Help Kirsten start a nonprofit incubator

An ongoing experiment: Can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Kirsten Doherty can’t say enough good things about Lowell, Massachusetts. As the birthplace of the industrial revolution in the U.S, home to numerous public institutions and a diverse immigrant population, the city has a rising creative economy with new projects and initiatives springing up all the time. Many are calling it a renaissance.

Kirsten LinkedIn

“We also have very smart people with brilliant ideas to make Lowell a better place to live,” she says. “What we are missing, I believe, is a physical space—like a resource center or incubator—for people who want to be creative and do good.”

Kirsten knows a thing or two about the situation, having spent 15 years working in fundraising and lived in the city of 100,000 for six years. She’s also currently interning with Lowell’s Department of Planning and Development.

“But there are some gaps in my training. I want to see this happen, but need help.”

The intention

Kirsten says she often notices artists and others active in the community having meetings at Starbucks because they don’t have a place to do business. She sees a need: these people should have a space to work.

“A lot of the people starting things here have great ideas,” she says, “but they’re often on these tiny staffs where they’re experts in their program, but need back-office support and help with the other stuff—graphic design, accounting, grantwriting—so they can focus on their missions. I want this place to provide one-stop shopping for those services.”

Obstacles

Kirsten says she’s very well connected in Lowell, but admittedly, she doesn’t know everything. So far she’s planned meetings with Third Sector New England and Space With a Soul, two nonprofit spaces in nearby Boston, to learn more about how they got started and get a sense of how they operate.

She also recently submitted an application to the UMass Lowell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Merrimack Valley Sandbox project, which gives annual seed money awards to local aspiring entrepreneurs. But the more ideas she can collect and connections she can make, the better.

Kirsten is most concerned with getting advice to help shape the following three aspects of her idea:

Lowell MA Front_of_boott_mill

Boott Cotton Mills Museum, Lowell, MA. (Photo via Kirsten Doherty.)

1. Spatial and organizational layout. “I’d like to get different ideas, especially about how organizational membership could work—like, would you need to have a 501(c)(3) to join, or maybe just a fiscal sponsor? How would we handle groups with controversial missions?—and the physical layout of the space. What are some different models for those things?”

2. Funding. “I’m particularly interested in ideas for funding and governing/leadership models,” Kirsten says. “I sort of picture a place with reasonable rental fees that the participating nonprofits would pay for—and maybe they could get some help from government grants or private philanthropy?”

3. Staffing and maintenance. “I want to see this happen, and am up for helping to launch it—maybe be on the advisory board?” says Kirsten. “But ultimately, I don’t think I would be the best ED or manager, so would need options for that. And for staffing, I’m not sure if full-time people or consultants would be the way to go… Or what!”

How you can help

  • Do you know any nonprofit spaces like the one Kirsten envisions?

  • Do you have advice to share about organizational structure, membership, fundraising, governing, or staffing options for a center like this?

  • If you’re part of an organization that belongs to this type of nonprofit space, or would like to, share notes on your experience or needs with Kirsten.

  • Do you live in the Lowell or Boston area and want to help turn this intention from ideal to real, or know anyone else who might?

  • Can you think of another way to address the community issues Kirsten’s identified, besides opening this type of nonprofit space?

If you have any bright ideas for Kirsten, leave them in the comments below, or send her a message through Idealist. If the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

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Are you a practical dreamer with an idea that’s just starting to take shape? If you’d like to be part of this series, or know someone who would be a good fit, email celeste@idealist.org.

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Comments (10)


  1. Nora Sobolov writes:
    April 1, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Check out the Centre for Social Innovation (Toronto and Bew York) and the Hub in San Francisco. Both have been operating a long time and have interesting models and things they’ve learned along the way.
    Best of luck!


  2. Roxy writes:
    April 1, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Kirsten, we have opened a community and co-working space for social entrepreneurs in DC called PunchRock. There are other organizations, like the Center for Social Innovation in New York. The Hub is also another similar community, with locations around the world. I’m happy to talk more about this – let me know!


  3. Marc Baizman writes:
    April 1, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Hi Kristen,

    Glad you’re meeting with TSNE and Space With a Soul, you’re talking to the right folks. I’m a current tenant at SWaS (I’m a technology consultant who helps nonprofits) and it’s helpful that I have potential clients in the shared space who I can talk to. There’s not a formal arrangement in place right now, but we’ve talked about having a SWaS-funded “office hours” session once a month, or bundling technology services in as part of the monthly rent. Nothing has been set in stone, but lots of ideas flowing. Feel free to reach out directly – marc AT mcgtraining DOT com.


  4. Alex Amaya writes:
    April 2, 2013 at 1:39 am

    Hi Kristen,

    While I do not have much to offer at this time, I am in need of that kind of support. I am an army veteran, I am also the Executive Director of a newly formed non-profit organization and we have an phenomenal concept that we are going to start at a local level and we expect to extend the program to be recognized at a national level in a very short-time. Our concept involves providing on the job training to military veterans and their families who are reintegrating from active duty status to veteran civilian status. It also includes redistribution of revenue to veteran groups and organizations across the region and the country through various means which include but are not limited to housing assistance, scholarships, training, employment, etc. feel free to reach out to me if you feel I have something to contribute.


  5. April Greene writes:
    April 2, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Thanks for the stellar ideas and offers, everyone! It’s exciting to know there are so many similar initiatives getting off the ground in different places.


  6. Angela writes:
    April 4, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Hey! I’m the ED of The Plantory, a multitenant nonprofit/small business center in Lexington, KY. We’re kind of similar to what you’re envisioning, from the sounds of things, and I’d be happy to share info with you. You can check out our basics at plantory.org or shoot me an email (it’s listed on the site) for more info. I would love to help you make this happen in any way I can. I think centers like ours are so great for the community. We are really seeing the positive effects of the connected environment in terms of innovation, collaboration, and outreach/community building. Plus, this is the best place I’ve worked! I love it, and so do our tenants. Feel free to call as well. Best of luck!


  7. Liam Bayer writes:
    April 4, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    The Hub in San Francisco is a great model to use and the Presidio in San Francisco has a lot of things under development that are pretty exciting… We are beginning to work (http://shineforgood.org/) on assisting nonprofits with limited resources to help them get the attention (online presence) they need so that they can focus on their work. There are many other individuals and groups that assist nonprofits with fundraising efforts by organizing events and other PR efforts. This is all pro bono work… We would be interested in helping you organize your efforts in Lowell as we have many connections in the Greater Boston area.


  8. Chelsey Williams writes:
    April 7, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Here in Oregon we have several programs run through the SBA. One is called SCORE, it provides you with consultants free of charge who have retired and are wanting to help out younger people move in the direction of their dreams. Also, many space sharing options here in Portland, where you can rent a desk or a small artist space in many renovated buildings across town or you can always work out some sharing option with another non-profit that might have extra space to share in barter or trade. We also have the Non-Profit Association of Oregon. It holds many terrific workshops all all aspects of running a non-profit from operations to board governance.


  9. Roxy writes:
    April 9, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    You can also check out this organization I just learned of http://www.leanimpact.org/


  10. Orletta Caldwell writes:
    February 27, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Is this project still ongoing, because I am interested in doing something similar in Detroit. I know the perfect spot, but need funding.


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