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Radical Collaboration: 50 Conversations 

This blog post is part of a series on Purpose-Driven Design.

Not-for-profits have a real estate problem. They also have a donor problem. And a retention problem. And a resource problem. Thankfully, they are also presented with an incredible opportunity. We are in a moment of great need for leadership and vision around the intractable social challenges of our time. People are seeking more purpose in both their work and personal lives. They are blending their passions, beliefs and goals into cross-cutting pursuits that imbue their everyday lives with deeper meaning.

Over the course of two months, a team of us at Gensler began a dialogue with a variety of not-for-profit leaders, experts, and consultants across the southeast region of the US. What started out as casual interviews became 50 conversations about the state of the not-for-profit industry, the challenges their organizations face, the progress they’ve made in recent years, and the personal journeys they undertake while pursuing their organizations’ important missions.

Throughout these conversations, we heard over and over that not-for-profits’ traditional paths of work (be it real estate needs, fundraising, grant-writing, communications) were being disrupted by technology, social change, resource availability, and evolving priorities in their respective cities and sectors. While their missions stay the same, not-for-profits are working to adapt as radically as the world around them.

How might a sector organized around philanthropy and charitable giving radically reframe its mindset? What challenges are there in rethinking deeply rooted models? Where do you even start this process?

As we listened to these interviews, consistent narratives emerged. Corporations are increasingly engaging mission-driven organizations as an extension of their own journey to better integrate purpose with their culture. Not-for-profits are partnering with local landlords to anchor community-oriented development, and each other to consolidate organizational resources. Social enterprises are focused on creating strong business models that support civic missions and outcomes.

The not-for-profit leaders we spoke with repeatedly told us that collaborations and cross-overs represented a new frontier for this sector’s necessary evolution. They said significant value was consistently demonstrated through these partnerships, and these symbiotic relationships amplified organizational mission and strengthened both parties, all while creating new opportunities.

Seeking answers, we looked across music, media, and the business world to understand the incentives driving unusual partnerships. To deepen that understanding, we needed to experience radical collaboration firsthand. We invited one of the organizations we interviewed, 48in48, to go on the journey with us. We sought to both design a process for seeking radical partners, as well as a way to dream with 48in48 about what that could mean for their organization. The following two posts in this series share those chapters of our story: what we learned through the experience and what we dreamed with 48in48. Both experiences left us inspired, optimistic, and excited by the potential of radical collaboration. We believe this is a scalable attitude that elevates the missions of our not-for-profit partners and clients.

Additional contributors to this post include: Paul Samala, Noah Rollins, Carolina Montilla, and Kelle Adams.

Elaine Asal is a design strategist in the Baltimore office and a Center of Excellence Leader for Gensler’s Not-For-Profit practice. She believes that positive impact comes from thoughtful, informed and tangible solutions, achieved when passionate people come together around a shared narrative and common goals. Contact her at elaine_asal@gensler.com.
Katherine Mooney is a workplace strategist in Gensler’s Washington, DC, office, who focuses on visioning and programming for not-for-profit and workplace clients, with an emphasis on versatile planning and innovative space strategies. She believes successful projects are rooted in listening to the client’s voice to better understand individual needs and challenges. Contact her at katherine_shaw@gensler.com.