Spotlight: Kristen Engberg

Kristen long

What drives you?

The reward of seeing people truly fulfilled by their sense of purpose.

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

I don’t. We mainly work with social innovators and to me, that is someone who has thoroughly  assessed a problem, and understand what systems and solutions are currently in place. He or she has ideas and a plan for building off what currently exists in a fundamentally different way that will offer some kind of breakthrough.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

I have experienced two trends. Firstly, what I see with Millennials is a huge emphasis on the social/emotional aspect of working in the social impact space. They are very identity driven. Social change is not always their primary motivation, it is to live a good life and be a good person. It has influenced the nonprofit world in an interesting way. Back in the day, it was more about crusading, shouting at people and sacrificing yourself for your cause. The more recent change has affected how we treat each other in the sector.

Secondly, I am happy to see that the impact space has started increasing transparency about vanity metrics: The number of Facebook likes or lowering overhead to twelve percent does not tell us much about the impact a social organization achieves. Professionals in this sector are increasingly willing to confess it or call it out, and admit it’s distracting from real impact. Five  years ago people were all about data, because it was new that we had so much of it. Today, it’s about relevant data.”


Apart from her experience as consultant and manager at various organizations like Greenpeace USA and Human Rights First, Kristen says about her background: “I have more than 25 years of experience in trying to get and keep people engaged in social causes. From receptionist to CEO, funder and consulting firm – I have been supporting organizations in different roles to figure out what conditions make  innovation happen. Beespace was a great opportunity to shape something, bring forward what I have learned and support the next generation of nonprofits as they are shaping up.”




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!