Q. What do you get when you put affordable housing for seniors, a soup kitchen, a choice food pantry, a YMCA and a senior center all in one place?

A. North Penn Commons

North Penn Commons is an inclusive community hub where four respected nonprofits—Advanced Living Communities, Manna on Main Street, the North Penn YMCA and The PEAK Center—are housed and where they share space, streamline services and foster a collaborative, innovative environment. Located at the eastern gateway of Lansdale Borough, PA, North Penn Commons is gaining attention as a new model for service delivery. The major elements of its new project are:

  • Sixty affordable apartments for seniors, developed by Advanced Living
  • Accessible PEAK (People Experiencing Activities, Arts and Knowledge) Center facilities, including space for its congregate meal, personal enrichment, consumer education and wellness programs
  • An updated commercial kitchen operated by Manna and an expanded choice food pantry for its clients
  • A renovated and expanded YMCA that will include a zero-entry family pool (recently opened), six-lane lap pool, fitness assessment area, sauna and steam rooms, locker rooms, indoor and outdoor play areas
  • A lobby atrium serving as a gathering and programmatic space for the partners and their clientele
  • A community café, operated by Manna, that will serve as a unique central gathering space and will support the Community Catalyst Kitchen training program for unskilled adults seeking job training skills and employment

For the residents, clients and members of these organizations, this means one-stop shopping for a broad range of services that meet basic human needs and also, for those who require them, the tools and resources to become active, engaged members of their community. The HealthSpark Foundation, which played a major role in the genesis of the North Penn Commons, recognizes that shared spaces are prime opportunities for resource-sharing and innovative thinking.

For years, the North Penn Commons partners have been planning and envisioning the possibilities for the programming they will soon be able to provide. At the same time, they have been fundraising for a joint $6 million capital campaign. The four partners are now watching a new building rise, as they look forward to the day this fall when the doors to North Penn Commons will open.

Along with these exciting developments, North Penn Commons faces a new set of challenges: How do you adequately prepare for the inevitable impact on the general operating budget? How do you maintain a truly collaborative spirit? How do you ensure that the partner Boards are aligned with common goals and interests? How will the management of the shared space be allocated? Most important, how do you address all these concerns without compromising programs and services to those in need?

HealthSpark Foundation has employed a social science research lens to look at collaborative “behavior” and provide some pathways toward sharing resources and meeting unavoidable challenges:

  • Culture: Creating a culture of learning and trust can help organizations find an alignment of self-interests with an overall common goal. Working in a collaborative space will provide repeat interactions between the CEOs, staff members, volunteers and community members that will help to build trust.
  • Planning: Looking toward long-term goals can be a challenge when the “here and now” constantly needs attention. We tend to underestimate how long we need to complete a given task, so understanding the scarcity of time will help better manage for the future. It’s essential to carve out time to carefully plan for and anticipate what the future will bring.
  • Common Goals and Partnership: Organizations must take a close look at common goals, shared metrics and agreed-upon definitions of success. Focusing on the overall benefit to the clients, members, residents and the broader community will help avoid a single-minded emphasis on a specific outcome or an overestimation of one’s ability to control events.
  • Overcome inertia: Take advantage of this unique opportunity to evaluate each organization’s programs in order to maximize opportunities. Organizations often fall prey to institutional inertia, doing something the way they have always done it. Be mindful of loss aversion—a tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses (giving something up) to acquiring gains (taking a new action).

Overcoming the barriers to collaboration and shared resources is a challenge facing the entire nonprofit community. Here are a few resources for keeping this conversation going:

The Nonprofit Repositioning Fund


This fund awards grants to encourage and support formal, long-term collaborations between and among nonprofit organizations in the Greater Philadelphia region, including alliances and back-office consolidations, programmatic joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions.

Nonprofit Centers Network


This network will be issuing a full report this summer on Streamlining Social Good.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
Board Source
GEO and Board Source are active participants in this process—positioning their organizations to develop tools and resources for funders and Boards who have difficult but necessary conversations about collaboration and the Boards’ role in working with “competitors” to make their organizations stronger and more effective.