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FALL 2005

The Value of Volunteers
Pro Bono Organizations Aid Communities in Their Efforts Toward Revitalization

Every day, U.S. communities face challenges such as growth management, flagging economies, distressed neighborhoods, or a host of other struggles. Solving these problems can be a challenge in itself, since many smaller communities lack the know-how or initial funding to transform their dreams into reality.

When design can play a role in meeting certain challenges, however, there are numerous volunteer-driven organizations available to provide preliminary design services and baseline education for community members, helping them to understand their options for revitalization, development or even assimilation of immigrant cultures.

National organizations provide valuable assistance. The Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) sends individual teams to address a community's issues. The Association for Community Design serves as a sort of design clearinghouse and networker for professionals, pointing communities toward design and financial resources in their respective regions.

Volunteer-driven organizations have been around for decades, some founded by "renegade" architects or idealistic urban planners, operating since the 1960s yet flying under the radar of the Average Joe in Anytown, U.S.A. Now, thousands of success stories have helped these organizations reach a sort of critical mass; word of mouth is giving them more visibility.

Maryland: Neighborhood Design Center
With offices in Baltimore and Prince George's County, Md., the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) has coordinated the volunteer efforts of hundreds of architects, landscape architects, and designers in that region for more than 20 years.

Established in 1968, the NDC employs only five staff members in its two offices, but draws from a pool of volunteer professionals to organize teams that provide design, planning, engineering, landscaping, architectural and development services that community groups and nonprofits could not otherwise afford. The NDC supports only community-based organizations (community associations, community development organizations, etc.), plus a host of local programs, says Mark Cameron, ASLA, AIA, executive director of the NDC.

"We assist primarily low- and moderate-income communities, the ones that don't have the financial or knowledge resources to undertake a community development project," says Cameron.

"Last year we assisted about 70 projects between our two offices. That's about 120 volunteers, some of them students from local universities."

To support its annual budget, the NDC uses funding from the ASLA and AIA, as well as public funds, foundation funds, and corporate and individual giving. "A small percentage (2 percent) of our funding comes from "project fees"-- an administrative fee, which is usually between $100 and $500," says Cameron.

The NDC works on an as-needed basis but also pursues a proactive approach, says Cameron, working in partnership with other nonprofits and agencies in the Baltimore and Prince George's area, addressing potential problem areas early.

Community-based groups approach the NDC with a project, such as master plan development or a beautification project. NDC staff analyzes the project to make sure they can provide what the community is seeking, then organizes a team that delivers a conceptual design for the project. "We don't provide construction documents, but we provide plans or drawings that help groups come to a consensus about what they'd like to do -- what works and what doesn't work -- plus some rough cost estimates for completing the project," says Cameron. "These materials help them gain political support and funding for the project."

The NDC also pursues a proactive approach to community revitalization. Rather than waiting for nonprofits to come to them, they've partnered with other organizations to provide assistance. "Several years ago we led an effort to highlight the unsafe playground conditions within the city, and were able to get funding to renovate nine playgrounds," says Cameron. "This led the mayor to put together a task force that looked at the issue on a citywide basis. And that led to tons of playgrounds being renovated over the years."

With 1,700 successful projects completed, the NDC continues to serve as a model for the value of volunteers who want to make their communities better places to live.

"We're able to do great work because of the people who volunteer for us," says Cameron. "These are people who give their professional skills to communities who really need and appreciate them. They do this work with us because they have a skill they can give to others, and they are a part of the community -- they live in this area. We've been fortunate to have a very strong volunteer base and strong support from the professional community."

Minnesota: Minnesota Design Team
Since 1983, the Minnesota Design Team (MDT) has helped communities meet their challenges and move toward success.

Adopting a charrette-style approach, the MDT sends teams of volunteer professionals to communities who have requested its assistance. Over a three-day period, the community's issues are voiced and analyzed. The process culminates in a presentation by the team, complete with drawings and suggestions for how residents may proceed.

But the MDT doesn't hold anyone's hand, says Harold Skjelbostad, ASLA and 2005 chairperson. "We don't do implementation; we don't do follow-up. More communities are asking for that, but for liability and professional competition reasons, that's where we draw the line. We give them ideas; we provide a glimpse of what their implementation strategies may be, but we don't do that work because it's a volunteer organization.

"For a $4,000 administration fee, they get $40,000 worth of work. I like to tell them that we're a bargain, but after the bargain comes the time for them to roll up their sleeves and implement their vision."

Part of what makes the MDT unique is its structure, says Peter Musty, a Minneapolis urban designer and participant and team leader with the MDT for the past decade. Driven by a steering committee with a backbone of three chairpersons, the MDT achieves a continuity of purpose that is sometimes lacking in volunteer-driven organizations. "The steering committee reviews applications and performs other nuts-and-bolts tasks, but its continuity comes from the three chairpersons -- the past chair, the current chair, and the future chair. This team really helps maintain the MDT direction and purpose."

Once a community is selected for a visit, the steering committee selects a team leader who is then charged with assembling his or her team for the visit. Typically the MDT works about eight months ahead of every visit, so there's plenty of time for setup, consultation and execution.

The MDT schedules four visits annually: two each spring and two each fall. "The word is out there," says Skjelbostad. "Communities talk to each other, they pay our administrative fee with grant money from organizations like the McKnight-funded West Central Initiative Foundation, and they get the ball rolling. We're approaching 90 visits since our founding, and our 2006 schedule is looking good so far.

"Part of our mission is to educate greater Minnesota on the role of planning and design. Every visit we make helps us to achieve that goal."

Pennsylvania: Community Design Collaborative
Serving the five-county area surrounding Philadelphia, the Community Design Collaborative (CDC) uses its staff of three to organize design professionals who provide volunteer early-phase design services for nonprofits, often community development corporations.

Founded in 1991 by "a bunch of anarchist architects who wanted to fix [Philadelphia]," the CDC's efforts were originally accomplished through a series of ad hoc groups, says Beth Miller, executive director. "One of those architects was associated with the AIA; the CDC was housed in AIA quarters through 1995. In 1996 it became its own nonprofit entity."

The CDC recognizes preliminary design services as a crucial step toward a community realizing its dreams. "Funding for this is hard to find," says Miller. "We provide pro bono architectural and engineering services, which can help nonprofits estimate costs by taking the drawings to funders or stakeholders. It helps nonprofits get to the next step."

Each year, the CDC handles 30 to 40 projects, providing preliminary design services valued at up to $15,000 per project, while charging a nominal $500 to offset its direct costs. It assists more than 100 nonprofits that are seeking these services, advice or referrals. It places nearly 200 architects, landscape architects, preservationists, interior designers, urban planners, engineers, and cost estimators on projects. And it hosts networking programs and events that bring together more than 1,000 people from the design, community development, and nonprofit fields.

The CDC has numerous success stories, including a recent textbook example of how the process works.

Allegheny West, a neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia, suffered from obsolete and deteriorating housing stock, industrial white elephants, and a rising vacancy rate. The Allegheny West Foundation (AWF; a high-capacity community development corporation) came to the CDC with a neighborhood plan and a request for ideas to blend existing two-story rowhouses or press vacant lots into service, says Miller.

"A volunteer firm put two teams together and used it as a development program for its staff. One team worked on streetscape issues; the other worked on prototypes for infill housing. They used the rowhouse vernacular and offered modern amenities, off-street parking, sundecks, family gathering area -- things that typical rowhouses don't offer.

"The director of AWF used the drawings to present this rowhouse approach to government agencies. The agencies allocated $1.2 million for non-new homeownership units on 14 vacant lots. Groundbreaking was in 2004; nearly all units are complete and occupied now.

"This is why I came to the job. Education is a goal, but the core mission is to provide a service that's relevant to these communities."

Miller and her colleagues in other similar organizations are exquisite examples of the passion driving nonprofits that are out to make a change. "We want to inculcate a broader commitment in the design professional. They are vital to the goals of community revitalization. They can help us change the world."

Online resources
To learn more about the volunteer-driven organizations mentioned in this article or active in your state, visit these websites.

Association for Community Design

Baltimore Neighborhood Design Center

Community Design Collaborative

Minnesota Design Team


Jason Miller is a new urbanist freelance writer, editor and plan book consultant based in Auburn, Wash. Contact him at