Case Studies of Social Innovation and Social Finance in Canada
Office space has become expensive in many of Canada’s larger cities. The Amp, a co-working space in Vancouver, is designed to stabilize office space costs and build a community of social purpose organizations and mission-driven individuals. An early adopter of the co-working model, The Amp has become a template for others to follow.
In 2012, Vancity Credit Union convened several organizations to discuss the creation of a co-working space for social purpose organizations. All were looking for more affordable options for office space and were interested in the opportunity to work in collaboration with other mission-driven organizations. Because of Ecotrust Canada’s experience in developing social enterprises, Vancity invited it to be the lead organization. In 2014, after months of design collaboration, The Amp, a new social enterprise co-working space, was launched by Ecotrust Canada in collaboration with five anchor tenants. The Amp offers shared office space for social purpose organizations and mission-driven social entrepreneurs to connect and collaborate. Ideally located at the crossroads of Gastown and Chinatown in the historic BC Electric Building, The Amp is a bright, beautiful space complete with key office amenities and affordable rents. It provides shared kitchen facilities, meeting rooms, a bike room and an onsite gym.
UN Sustainable Development Goal(s): Goal 11: make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable; Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Vancouver real estate “continues to defy gravity”1 as prices for commercial real estate continue to rise faster than normal market conditions. Although over 3.5 million square feet of new office space is under development, vacancy rates continue to decline. In 2019, the vacancy rate for commercial office space was only 4.5% down from 5% in 2018 2. The low vacancy rate combined with higher prices is pushing many office tenants to move out to the surrounding areas like the Fraser Valley.1 Social purpose organizations and nonprofits are especially challenged by the continuing rise in office rents but often must remain downtown to be able to provide support to clients.
SOLUTION & INNOVATION
The Amp launched in 2014 as an innovative solution to the high cost of office space in Vancouver. It was designed as a co-working space that enables tenants to stabilize their rent over the five year term of the lease and share the cost of amenities like a full kitchen, front desk reception service and meeting room space. Because The Amp focuses on recruiting social purpose organizations and individuals, it was able to invest in unique sustainability features like new desks made from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood and built by the social enterprise Tradeworks; recycling collected by the Binners’ Project; sponsoring participation in bike to work week; and support for local social enterprises like Potluck Café and Basic Design who repurpose landfill-bound materials.
“The Amp provides a vibrant co-working space for purpose driven organizations. In the five years that our organization has been a tenant, we have found it to be affordable, flexible and well-organized. The space and the programming facilitate synergistic partnerships and a strong co-working community.”
Carla Pellegrini, Operations Manager New Market Funds.
The Amp Manager spends about 50% of their time building the community through communication and programming. The Amp has a full range of lunch time programming including “lunch and learns” hosted by the tenants and outside companies promoting something of interest to AMP members; Yoga; mediation; book club; knitting club, running club, and the popular monthly Pub night. The AMP hosts a summer picnic with each tenant asked to treat beverages and goodies to foster community and a holiday party at year-end organized to allow each tenant to showcase their individuality in their work space with unique drinks and holiday goodies.
“We’ve enjoyed working out of The Amp for the past four years now. Aside from the great amenities and bright workspace, they foster a wonderful sense of community and offer lots of programming- from lunch and learns to pub nights to clothing swaps.”
Kiera Vanderborne, Community Development Director T. Buck Suzuki Foundation
The Amp is separate from but integrated with Ecotrust Canada. It was incorporated as a separate for profit business to limit Ecotrust Canada’s operational liability and protect the charity from financial risk. The charity owns 100% of The Amp and provides oversight, management and accounting services. The Amp manager is on the payroll of Ecotrust Canada and is a part of the Ecotrust Canada team as well as The Amp.
Vancity was a silent financial partner in The Amp. The organizing and design process took over 18 months and was funded with grants from the Vancity’s Community Investment Program. In addition, Vancity provided a working line of credit to Ecotrust Canada and a lease guarantee to the landlord.
The Amp has become a model for other co-working spaces in Vancouver. It was a lead organizer of the B.C. Co-Working Collective, which is a non-profit organization with a mission to spread the word in B.C. about co-working and share best practices to strengthen unique co-working communities. The Collective defines co-working spaces as shared work spaces that subscribe to the core co-working values of Community, Openness, Collaboration, Accessibility, and Sustainability. They are proof that traditional “competitors” can collaborate in the new, shared economy. The Collective now has over 45 members stretching from Revelstoke to Gibsons.
For almost five years, The Amp has provided affordable office space to social purpose organizations and individuals and has been a positive force in the Downtown East Side (DTES). It prioritizes doing business with other social purpose organizations in the DTES; invests in sustainable furniture and environmental working practices; encourages collaboration and builds community. The Amp is now a community of over 18 organizations and 80 people; all dedicated to making the world a better place. There are great examples of collaboration in the space with members sharing interns, celebrating successes together, and promoting each other’s events and projects.
Managing real estate is difficult and risky. Tenants can be demanding, maintenance is ongoing, and without sufficient occupancy, the costs can be overwhelming. The first barrier that Ecotrust Canada faced in launching The Amp was the need to negotiate with the landlord to secure a five year lease that would be affordable. A second barrier was the fact that The Amp was a new corporation without a track record and the landlord required a lease guarantee.
After the launch, the charity’s lack of experience in managing real estate became an issue when vacancy rates became too high to make The Amp financially self- sufficient. Budgeting for a co-working space is complicated as market demand is unpredictable but financial stability requires a high occupancy rate. Managing office space with numerous tenants is a unique and specialized skill that requires patience for complaints and the ability to respond to facility issues quickly.
Creating and managing The Amp demonstrates how a charity can supplement its mission and save money by innovating in areas usually left to the hidden operations of a charity. By taking the risk on leading The Amp design, launch, and management, Ecotrust Canada, with significant support from the Vancity Community Credit Union’s community investment program, has created a new template for other social purpose organizations.