Shared spaces, shared resources for Mankato nonprofits

Jessica Bies
The Free Press, Mankato, MN
Date: Saturday, December 26, 2015

MANKATO — It’s a problem far too many nonprofits experience.
Limited space and limited resources gridlock their work. Overhead runs so high, little money is left over for programming or employee benefits.

Hand-me-down furniture and run-down buildings can lend an air of shabbiness to even the most respectable nonprofit. They seem to be “just getting by,” their employees exhausted from hauling totes around town from conference room to conference room because, of course, they don’t have one of their own.

“This is what we struggle with the most: finding the space to meet,” Mankato Area Foundation Director Nancy Zallek said. “So often we’re off site and we have to tote all our stuff with us.”

Luckily, for her organization and a handful of other Mankato nonprofits, that is no longer the case, she was happy to add.

After nearly 40 years of dreaming about a Mankato-based nonprofit center — where nonprofits, large and small, could share resources and ideas — the Mankato Area Foundation has opened Shared Spaces, a suite of downtown offices with an air of respectability few of its tenants thought they’d ever be able to afford.
Mankato Foundation more than doubles fund

MANKATO — It’s been a banner year for the Mankato Area Foundation, which not only opened a new nonprofit center, but granted nearly $400,000 toward local projects and programming.

Shared space, shared resources

“As nonprofits, we are always judged, in a sense, about how effectively we use our dollars,” Greater Mankato Diversity Council Executive Director Bukata Hayes said.

If a nonprofit spends too much money on rent, utilities or new furniture, they have less to put back into the community.

“In order for every bit we have to go toward improving people’s lives, overhead has to be very low,” Greater Mankato United Way President Barb Kaus said.

Which is why many area nonprofits find themselves operating out of cramped quarters, using outdated technology and shimming up their desks.

Until just recently, Greater Mankato United Way, Greater Mankato Diversity Council, Life-Work Planning Center, Mankato Pediatric Respite, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Miracle League of North Mankato and YWCA of Mankato were among them.

Now, with the exception of United Way, they are operating out of Shared Spaces. Kaus said her team hopes to make the transition to the new building soon.

“We call them our partner-tenants,” Zallek said.

They aren’t tenants in the traditional sense of the word, however, and won’t pay rent. Instead the organizations will split the expense of keeping the nonprofit center open, jointly bearing the costs for electricity, heat and other utilities.

They’ll also share conference rooms, and in some instances, staff, further reducing costs. A commercial copier/printer, which few of the nonprofits could afford on their own, will be available for common use. There is also a shared kitchen and breakroom as well as ample storage space.

Furniture for the building was donated by the animal feed producer Ridley, which recently relocated to the Tailwind office towers. Other local businesses, such as Consolidated Communications and Schwickert’s Plumbing and Heating, made in-kind donations to Shared Spaces, helping renovate the building for the nonprofits’ needs.

A vision completed

The vision for Shared Spaces may date back nearly four decades, but it only took about a year and a half to make the nonprofit center a reality.
New nonprofit center coming to downtown Mankato

A first-of-its-kind in Minnesota center for nonprofits is being set up in downtown Mankato after local benefactors donated $750,000 to make the long-sought idea a reality.

Blethen, Gage and Krause Law Firm, which used to occupy 127 S. Second St., was preparing to move into the new Tailwind office towers last fall. One of the firm’s attorneys, also on the board of the Mankato Area Foundation, told Zallek the building was about to be vacated and may be available for purchase.

The goal had originally been to open a nonprofit center sometime within the next 10 years.

But Zallek and the foundation’s board decided “We can’t wait for sometime this decade,” she said. “We need to jump on it and see if we can make this happen.”
Mankato Area Foundation seeks city help for new nonprofit center

MANKATO — The Mankato City Council will be asked Monday night to forgive nearly $7,000 of a loan to a downtown law firm to facilitate the sale of the law offices to the Mankato Area Foundation…

Just a few months later, a group of Mankato benefactors had pledged $750,000 to buy the law firm’s building.

“We talked to 11 people and nine helped us purchase the building,” Zallek said.

Among the donors were the Glen A. Taylor Foundation, the Dotson Family Fund, Ogden and Jane Confer, Lyle and Kay Jacobson, Jeff and Cindy Thom, the Andreas Foundation, The Tailwind Group, the Fallenstein Family Fund and the Thin Film Technology Fund.

The building was remodeled over the summer — with another half million in donations — and opened this fall.

Now more open and airy, it is a friendly, welcoming space, designed to be a hub for nonprofit activity.

Collaboration is key

Though Shared Spaces is intended to lower costs for nonprofits, that’s not its only function.

The new office building is also meant to encourage collaboration between area nonprofits, whether the organizations be firmly established or just newly emerging.

Whereas before conversations between nonprofits like the YWCA and Greater Mankato Diversity Council had to take place over the phone, they can now take place in person.

Hayes, whose office is on Shared Spaces’ ground floor, likes to sit with his door open so he can chat with people on their way to the kitchen or conference room.

“Sometimes you just see each other in the hallway,” he said.

He also has a place to meet with people like Fardousa Jama, of the Somali Community Barwaaqo Organization, a relatively new Mankato nonprofit without permanent office space of its own.

The building’s conference rooms, as well as a room called the Mary Dotson Collaborative Center, are open to small nonprofits. They are welcome to use the building’s Wi-Fi, printer, copier and other resources, as well as consult with the building’s staff and executive directors.

Being able to talk to staff from other nonprofits is a huge plus of being at Shared Spaces, said Jean Keenan of Life-Work Planning Center. A program for women and displaced homemakers, Life-Work only has three staff members, she said, which makes it easy to get burnt out.

“There is no management team,” she said. “It’s just me and if I can’t solve a problem, can’t connect to the server, there’s no one to help me.”

Now all Keenan needs to do when she’s feeling overworked is walk across the hall to where the YWCA holds regular dance parties. She can shout down the stairs and call for help if her computer’s not working.

AmyJo Lennartson, local coordinator for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, likes to be able to touch base with other nonprofits, too. For the past 10 years, she has worked remotely, sometimes out of her car, sometimes out of her house.

“I’ve had a P.O. box,” she said, which has made sending and receiving mail difficult to say the least.

Though the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits has multiple resources available to community nonprofits, because Lennartson had no permanent office, it has been difficult to share them.

Now, new nonprofits doing research or applying for grants can just walk into her office, borrow a book and walk next door to the collaboration room.

Shared Spaces lends her, and the building’s other nonprofits, a new air of credibility, she said. Because the nonprofit is located right downtown near public transportation lines, it is easier to access and find.

“As a representative for the Council of Nonprofits, there is obviously no greater thing we want to do than raise the visibility of our sector in the community,” she said.

Two of the city’s biggest funders of nonprofits — Mankato Area Foundation and Greater Mankato United Way — are also in the building, which will make it easier for both to decide where to direct money and grants to make the most impact.

Add that to the fact that the whole environment of Shared Spaces is one of positive energy, and the model seems to be working.

“It’s excitement and energy, this really positive feeling,” Hayes said. “You can just hear energy and movement and laughter.”

Lennartson said for her, there’s “10 years of wanting to work with people, coming out, right now. Who isn’t more productive in a fun environment?”

Zallek, who was hoping all along that Shared Spaces would provoke that kind of response, says she thinks the nonprofits can learn from each other and over time, will find ways to do their work more effectively.

Though the concept of a nonprofit center is relatively new to Minnesota, it has a proven track record elsewhere, most notably in Denver, where there are 25 of them. She’s spoken to organizations there, who report that not only do they help save money, but increase productivity.

That might be because, “You only know what you know,” she said. “You see how other people approach something and you say, ‘I never thought of that.’ You come up with a whole new way of doing things.”