What's it like to work in a 25,000-square-foot development hub?

By Kelli Rogers 16 September 2014

Posner Center tenants gather for an event in its first-floor commons area. The building is home to more than 60 development-oriented businesses and organizations in Denver. Photo by: Posner Center

The Posner Center’s first-floor co-ed bathroom facilitates almost as many introductions and conversations as its table-strewn common area, according to tenants. It shouldn’t be surprising, since the 25,000 square-foot shared space in Denver’s Curtis Park neighborhood was designed in a way that would keep collaboration at its core.

Nongovernmental organizations and development firms crowd every block in Washington, D.C., where it’s not unusual to run into a fellow development professional while out grabbing a coffee or lunch. Implementers like Pact and PATH have recently redesigned their D.C. space to feel more open and collaborative.

But even a compact city and open floor plans can’t compare with wandering down the hall from your desk and running into a professional from an organization you’d been wanting to speak with.

That is possible at the Posner Center.

Colorado is home to more than 200 organizations and social ventures focusing on international development, with work encompassing agriculture, community development, education, energy, health, infrastructure, microfinance and various other fields.

And Posner, which hosts employees from more than 60 development-oriented institutions, hopes to spur innovation and more comprehensive solutions to global poverty by enabling groups to cross-pollinate through the exchange of ideas and the overlap of programming — whether that’s organized in their upstairs classroom or through a casual chat in the large first-floor common area. The center is uniquely positioned to squash silo thinking in international development.

So just year after its opening, how do tenants find the team-driven atmosphere? I visited the space, a converted horse barn, to find out what it’s like to work in such a deliberately collaborative environment — the same hub-like feel that’s been favorited by the tech industry for years. Here are four perks I learned from speaking to leaders and tenants of the space:

1. A workspace designed for deliberate collaboration

Visitors to the two-story center are immediately met with exposed beams, brick and a bright, airy ambience aided by plenty of windows; areas where horse stalls once stood have been converted to small glass-enclosed meeting rooms for tenants to use whenever they need.

The centerpiece of the building — a large common area equipped with plenty of tables, couches and outlets — is often utilized by members who don’t actually rent space in the building, although I met someone who preferred the buzz of this area to working at her reserved seat in the separate small tenant zone meant for NGOs with just one or a handful of employees.

“I prefer to be out here, where it’s more open with more activity, which is what I like in a work environment,” said Stephanie Sanders, program coordinator at S.O.U.L. Foundation, who I easily approached while working in the same room just a few feet away.

Maria Galter, executive director of AfricAid, values the energy in such a space after feeling isolated in her former job, where she was one of two staff members of a nonprofit and worked out of an office by herself.

Upstairs, tenants like Engineers without Borders and International Development Enterprises have larger office space.

More meeting rooms and a large room for trainings are also found upstairs, but even the two-story divide has been an unexpected issue for the collaboration-focused center, according to Brandi Stanley, Posner’s “community animator” who is thinking of implementing desk trade days as a way to compensate for a lack of collaboration even between the two floors.

“My job is not to force collaboration,” she said, “but to create space for it, whether that’s the location of furniture or choosing which chairs will be better for someone to sit in.”

The layout is also conducive to events, and both Galter and Sanders have used it to give presentations of their work. And collaboration doesn’t have to happen at a large scale immediately, but can also be inspired by casual run-ins in common spaces.

“It can start with happy hour and pingpong where you start to engage people,” Stanley said.

2. Regular programs to bring people together

The Posner Center works with local consultants and tenants to offer trainings in areas such as fundraising, impact evaluation, organizational partnerships, leadership, media and communications, human resources and many other areas. 

As Galter explained: “Just because we are all here doesn’t mean we will collaborate; it still has to be intentional.”

Lunch “block parties” allow two groups to present themselves to the rest of the tenants, and “it’s wonderful to hear what other organizations are doing and ask questions of our peers,” said Galter of AfricAid.

In fact, AfricAid just wrote a grant for an idea it developed with the help of a rapid prototyping workshop held by fellow tenant The Unreasonable Institute.

The challenge for the Posner Center is the range in size of tenant organizations, Stanley said. Small organizations might need to explore leadership growth opportunities or how to write better grants. On the other hand, organizations that have been around for 25 or 30 years with offices all over the world will have different needs.

“We all have very different missions, operating in different countries, so to actually collaborate on a project that bridges both country and mission can be difficult,” Galter said.

But what’s easy and encouraged is the sharing of knowledge such as best practices or other intangibles, she suggested.

“‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing this, do you know of anyone who would be a good resource?’ That’s invaluable,” she said when speaking about developing project ideas or website concepts.

3. Collaboration ... and healthy competition?

“Are we helping to inspire mergers? Are we creating an environment of healthy competition instead of fighting each other to get certain funding? It’s an interesting tension,” Stanley said.

And as they select tenants, what happens if they end up with six human trafficking organizations, I asked her. When it means sharing a smaller donor base?

But the center likes to think of it as collaboration over competition.

If you open an Italian restaurant on a block in downtown Denver, for example, and next door you build another Italian restaurant, Stanley said, are you splitting your client base? Or, when more restaurants appear, does it become more of a desirable place to visit overall?

“We’re all spurring and elevating business because we’ve made this space more interesting for people to come to,” she said.

AfricAid has already collaborated with other organizations on fundraising events, and most recently held a joint fundraising event with Global Livingston Institute, which Galter considered less healthy competition and more healthy collaboration.

“We figured out how we’d split the funds, how we’d manage the mailing lists that could be generated ... I could see doing more of that,” she said.

“If I have a program that’s working well, take a look, adapt it, use it,” she shared, citing a time that Children’s Future International asked to look at AfricAid’s life skills training program. “We all know its not about reinventing the wheel but about taking what someone else has done and tweeting it adapt to your context.”

4. Financial sharing, funding opportunities

From finding new grant opportunities to carpooling, there’s something to be said for sharing workloads and costs, especially for smaller nonprofits.

And the Center is in the process of developing seed funds for partnerships.

Micro-grants will soon be available to tenants and members who will be able to come together and say, “We are planning on this project or we have done it together, we want to get it funded,” Stanley explained.

A third party group will choose the most promising potential collaborations and award the money.

“That’s one area that we struggle with is looking for funding,” Galter said. “Maybe in the future we will hold some kind of a conference where we also invite institutional funders to participate in knowledge sharing and have an opportunity to create relationships.”

In the meantime, the center hopes to continue facilitating collaboration that will lead to finding development solutions together.

What do you think about working in a collaborative space? Will this become more common within development? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

If you have a questions about managing your career in global development, please tweet me @DevexCareers. Check out more career advice stories online, and subscribe to Doing Good to receive top international development career and recruitment news.

About the author

Mechosen
Kelli Rogers@kellierin

In her role as associate editor, Kelli Rogers helps to shape Devex content around leadership, professional growth and careers for professionals in international development, humanitarian aid and global health. As the manager of Doing Good, one of Devex's highest-circulation publications, she is constantly on the lookout for the latest staffing changes, hiring trends and tricks for recruiting skilled local and international staff for aid projects that make a difference. Kelli has studied or worked in Spain, Costa Rica and Kenya.


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