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Donated space breathes life into nonprofit organizations

By Katherine Calos, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

December 14, 2009

Dec. 14—At a time of economic stress when every dollar is precious, one donation that may not cost a thing is space.

For nonprofit organizations that receive a gift of space, the donation can be as precious as money.

“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful gift for us,” said Suzanne Miller-Cormier, director of Central Virginia’s Legal Information Network for Cancer, which moved into new offices in September at CJW Medical Center (Johnston-Willis). She estimated that the group saves $3,000 a month on rent. LINC, which helps cancer patients with legal and financial issues, is in an outbuilding that held The Hawthorne cancer resource center until The Hawthorne moved this year.

National philanthropy organizations anticipate that monetary donations to nonprofits will be down this year. The Association for Healthcare Philanthropy reported that total pledges for charities fell 6.2 percent this year, and planned gifts fell almost 13 percent. The nonprofit Foundation Center, which updated its annual Foundation Giving Forecast Survey in September, estimated that gifts from foundations are likely to decrease by more than 10 percent in 2009.

With donations of money becoming scarcer, donations of space may be the secret to surviving.

About a dozen area organizations shared stories of donated space when ConnectRichmond recently passed along a request in its daily e-mail newsletter. One was ConnectRichmond’s umbrella organization ConnectNetwork, which moved three years ago to free space at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I don’t think it’s extraordinarily common. Those who have it feel very fortunate,” said Nancy Stutts, founder of ConnectNetwork, who keeps tabs on the local nonprofit community as part of her organization’s mission. Her group provides an Internet platform for nonprofits, volunteers, community leaders and businesses to share information, resources and access.

In tight economic times, free space also can be a morale booster.

“Times are hard, bills are rising every day,” said Thomas Rogers, founder of Project Community, a nonprofit organization serving low-income residents of the city. His organization has used donated space at the North Avenue Branch Library and End Time Harvest Church on Chamberlayne Avenue in Richmond.

Rogers celebrates “partners . . . that care enough about a nonprofit organization such as us, with little funding, to see our free programs continue to serve as many youth and families as we can.”

For most groups, the donation of space is temporary, until the group outgrows it or the donor needs it back.

“When it’s not truly a gift, it’s at the discretion of who’s in charge, and that can be a problem,” Stutts said. She recalled how a day care and educational program operated by the Junior League at the Sacred Heart Center ended in 2008, after nearly 20 years, when a new bishop wanted the building to be used by the parish instead.

“It was at the bishop’s discretion,” Stutts said.

Church connections have been a blessing, however, for the Daughters of Zelophehad, which offers transitional housing for mothers and children in crisis.

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Iron Bridge Road in Chesterfield County loaned a former rectory to the Daughters to house three mothers and five children. New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield also donates office and meeting space.

For a dramatic tale of donated space, look to the Firehouse Theatre Project.

Starting with a single show in an abandoned city firehouse in 1994, it remained there while the city used the building to park emergency vehicles. For every show, the actors had to call the city to clear the floor so they could reconstruct the stage.

“We were here when it had no use for anybody,” said Carol Piersol, founding artistic director. “We maintained it. We were the beginning of the improvement of the neighborhood. Then the city decided, hey, we might be able to sell this thing.”

Suddenly, the actors had to come up with $80,000 or leave. They took their story to the radio, and Roy Sutton was listening.

“She was saying that they were going to lose the building because they couldn’t come up with the money to purchase it. She said, ‘We just know someone is going to come forward and help us,’ and I thought maybe I could do that,” Sutton recalled. As a neighbor and commercial property developer, he had two reasons to be interested in that section of Broad Street..

Sutton and his wife, Barbara, went to a production for the first time. At intermission, when co-founder Harry Kollatz Jr. made his nightly plea for help, Sutton offered to buy the building. The deal closed in January 2001.

For the next eight years, the theater paid enough rent to cover taxes and utilities while the neighborhood improved and the value of the property increased. In 2007, when Sutton decided to give the building to the theater, it was assessed at $340,400.

For the theater, owning the space has made a big difference.

“It’s been fantastic,” Piersol said. “The main way it’s affected us, we have been able to receive a lot of funding from foundations. Now that we own it, they’re eager to help us restore and maintain it.” The theater has installed new auditorium seating. Grants will fund a construction area in the back for building sets.

“Now they’re master of their own fate, their own house,” Sutton said. “We’re still supportive. We went to their fundraiser. I think they’re in good hands now.” -—-

Contact Katherine Calos at (804) 649-6433 or


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