofit facility, but CDFIs can—and must!
  • Banks: Find ways to help. Banks can underwrite loans, even while maintaining an abundance of caution that, instead of relying on a flawed appraisal system, responsibly lends beyond appraised value. If each bank made a few such loans, the impact in neglected communities would go far beyond the loans’ dollar values.
  • Foundations and donors: Remember that most programs require a facility and that the quality of that facility enhances or detracts from the program being funded. Stop treating human services, childcare, education, and healthcare as functions separate from community development. Quality nonprofit facilities are community development. Every quality nonprofit facility changes the profile and trajectory of its community, not just through the vital services it provides, but through its very physical presence, which reminds the community in which the facility is located of the community’s value and the agency’s investment in it.

The Importance of Intentional Design

One of our clients, Kyle Smitley, executive director of the Detroit Achievement Academy, says it best: “Buildings communicate a lot internally to the people who are in them, and they communicate just as much externally to the neighborhood where they are located. Space communicates values and wealth. It always has.”

Yes, buildings communicate! Take the example of the healthcare clinic with which I began. Yes, the doctors got their sinks. But, with intentionality, the redesigned clinic also honored the volunteers that worked there and the clients who received care. The staff got a lounge. The clients got spaces for privacy during intake, a waiting room with natural light, and a sectioned-off area for children. The space wasn’t perfect, but it was a functional, modern health clinic where staff worked in comfort and clients were treated with dignity.

And the investment yielded significant unexpected returns. Many doctors and nurses would never have worked in a dysfunctional place, but with the new facility, volunteer recruitment increased 40 percent. The clinic design also created room to serve more people. And by providing more services, the clinic raised more money, offsetting its initial facility investment. Fundraising climbed more than 50 percent.

And the clients? The uninsured people who rely on clinic services? Their reaction is best summed up by one client who attended the building’s grand opening and said with a tear in his eye, “When I had to go to the old location, it reminded me that I was poor. When I come here, for a moment, I get to feel like everybody else.”