Kristen Engberg is CEO at Beespace New York – an incubator for nonprofits. While for-profits are eligible to apply; however Beespace places high value on ventures whose social mission is priority and to date, this has led to nonprofit participants such as the Malala Fund, The Adventure – a movement to fight extreme poverty – and Organize, a venture enhancing effectiveness and impact in organ donation.

Support Philosophy

Beespace New York was founded by Marissa Sackler in 2012 with the intent to provide a co-working space to nonprofits while taking care of their administrative work. Kristen explains “The idea was that creativity would flourish in a space like this. When I joined Beespace nine months into their first program, we observed the teams and decided to pivot. Over the first two years we tested ways to infuse more innovation into the social sector. Our goal was never to create more nonprofits, but better ones.”

bee hive

The Bee Hive

Kristen speaks like a true startup entrepreneur when she tells me how – after their pivot – they experimented with different formats and are continuously testing hypotheses about their program to tailor it to the needs of the nonprofits they work with, and the sector at large. She further explains: “We just did a big pivot and were very open about it. Between the first cohort and this one, we have changed the program entirely. For a donor, however, this means that we don’t have a track record, other than a track record of experimentation. Therefore, we look for donors who are interested in the model of incubation and ecosystem building, who understand the value of experimentation in the nonprofit sector, and comprehend what it takes to refine something that is really successful. We look for donors that value patient capital. Philanthropists who come from the tech world haven’t haven’t had the exposure to social impact organizations, they don’t know that the ROI doesn’t come that quickly.”  

Program & Selection

Beespace offers a two-year incubation program including

  • rent-free co-working,
  • outsourcing of back-end operations,
  • seed grants, technical assistance, and access to interested donors and an Innovation Fund, and
  • an integrated curriculum that includes experiential learning, field trips, formal skills-building workshops, peer-to-peer learning, and hands-on executive coaching.

With only five teams every two years, the selection process is competitive by nature. Kristen explains: “We work with nonprofits at the idea and prototyping stage. We are looking for people who want a  high-touch experience and are keen on engaging in a program, instead of just co-working or grant-funding. It is crucial to us that participants want to be part of  a learning community. One of the hypotheses we are testing is that peer-learning and support can make an instrumental difference in organizational effectiveness. This doesn’t happen automatically in a co-working space. So we are trying to foster a peer-community through culture setting by explicitly defining our values and who we want to be as a community. Self-awareness and emotional intelligence are a prerequisite for this to work.”

In order to be an effective innovator, you need to be emotionally intelligent. Click To Tweet

Kristen and her team reached out to other Fellowships, incubators, accelerators, foundations and universities as part of their effort to build a network of nominators for Beespace. They received 100 nominations for this second cohort. After a first screening, selected applicants were invited to submit a video about themselves (and didn’t talk about their nonprofits at all). In the next phase, 30 applicants were invited to submit a full-scale application, eleven semi-finalists joined a full-day retreat to get to know each other and the Beespace team. In February 2016, they started their incubation at Beespace.

Beespace’s program revolves around three key elements:

  1. Emotional Intelligence
  2. Design & Experimentation, and
  3. Sustainability.

“During the first year we focus on entirely on human-centered design, we don’t look into the business plan or how to develop a board. We want them to get their strategy right. Often, that means really slowing them down to work on their logic model and test their hypotheses. During this first year we take charge of their bookkeeping and other back-end operations with the intention to move them into self-sufficiency during the second year. By then, they have a viable pilot and are in a position to take the reigns over their administration.” Kristen says. Participants and the Beespace team convene at monthly gatherings to discuss their development against their initial design brief and progress against their role as innovators. Beespace itself self-evaluates their overall program and operations quarterly. Kristen sees their role as more than just an incubator: “Our internal purpose is to have an effect on the five organizations that are our incubees. Our external purpose, however, is to change the conversation about pivoting and experimentation in the nonprofit world. There is a lot of work to be done in this sector.”

How Beespace is different

Any criticism I have ever had about the charity/nonprofit sector, Kristen and her team refute by running Beespace like lean startup entrepreneurs. They do not assume to know what any nonprofit needs at any given time. They ruthlessly challenge and test their own assumptions, and adapt their program to the needs of founders. They initiate a peer-based support system and place emphasis on developing founders’ emotional intelligence. “Some founders struggle with the idea that the issue they are working on may be perceived differently by their beneficiaries. It is crucial to be self-aware and open-minded in this discovery process. If you base your logic model on flawed assumptions, you are not going to be able to fulfill your mission.”

The majority of philanthropic funders prefer supporting proven methods to do good instead of funding experimentation – a main obstacle in spurring innovation in the nonprofit world. Charities and nonprofits can’t try out new ways of achieving social impact or decreasing spending, because their funds are tied to the activities they have carried out for years. It is great to see that Beespace sets out to prove that innovation in the social sector is possible with the right kind of patient capital. I can’t wait to see how the lean startup is shaping their program and what impact numbers will look like a few cohorts down the road!


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