Work Where You Serve: Rethinking the Central Business District

SHIFT MaKen Studios Kensington affordable industrial workspaces
Pictured: Witty Gritty, a Philly-Kensington-based marketing and event agency, enjoying their home at SHIFT's MaKen Studios North.

In 2001, the Clinton Foundation moved its world headquarters to Manhattan’s most economically depressed neighborhood: Harlem, the storied “cultural capital of Black America.” The new location was an unconventional choice for the global philanthropic group, which would have had no problem covering rent in any skyscraper in any of Manhattan’s traditional commercial districts. The move was far from perfect and not without its naysayers. But the laudable concept that propelled the move was that of leveraging the organization’s economic power to positively impact the community that lay beyond the walls of the office, and helped contribute to a Harlem resurgence that has changed the landscape of New York City.

Now let’s shift the date and place to 2020 Philadelphia. We are a city in rapid development, a process that has led to a proliferation of nonprofits, social enterprises and a growing workforce of civically engaged, social impact-minded decision makers who are committed to making our city, and the world, better, more equitable places. Many of these organizations are focused on meeting the needs of local neighborhoods disproportionately affected by poverty and neglect. And yet many of the leading Philadelphia companies and nonprofits, particularly those providing direct services or making purpose-driven investments in low-income areas, are located in over-developed commercial districts. From the perspective of the areas they serve, they might as well be a world away.

We at Shift Capital may not have the same economic clout as the Clinton Foundation, but to us, the location of our own “world headquarters” was an obvious choice. We moved to Kensington — Harrowgate, to be specific — the same low-income community we are committed to re-activating through solutions-based impact real estate investment. Our approach is part of a greater vision to strengthen Philadelphia by laying the groundwork for communities living in historically overlooked neighborhoods to thrive. As similar organizations and companies consider where to spend their time and dollars amid this changing city landscape, we urge them to take the step that we, alongside other values-driven organizations have taken: Locate your offices and workforce in communities where your presence can have an impact.

When you commit your resources, leadership and presence to underserved neighborhoods, you multiply your impact as an organization in a number of direct and indirect ways:

1. Transforming the day-to-day of your workforce.

Working where you serve creates opportunities for interactions that allow you to get to know a place and its people, like a chance conversation with a local resident, or reading a civic association newsletter, or attending a neighborhood meeting — opportunities that don’t generally present themselves when your team occupies the 32nd floor of the tallest building on Market Street. Give your accountants, marketers, development, R&D and executive team the chance to plug into the rhythms of the community you serve, deepen their understanding of the environment, and internalize the relevance and necessity of your organization’s civic responsibility — whether it’s direct to the mission of your organization or not.

That last part is worth reiterating. Being intimately tied to a community isn’t just for nonprofits, it’s for all entities that benefit from a strong Philadelphia. Each time your board, partners, advisers and investors come to your offices for a meeting, their glimpse into the neighborhood en route provides a crucial reminder that our city is not merely comprised of its downtown and suburbs, but a web of interconnected communities, all of which must flourish if our city is to truly succeed.

2. Attracting talent that values impact beyond the work.

Millennials have high expectations of their work experience. Organizations like Google have shown the value of offering an amenity-rich office experience, setting off a corporate culture of one-upmanship to provide employees with the most free food, onsite massage therapists and napping pods. But your organization can offer something more fulfilling than creature comforts: You can tap into people’s need to feel connected to meaningful purpose.

According to Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2015, 60% of millennial respondents said they chose to join their current employer in part because of the organization’s “sense of purpose.” In addition, 57% of respondents who perceived their organization to have a “strong sense of purpose” reported a “high level of employee satisfaction” versus only 23% of those who worked somewhere without a strong sense of purpose. It feels good to know you’re part of an effort to make the world better. That satisfaction, pride and sense of meaning feeds right back into your employees’ lives and work.

3. Leveraging your organization’s economic power.

Spend and hire from where you work. By setting up shop in an underserved community, you have the opportunity to contribute to the economic health of places which otherwise lack robust local economies. Supporting small businesses and creating job opportunities are hugely impactful in local economies. At Shift we’re proud that we’ve brought more than 700 permanent jobs to Kensington, a number of which are local hires. Many of those employees were hired by our tenants, like Snap Kitchen, who kicked off their presence in Philly with a 80-person workforce that was 75% from our neighborhood. When you rent in the neighborhood, hire from the neighborhood and shop in the neighborhood, you drive a cumulative economic impact that goes far beyond what your annual report will show.

The appeal of clustering in Center City is understandable. However, all of the amenities you might find downtown, such as reduced commute times and a broad array of places to have lunch, are possible up and down the Broad Street line and the Market-Frankford line if we continue to embrace the potential of our city. This should be a particularly salient point for organizations that serve or invest in neighborhoods situated along those same rail lines, like Upper Kensington and Tioga-Nicetown, which have some of Philadelphia’s highest needs.

We’re far from the only organization that has made this leap, helping to drive jobs in neighborhoods of need. In Kensington, our neighbors include for-profit groups like Witty Gritty and Printfresh Studio, as well as non-profit groups such as the Philadelphia Mental Health Care Corporation, Maternity Care Coalition, and The Equity Project. Other incredible organizations have also led the way, like Community Legal Services at Broad & Erie and the Philadelphia Housing Authority in Sharswood. Of course, this wouldn’t be as meaningful without the community development entities who are already deeply rooted in the communities they were built to serve. We greatly admire these organizations and their palpable sense of mission, and our relationships with each of them — made possible through our geographic proximity — makes us better at our own work.

Moving office space is not a short-term decision, just as equitable development is not a short-term process. At Shift, we believe in taking every opportunity to think intentionally about the intersection between urban “revitalization” and the pressing needs of low-income communities. Through our Whole Neighborhood approach, housing, commercial and industrial real estate, and vacant land are all pieces of this puzzle, and as we consider how to reactivate neglected property in meaningful ways, the question of who utilizes that space, and how, becomes critically important.


Decision makers: You have an opportunity to leverage your time, dollars and presence in places that will benefit from your dedication far more than Center City.

This is a moment to deepen your commitment to Philadelphia and amplify your impact. When your lease is up, you know where to find us.


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