Sunday, April 28, 2013

5 Advantages of Charities Owning Their Offices - and the Risks

We ran a seminar on real estate for charities last week, and a number of Executive Directors, Directors of Finance, and CFOs came out to share best practices, enjoy coffee and muffins, and review “Real Estate for Charities 101”.

If you ignore the largest (e.g. YMCA, etc.) or longest-standing (e.g. settlement houses, etc.) organizations, certainly most charities today are leasing their spaces. So one of the themes that we explored, especially since we have recently completed several projects where charities and foundations have purchased their own buildings and office spaces, was the pros and cons of buying / owning versus leasing / renting.

As I work with charities it’s easy to see the allure of owning your own space.

  • Can be leveraged – in difficult financial times or to fund a project the option exists to take out a mortgage / secured line on the property
  • Provides cost certainty – other than the fairly predictable cost increases in utilities, the main cost (the mortgage) can be predicted very accurately for years to come
  • Potential for “upside” – your payments build equity and not the landlord’s bottom line, plus with no “middleman” owning can save money over time, and  you could even take in tenants or fellow charities to help them / increase your own revenue
  • Greater control – while some landlords may not like / or even allow certain charities (or the mission or clients they bring into a building) this is less of an issue when you own
  • Profile and pride – having a central location can bring greater confidence to prospective donors, allow for marketing and sponsorship opportunities, and give the staff and stakeholders a central theme to rally behind

However, the challenges and risks with owning a building for charities and non-profits are significant. Obviously a building is not very “liquid” so if cash flow is a concern it might be better to have the funds simply earning interest in a fund, bonds, or even just a bank account. Buildings require upkeep, so a reserve fund and on-going capital costs must be accounted for. For some organizations owning a building can send the wrong message to donors: “I don’t want you to put my gift towards your building, I want it to support your programs” goes the donor’s thinking.

Finally, a purchase of a building is a massive exercise. It can distract you from your Mission. Moreover, since charities are often looking at older “bargain” spaces, issues of hazardous materials and building code violations are more frequently a concern than in newer spaces.

So among many other topics, the bottom line from our Real Estate for Charities 101 seminar was that if purchasing your own office building or office spaces in on your wish list, do make sure you get the best possible professional advice and map out a clear strategy towards this goal.

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