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Going it Together: Three Foundations, One Office

Date: May 23, 2024

David Weitnauer

President, R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation

Gabby Sheely

Executive Director, Tull Charitable Foundation

Pat Lummus

Executive Director, Sartain Lanier Family Foundation

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It’s not often an executive director can say, “Projections for 2024 occupancy-related costs will decrease by approximately 40%.” Especially when working from a newly occupied, 3,000 square foot suite in the heart of the city we serve. So as the three of us each ventured into 2024 budget talks with our respective boards, we were brimming with optimism.

Cost efficiencies weren’t even our favorite headline as we reported to trustees about expectations for the new year. The real news centered on benefits we were already seeing after our three, small-staffed foundations co-located in the same office suite last summer.

This was not a merger. Each foundation maintains its distinct mission and grantmaking priorities. With assets in the same range and a similar approach to staffing, our operations and systems are virtually identical. We enjoy some overlap among grant partners, we share the same aspirations for strengthening our region and state, and we regularly collaborate with the same community partners in various civic and philanthropic circles.

Why didn’t this occur to us sooner?

Anyone who’s worked in a small-staffed foundation in a traditional office knows what’s it’s like to feel isolated in that work. Sure, colleagues, PSOs, and affinity groups are a phone call or email away. But there is nothing like stepping into the office next door for a quick conversation about a fresh proposal with a colleague from a peer foundation. Or being invited by a suitemate to join a meeting with a community partner in our shared conference room, saving everyone time and benefitting from hearing what others have to say. Or chatting with a group in the kitchen over lunch.

We quickly began substantive collaboration. Right off the bat, we joined forces to identify, vet, and commit to a new grant management system. While each foundation signed its own contract and maintains its own database, implementing the new system was so much easier than flying solo. We underwent training together, looked over one another’s shoulder in the early days, and answered each other’s questions. We continue to lean on each other as each becomes more proficient with the system. Our staff even presented on panels together about the benefits of co-location and grant management!

In a similar fashion, each foundation outsourced its bookkeeping to the same accounting firm with books being handled by the same accountant.  Reimbursements are seamless. And the list goes on. One IT firm. One wireless account set up to serve each foundation separately with internal firewalls for security. Shared huddle and conference rooms coordinated for our respective board meetings using annual calendars and reserved day-to-day through an office-wide calendar.

Getting to the heart of our shared commitment to be better partners for nonprofits, we used the new grants management system as the occasion to workshop our application process and associated forms to be more user friendly. We’ve brought a similar team effort to conversations about all aspects of partner engagement, from structuring grants to reporting.

Collaborative conversations are woven into the fabric of our office culture. They’re reinforced with a monthly, office wide check in and a monthly office brown bag lunch. In addition to the benefits of mutual support and collaboration, our open book approach to all things foundation management and philanthropy makes for healthy and helpful accountability.

The idea for sharing office space came about during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of intense collaboration in our charitable sector. We leaned on one another and our peers in countless Zoom calls to gather information and shift giving practices to respond more effectively. The combination of the pandemic and the country’s reckoning with racial injustice following George Floyd’s murder changed perspectives and many of our practices permanently.

Since our sector-wide, crisis-fueled evolution unfolded during an extended period of remote work, it’s not surprising we’d begin to think differently about office space. Our practice of having nonprofit partners come to our offices for exploratory conversations was already in decline in early 2020. By the end of the pandemic, however, our sensibilities about what it means to be more respectful, effective partners for non-profits meant, going forward, in most cases, we would either meet prospective partners or grantees via Zoom or by going to their office or service delivery site. (Needless to say, our new office does not include a traditional waiting room or receptionist.)

Our respective lease cycles coincided enough to start talking about the mechanics of moving in together. Our boards supported the idea. We worked with a commercial office space broker to explore options. The details came into focus fairly quickly.

With a priority on equal partnership and utility, space planning was relatively easy. We assigned adjacent offices to each foundation team using an internet randomizer. We bought new furniture to provide a cohesive look and feel and each office has identical arrangements. The doorplate reads simply, “Foundation Offices.” Three logos adorn the conference room window. The wall in our common area features our respective missions or focus.  Each foundation has dedicated wall space for honoring our respective histories and identities.

Why didn’t this occur to us sooner?

Back to those budget conversations with our boards, the savings on occupancy costs and energy use are significant. But ask our trustees and any one of our staff members and we will tell you that we cannot put a price on the value of working alongside one another for the good of the community.

Pat Lummus is executive director of the Sartain Lanier Family Foundation, Gabby Sheely is executive director of the Tull Charitable Foundation, and David Weitnauer is President of the R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation.Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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