Co-working and Capacity Building for Progressive Change Organizations – Some Preliminary Findings

Literature on co-working and capacity building of grassroots organizations provides evidence that the model proposed by the Chinook Center is viable as a transformative project for the Pikes Peak Region. In this post, I’ll share some of the background research that supports our vision.

Co-working Space as Social Infrastructure

Co-working spaces have risen in popularity in the last decade in both the business and non-profit industries. The rapid expansion of the co-working model has proven to be a key innovation for emerging businesses and community efforts in overcoming economic and social barriers to success. Yet successful co-working must be distinguished from simply shared space or pooled resources. Early studies on the co-working model identified the important advantage of such resource and space sharing in economic terms, emphasizing the advantage that sharing costs for items such as physical space and day-to-day supplies, as well as the benefit of risk sharing for unexpected expenses with regard to space or equipment.[1] Further study has demonstrated, however, that the greatest benefit of co-working spaces tends to be rooted in the community of collaboration (or networks) built among co-inhabitants.[2] In this regard, the co-working concept has evolved from one of mere convenience (in terms of shared risks and resources) to one of social infrastructure.

Key to successful community building in co-working spaces is the role of the managing organization, or host.  Jane Merkel argues that within urban co-working spaces, in order to avoid the problem of individual occupants simply working individually but in close proximity, “a particularly important role is accorded to the coworking host, whose activities are described as a curatorial practice aimed at creating a collaborative atmosphere and social relationships.”[3] The curatorial role of the host functions in facilitating contact, interaction, and collaboration among organizations using the coworking space. In building a community around the space itself, the host functions to move the space identity beyond a “plug and play” environment, to one of shared values and vision. It is within this shared vision form of coworking that the real potential for non-profit and grassroots organizations flourishes. Merkel  explains, 

While coworking spaces have emerged as a bottom-up, and to start with often improvised, solution to the recession and structural changes in urban labour markets, they are also related to current attempts at renegotiating urban commons in a process of negotiating shared spaces, resources and values (Ferguson, 2014). Similar to the proliferation of community gardens, neighbourhood councils, and artistic interventions that reclaim and re-appropriate urban spaces as ‘sites for active and democratic engagement’ (Ferguson, 2014: 15), coworking might also be interpreted as an emancipatory practice challenging the current neoliberal politics of individualisation (see Lazzarato, 2009). As a collective, community-based approach to the organisation of cultural and creative work, it might be able to provide an alternative space for the free exchange of ideas, while enabling support networks and promoting the negotiation of shared spaces, resources and values amongst coworkers.[4]

Placed within the framework of the “sharing economy” trend of the last decade, co-working spaces appeal to an economic model of operation that is fluid, social, and adaptable; placed within the framework of community building, co-working spaces appeal to a social model of operation that is democratic, collective, and empowering.  The Chinook Center has a primary goal of increasing the capacity of grassroots social justice organizations in the Pikes Peak area by curating a co-working space that is explicitly rooted in the shared vision and mission of social, economic and environmental justice.

Capacity Building in Grassroots Organizations

Capacity building among non-profits and grassroots organizations can be nebulous to define and even more difficult to evaluate in terms of specific outcomes. While certain formative evaluation measures can be assessed, such as membership, event attendance, or web traffic, any objective summative measure of “capacity” is challenging to ascertain. The degree to which “capacity” is measured in organizations addressing complex and macro-scale problems (such as social or environmental justice concerns) must be understood to be as equally complex as the concerns the organizations seek to ameliorate. The on-going nature of justice work requires a dynamic understanding of small and large scale outcomes. Joanne Sobeck points out that while there has been a recent shift among large scale philanthropic donors toward capacity building grants, the meaning and measures have varied, as “some [funders] focus on improving the quality of programs, others seek to enhance the organizational infrastructure and still others hope to improve the organization’s sustainability. Most of the effort, however, has focused on larger nonprofits and nonprofit management, with little reported evidence for its efficacy or generalizability in working with emerging community-based organizations.”[5] The funding and financial support to address capacity building, in an ironic paradox, seems to be more available to organizations who have already demonstrated capacity on a scale larger than the local, grass-roots efforts in need of basic support.

One area of capacity building that consistently surfaces as an indicator of capacity, and correlates with increased capacity is the strength of networks and the social connections of grassroots organizations.[6] Social capital, although difficult to measure, is particularly critical for community-based organizations as a means to demonstrate legitimacy in terms of trust, mission and access to community members. Social networks among participants in various grassroots organizations are often the origin of important resource and skill sharing, such as funding opportunities and collaborative project development.[7] While it may occur frequently that individuals with shared interests interact socially and thus build casual social networks among complimentary organizations, the informality and sporadic nature of such networks is not reliable or sustainable as a strategy for capacity building on a community level.  The Chinook Center, in curating a mission-driven co-working space, will add structure and formalization to the social networks of member organizations in the Pikes Peak region. Through skill sharing workshops, events, shared work space, and an intentional community approach, The Chinook Center will serve as an incubator for the social networks that are critical to capacity building of grassroots organizations in the community.

Access to technology and adequate technology infrastructure has also been identified as an important factor in the capacity of grassroots organizations to spread their message and recruit membership.[8]  Indeed, the internet has become a key tool in the communication and organization practices of organizations at virtually any level of operation, but there is widespread variance in availability and access to reliable, secure, high speed connections. Further, new tools in technology for work efficiency can be prohibitively expensive for small scale organizations. By providing access to and training on the use of technology resources, the Chinook Center can facilitate increased capacity in the grassroots organizations.

Thus, in combining network building and technology access/training, the Chinook Center, through a mission-centered, curated co-working space will serve the needs of a diverse array of grassroots organizations that can flourish in a community of support and solidarity to work for social, economic, and environmental justice.

[1] See, for example Blomqvist, K., & Levy, J. 2006. “Collaboration Capability – A Focal Concept in Knowledge Creation and Collaborative Innovation in Networks.” International Journal of Management Concepts and Philosophy, 2(1): 31–48.

[2] Castilho, M. F., & Quandt, C. O. (2017). “Collaborative Capability in Coworking Spaces: Convenience Sharing or Community Building?.” Technology Innovation Management Review, 7(12); Spinuzzi, C. 2012. Working Alone Together: Coworking as Emergent Collaborative Activity. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 26(4): 399–441.

[3] Merkel, J. (2015). Coworking in the city. Ephemera, 15(2), pp. 121-139.

[4] Ibid. Citations within quote: Ferguson, F. (ed.) (2014) Make_shift city. Renegotiating the urban commons. Die Neuverhandlung des Urbanen. Berlin: Jovis; Lazzarato, M. (2009) ‘Neoliberalism in action: Inequality, insecurity and the reconstitution of the social’, Theory, Culture and Society, 26(6): 109-133.

[5] Joanne L. Sobeck PhD (2008) How Cost-Effective Is Capacity Building in Grassroots Organizations?, Administration in Social Work, 32:2, 49-68, DOI: 10.1300/J147v32n02_04

[6] See Bettencourt, B. (1996). “Grassroots organizations: Recurrent themes and research approaches.” Journal of Social Issues, 52(1), 207-220; Amy Minzner, Jacob A. Klerman, Carrie E. Markovitz, Barbara Fink. (2014) “The Impact of Capacity-Building Programs on Nonprofits.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 43:3, pages 547-569; Mathieu R. Despard. (2017) “Can Nonprofit Capacity Be Measured?” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 46:3, pages 607-626; Wandersman, A. (2009). “Four keys to success (theory, implementation, evaluation, and resource/system support): High hopes and challenges in participation.” American Journal of Community Psychology, 43(1-2), 3-21.

[7] Elliott, G.L. (2003). Measuring capacity and capacity building in nonprofit organizations: A large sample study of Americorps VISTA. Paper presented at ARNOVA, Denver, Colorado, Nov. 21, 2003 [cited in Sobeck 2008]; Eisinger, P. (2002).Organizational capacity and organizational effectiveness among street-level food assistance programs. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 31, 115-130.

[8] See for example, Ghose, R. (2001). Use of information technology for community empowerment: Transforming geographic information systems into community information systems. Transactions in GIS, 5(2), 141-163; Kole, E. S. (2001). Between grassroots and netizens: empowering nongovernmental organizations” in Cyberimperialism?: Global Relations in the New Electronic Frontier. Ed. Bosah Louis Ebo, Ebo Bosah. Greenwood Publishers, pp.205-222; Roberts-DeGennaro, M. (2004) “Using technology for grassroots organizing”  in Roots to Power. Ed. Lee Staples. Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT pp. 270-281.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *