Nonprofits and charities can now book office space for free, courtesy of the Greenhouse

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      The plight of renters looking for housing in Vancouver may be a hot-button issue for residents, but the difficulty in securing commercial real estate is often overlooked.

      The vacancy rate for downtown offices—according to the latest statistics from CBRE, a commercial real-estate services and investment firm—has dipped to 4.4 percent, making Vancouver one of the toughest places to sign a lease in North America. Add to that the rising costs of commercial real estate, and companies are finding it increasingly hard to find a base.

      While all local businesses are feeling the pinch, however, the city’s nonprofit organizations are being squeezed more than most. As overheads rise, charities and foundations are finding themselves unable to afford basic necessities like meeting rooms.

      That predicament caught the eye of Andrew Mosawi, president of iATS Payments, a company that offers a way for nonprofits to process their membership fees and donations.

      “We’re probably one of the largest payment-processing solution providers to nonprofit organizations around the world,” he tells the Georgia Straight on the line from his Vancouver office. “So we see the challenges that charities are having. They work tirelessly every single day, in incredibly difficult circumstances, with minimal resources, and they’re constantly trying to keep their costs as low as possible in order to demonstrate that they’re efficient to potential donors. They’re resilient, and they wake up every day trying to change the world and trying to make a meaningful impact. When you deal with people like that…it’s very difficult not to want to try and support them.”

      A year ago, Mosawi was considering looking for new office space. His lease afforded him 6,500 square feet downtown at Georgia and Bute streets, which was more luxurious than iATS Payments required. But when he visited about 50 different units in the city, he found that they were either much more expensive for a smaller footprint or they were just not appropriate.

      “It didn’t make sense,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Let’s forget it; I’ll renovate my space.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, if I’m having difficulties doing this as a large, growing for-profit company, how must it be for the organizations that we serve? Wouldn’t it be cool if I just separated out a significant chunk of our space here and allowed charities to use it?’ ”

      The result was the Greenhouse. A collaborative, flexible office space, the coworking area comprises three different components: a boardroom that can be adapted for classroom seating, an office desk area, and smaller meeting rooms. Its footprint collectively takes up about a third of iATS Payments’ office space—about 2,000 square feet—and the company hopes that the charities and nonprofits that sign on will take advantage of all the building’s facilities and the support resources that iATS has to offer.

      The most attractive thing, however, is that it’s totally free.

      “There are no criteria [for applications],” Mosawi says. “You have to be a registered nonprofit or charitable organization, or a technology company or consultant serving the nonprofit sector. That’s it. If you have a charity that’s based in Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, or wherever, and you happen to be…in Vancouver, then you should absolutely have access to space if it’s available. We didn’t want to be restrictive in any way, to anyone.”

      Before Mosawi announced the opening of the space, he anticipated that it would be a natural fit for small charities. After welcoming a number of nonprofits at a housewarming event, however, he realized that the Greenhouse would also benefit more established organizations.

      “What we found was that one large charity and one large foundation were both interested in using it because they didn’t have space to run big events or have a nice space for a board meeting,” he says. “And then there are these disparate or remote-based organizations that don’t even have an office. They’ve got loads of staff that are just working from home. And they are desperate for a place that they could just bring people together once a month or quarter, just to realign their values and get everyone on the same side. That’s difficult to do if you have to spend $1,000 or $2,000 on a meeting room just for the day.

      “Within two days, I had over 20 bookings requests,” he continues. “We haven’t even really started marketing it yet, so it’s extraordinary. Obviously, there’s a need, and we may become overwhelmed with bookings, but that’s the whole point. That would be fantastic, and a great problem to have.”

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays