The Exchange is not your average co-working space. Not only is there not a bean bag in sight, but all the members work in the nonprofit, philanthropic or social justice field. In a city teeming with lean and upstart organizations working to do good, this cluster of cubicles in the Friends Center
provides a homebase, a haven and a coffee machine.
The space currently houses about half a dozen organizations, many of them one-man-band-types -- a single executive director running an organization or an outpost of an organization with occasional part-time or intern help. Each member has their own dedicated workspace -- a deviation from some more fluid co-working models that operate on shared desks and dynamic membership structures.
The original seed of the idea was conceived by Joe Pyle, president of the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation
, a philanthropic organization that works to improve behavioral healthcare in the region.
"Funders are always saying to organizations, 'Why aren't you partnering? Why aren't you consolidating?'" says Pyle. "This notion of space as the first wave of that consolidation is how the notion of The Exchange came about."
Pyle started talking to Matt Joyce, co-founder of Philly Fellows
-- an organization that places recent college graduates in year-long fellowships in the nonprofit sector -- and current executive director of the GreenLight Fund
's Philly site. GreenLight identifies innovative nonprofits in other communities and helps them expand to new markets where they can have an impact on low-income children and families.
"We started talking about it both from the context of philanthropy working together, but also how philanthropy can learn from innovations in the nonprofit sector," recalls Joyce. "From the GreenLight perspective, one of the things that we think a lot about is, what is the community that these organizations enter into when they get here? How can space help facilitate a new organization's relationships and networking? And improve their ability to learn very quickly about the Philadelphia community?"
Scattergood is a Quaker-based organization, so Pyle had a working relationship with the Friends Center at 15th and Cherry Streets. A number of groups working out of the historic building -- which was recently retrofitted and certified LEED Platinum -- were downsizing. Space was available.
"Friends Center has been great about giving us flexibility as we grow," says Joyce. "It started with just a couple of us in the space, and they gave us some runway to go out and recruit organizations that we thought would be a good fit."
Those organizations included Philly Fellows (still helmed by Joyce's co-founder Tim Ifill), Spark
, a national nonprofit that uses mentoring to increase high school graduation rates, and Harp-Weaver
, Teresa Araco Rodgers' executive director service for small family foundations.
"I came from a larger non-profit and was recruited to start Spark [in Philadelphia]," explains Jenny Bogoni, executive director of the organization's Philly site. "The fact that there was a place to go made the idea of going to this startup much more imaginable. I had thought, what am I going to do without an office? Or without colleagues? I was the only employee for the first two months. It has made it feel possible to build an organization. I have people to turn to."
That idea of feeling less alone, more engaged and highly networked is a powerful one at The Exchange.
"When you're a small organization, it is hard to be out and about," says Pyle. "You get kind of silo-ed in. We are all looking to improve the community in which we live, but doing it in different ways. You get that big staff connectedness that you would not have in a 1000-square-foot sublet in some office building in town. I'm smarter everyday from just saying hello to somebody here."
The Exchange has plans to expand -- they hope to double in size by this time next year. They are confident that the Friends Center can accommodate that ambition. Moving forward, it is important to the current members that they maintain a diversity of organizations.
"There is always a balance we want between the nonprofit and philanthropy," says Bogoni. "But the other piece of it is that people in the world today don't often think in a cross-sectorial way. They may learn to partner, but they partner within their sector. We're talking about partnering across sectors and really having an interest in how another sector views the problem. Perhaps you can come up with a creative solution together. It's really rare for philanthropy and nonprofits to communicate as friends and not just as grantees and grantors."
That said, these remain independent organizations. "There's no quid pro quo," explains Ifill. "We're partnering and working together but we're not trying to both gain something out of a business relationship. Part of it is collegiality. We're all small organizations, so we want people to say 'hi' to in the morning and talk about our day over coffee with. That's the minimum benefit, and that's great, but we're also making connections."
Ifill has engaged members of the Exchange to work with his fellows, and there are plans in the works for two of the organizations to host Philly Fellows starting this summer.
that happens, it would be great for me," says Ifill. "I'm always one step away from the work of the fellows, at least. I don't supervise them on a day-to-day basis, but I would be very excited to be in a space where I'm seeing them operate. This is more than just having coworkers who I like in the office who are doing their own thing -- it's a way to be more connected to the on-the-ground work of my organization."
Pyle emphasizes that they really are trying to do something different from traditional co-working spaces. "This is not a trendy thing," he says. "This is not six homeless organizations that were in need of cheap space.
"I don't think anybody here would say that what they're doing today is as good as they can be," he continues. "Let's behave differently. And what does that mean? It means maybe, traditionally, at this stage in my life, I should have an office. Well, I have a cubicle. What does that mean? Am I willing to behave differently? Am I willing to take somebody else's idea and run with it a little bit?"
Having this space is also a carrot for nationwide organizations or creative startups looking to get a foothold in a close-knit community.
"Going back to our personal experience of starting Philly Fellows as two 23-year-olds with almost no experience -- pretty much right out of college -- we plugged into the nonprofit sector so quickly," recalls Ifill. "Everyone we spoke to connected us to like three or four other people. That might have been possible in other cities, but I felt such a great Philly vibe from that. Providing a physical space for that kind of thing to happen is what we're all about."
LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite.
All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO.