As Social Entrepreneurship Booms, So Do Social Impact Coworking Spaces

It helps to put all the people working to change the world in the same room.

As Social Entrepreneurship Booms, So Do Social Impact Coworking Spaces
[Illustrations: Petr Strnad via Shutterstock]

When it opened a sprawling coworking space dedicated to social entrepreneurs five years ago, Impact Hub San Francisco was one of two in the U.S. Now there are more than 70 Impact Hubs around the world, and the office in San Francisco has taken over another floor in its SOMA high-rise.


It’s proof, says the team at the San Francisco location, that the social impact industry is reaching a tipping point. An impact investing conference hosted at the office, for example, has grown from 700 people in 2008 to an expected 2,500 this year. “The amount of capital flowing into this space is beginning to increase,” says Tim Nichols, managing director of Impact Hub San Francisco. “We’re still a blip on the screen in terms of how much global capital is being invested, but now we’re seeing VCs come in and invest in social enterprises like Good Eggs.”

The startups that use the Impact Hub are changing as well. “When we started with this, there were a lot of one or two-team startups of people with ideas about how they wanted to grow a better world,” Nichols says. “And I’ve seen these teams continue to grow.” Some, like, grew so quickly that they could no longer fit inside the walls of the coworking space. In 2012, only 43% of Hub members in San Francisco were mature companies; by last year, that number had reached 74%.

It’s clear that Impact Hub wouldn’t have survived if the overall industry wasn’t growing–the co-working space only accepts members who meet requirements as change agents. But it’s also arguable that the network of these spaces has also helped the fledging social impact industry grow.

“The fact that so many hubs have expanded to so many locations around the world is evidence that these things are the infrastructure needed to support this kind of movement,” says Nichols.

Each Impact Hub is carefully designed to maximize interactions between people, forming a community that can help push individual companies forward. “It isn’t just squeezing in as many desks as you can fit so you just have a place to go work, but that there is some sort of clever design element that’s going to support engagement,” Nichols says.

The space has spawned new businesses focused on the community; one member makes websites just for other Impact Hub members. Another focuses on marketing. Since every member has goals that are roughly related, they can turn to each other for help. “People don’t always have the answers,” Nichols says. “Being in a shared workspace or a community gives them more access, and easier and quicker access, to the resources that they would need.”


In a year, the space hosts more than 700 events, from classes on how to pitch a VC or negotiate freelance rates to panels on sustainable palm oil and workshops on how to design games to turn strangers into community. Each event is designed to give members even more chances to bump into each other and interact.

As the space grows, it has also started to focus more bringing in investors or foundations–like, which now partners with them to sponsor accelerator support for 25 new local nonprofits chosen each year. “We started to design programming to bring those larger players into this space,” he says. “We’re finding better ways to do that.”

Though most Impact Hubs are independently owned, the San Francisco branch has spread, forming MissionHUB, a network with locations in Berkeley, New York City, Philadelphia, and D.C. They’ve also invested to help launch more locations in Boulder, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Mexico City and Oakland. Through a foundation, they’re supporting more new spaces in Africa.

“Coworking is a tough business,” Nichols says. “If you can achieve economies of scale on the back end, that gives you more ability to focus on the community component that we find we value so heavily, and build up the right programming of the membership to thrive.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.