Boston nonprofit hub sparks collaboration through shared work space

Last Mile Project

(Boston, MA) – Each Tuesday afternoon, a conference room overlooking the Boston harbor fills with staff from various Boston-based nonprofits. Their work ranges from building water points in Liberia to teaching Shakespeare in Boston schools. Usually the weekly meeting is a chance to hear from a wide array of speakers with experience in the business of doing good. This week, it is an opportunity for newcomers to introduce themselves and for some minor housekeeping issues, like washing dishes after using them.

When issues of cleanliness are not being discussed, the twenty-two organizations housed in the same space next to Lewis Wharf in Boston’s North End are working with each other to achieve their respective missions. The Next Mile Project, as it is called, is the brain child of lawyer Vilas Dhar. He and his brother Vikas founded Dhar Law four years ago with the goal of using money made doing more traditional law work to do as much social good as possible.

That goal is being realized. Dhar says that 40% of the firm’s work falls into the social sector, often times meaning pro bono. It is also seen in the dozens of people that share an office space with Dhar Law. Nonprofits work in the Next Mile Project space for as little as $150 per person per month. What they get is more formal support, like weekly speakers, wifi, a printer (at no cost to use) and the ability to work alongside some of the city’s best and brightest.

“The value you get for the price is incredible,” said Amber Oberc, US Managing Director for the Tanzanian Children’s Fund.

Oberc is one of the first people to join the Next Mile Project. She jokes that she used to work from her kitchen table, but it was not all that far from the truth. It was a chance meeting with Dhar at nonprofit event that put the idea he long had into action.

“I’ve always wanted to start a nonprofit incubator,” said Dhar to Oberc.

Vilas & Vikas Dhar.
Vilas & Vikas Dhar.

She didn’t think much of it until she had drinks with Dhar and Dr Rajesh Panjabi, founder of Last Mile Health. The next day Panjabi moved Last Mile Health into Dhar’s offices. The Tanzanian Children’s Fund soon followed and the nonprofit incubator that Dhar dreamed of was off and running.

Dhar can be described as a serial entrepreneur. Aside from his socially minded law firm and a nonprofit incubator, he has helped start new businesses, including a few restaurants. His work is gaining notice and honors. Dhar was recently included in the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers initiative. The brother’s law work also won recognition from Boston Magazine in 2012.

The benefits of the working space are immediately apparent. Last Mile Health is already discussing how to work with FACE Africa, another organization that does work in Liberia. The rural healthcare organization is set to conduct an evaluation of interventions in one part of the country. FACE Africa’s approach to improving access to water may just be a part of that evaluation.

If you want inspiration, you look at Raj from Last Mile Health,” said Oberc in describing why she liked the space so much.

She too is directly benefiting. Next Mile launched a media lab recently that deploys a series of interns with the technical know-how that many small nonprofits lack when it comes to all forms of media. She worked with one of the interns to design the groups latest flyer. It came out so well that Oberc jokingly wishes that she could have the intern to herself.

“I want to build out really amazing collaborative spaces,” said Dhar.

That is happening in Boston, but the groups are outgrowing the space. There are other nonprofits on a waiting list to get in on the shared space and a move appears to be on the horizon in order to accommodate more groups and create an even better working space. Dhar’s sights are not limited to the city of Boston. Talks are underway to bring the Next Mile Project to New York City and San Francisco. He thinks that the model can keep expanding across the country.

“If it scales the way I think it can, it will provide the model for how nonprofits will work in five to ten years,” he said.

Large nonprofits are not on the sideline. Partners in Health has already used the space for its own needs and sought ways to participate in what is ongoing. The small fees paid by the groups only cover a small part of the cost, but Dhar is confident that the success of the model will speak for itself and convince people to not only participate, but invest.

Paperwork is pending to establish the Next Mile Project as its own nonprofit. The larger goals are to bring together nonprofits, innovative philanthropy and the private sector. Dhar believes that there is a place for the private sector to do good, but it has to go beyond disconnected corporate social responsibility projects. He is excited by the possibilities of what can be achieved by enabling the collaboration of nonprofits.

“We’ll think about getting puppies,” he tells everyone at the Tuesday meeting with a wink in his grin.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]