Three years from now, if a determined group of nonprofit leaders succeeds, a family struggling with domestic violence, mental health and financial issues will be able to get help with all three issues in a single visit to the new Howard County Nonprofit Center.

The center is intended to be the headquarters for multiple nonprofits serving multiple human service communities and providing a variety of services. They will share conference and lunch rooms, copying machines and program space. They’ll collaborate on client referrals, grants and programs.

Operating costs will be lower, and organizations will be able to expand and improve their client services while operating in a location that’s convenient to public transportation and the county’s major social service agencies. Low-income and foreign-born residents of Howard County will have a more efficient and convenient place to receive services.

Lower Costs, Higher Efficiency

There are an estimated 350 nonprofit centers (NPC) across the country; some have been operating for more than 20 years. Most are thriving. Locally, they can be found in Montgomery, Frederick, Carroll and Baltimore counties, as well as Baltimore City.

The Nonprofit Centers Network 2011 report, The Benefits and Impacts of Nonprofit Centers, noted that 56% of centers experienced enhanced effectiveness and efficiency. Fifty-five percent reported greater accessibility to clients, and 53% were able to improve the size and scope of their programs, all the while saving an average of 7% in annual operating costs.

Improved Access to Services

In addition to the cost savings for the nonprofits, better and easier client services are key drivers for a Howard County NPC.

Consultant Jim Truby, of Synthesis, pointed out that “Folks typically need more than one service.” Human service organizations often find their clients are eligible for a diverse group of services, requiring time-consuming trips to many offices dispersed around the county and often hindered by limited public transportation.

A centralized nonprofit center would help Howard County residents by offering services in a location with good access to public transportation, and most importantly, “one-stop shopping,” with easy cross-agency referrals requiring only a trip down the hall or to another floor.

Culmination of a 17-Year Effort

The new center will culminate 17 years of effort to bring the nonprofit center concept into the county. The current initiative, which began in May 2013, is spearheaded by the Association of Community Services (ACS) and includes a 12-member planning group with representatives from both the public and private sectors, and major human service funders including Howard County Government, The Horizon Foundation, Howard County Community Foundation and the United Way. The group is in phase two of a multi-phase effort.

According to ACS Executive Director and Planning Group Chair Joan Driessen, “The focus will be on those who provide services to low-income and foreign-born [clients]. This does not rule out any type of organization [that] may have programs serving people who are low-income and/or foreign-born. We are trying to be as inclusive as possible.”

In the past year, working with consultants from the Nonprofit Centers Network Inc., the group conducted an extensive, community-wide feasibility study. It surveyed more than 50 members of the local nonprofit community, conducted focus groups and individual interviews, examined current research and held a town hall meeting to create a clear picture of community needs and interest in a nonprofit center.

Results of the feasibility study were presented at ACS’s November General Meeting. They indicated that possible participants are very interested in shared administrative spaces, information technology, accounting services and conference rooms. They want parking, meeting spaces and disability access. Privacy and confidentially also are deemed important.

The Center Itself

What form will the Howard County Nonprofit Center take? It’s believed a center will require a minimum of 40,000–50,000 square feet of space. Working with the planning group, local consulting firm Synthesis is taking the feasibility findings and conducting a pre-development effort, evaluating various sites under a grant from The Horizon Foundation, Howard County Government and FIRN.

They will explore a range of options, including buying land and building, leasing and renovating existing structures or working with a developer to create a property that is then leased to nonprofits. Synthesis will present a short list of options with specific business plans for consideration in the spring.

Firm commitments are a critical component, as determining the number and space requirements of potential tenants will be a key part of the pre-development evaluation process.

Potential tenants are being asked to provide a board-approved formal letter of interest (LOI), to include a request for participation, current space requirements and a commitment to be able to move into the center should space become available.

As with any multi-tenant development, anchor tenants and their specific requirements will play a key role in determining the project’s final form. Two major groups, HopeWorks and FIRN, already have submitted LOIs. As anchors, they would have larger square footage.

Other tenants likely would require less space and would share reception, program, conference and common areas. As of Jan. 7, ACS, NAMI of Howard County and MakingChange also had submitted LOIs.

Funding: The Ultimate Challenge

Once all the studies are completed and the options are presented, the next phase, funding, will begin. If the past is any indication, this may prove to be the greatest challenge. At least one similar extensive effort, in 1998–2000, stumbled at this point.

The cost? An estimate of what it would take to get a center up and running won’t be available until after the pre-development phase is completed. According to the planning group, funding likely will require involvement by the county and state, as well as larger, outside-the-area foundations.

Information gathered by NPC Network suggests centers are a good funding investment. Vacancy rates are low, as is turnover, and many centers have tenant waiting lists. In addition, funders also find the NPC concept appealing because they see its collaborative elements and shared administrative costs as a way to get “more bang” for their bucks.

County government already has been involved in the current effort, helping with the feasibility and predevelopment studies.

How the new Kittleman administration will approach the next phase is not yet clear. When asked in early January, the county’s spokesperson indicated: “We are certainly supportive of nonprofits and would like to help, but … we’ve found we’re dealing with a $14 million budget deficit. We’re looking at ways to deal with it and with its repercussions. It’s too early to say yea or nay on this, but we’re open to ways to move nonprofits forward.”

Those involved in this project believe it is needed and can succeed.

Truby sees Howard County as being in a position to create something exceptional. “I think, given the county’s tradition of collaboration and creativity, [I] could see the county having the best nonprofit center in the country.”

A nonprofit center can be efficient and sensible, but for those who care passionately about people in need, Driessen summed up its ultimate value: “We can really make a difference in clients’ lives.”