Making a Difference in a Non-Profit Firm Format

by Brandon S. Peters, ASLA

image: Brandon S. Peters, ASLA

Around the world, disadvantaged populations face significant struggles with climate change, pollution, conflict, and forced migration. Unfortunately, this situation is not new. What IS seemingly new is the increased emphasis younger generations are putting into doing social justice and social impact work to address struggles like these. Thankfully, this seems not to be a fad but a larger realization that doing what you love while helping those most in need is an extremely rewarding endeavor.

Traditionally most firms are set up as a PC, LLC, S-Corp, or sole proprietorship, which are all considered to be for-profit. In recent years, many for-profit firms have noticed this increased staff interest in making a difference and have launched internal CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives to ensure their firm is meeting certain standards for sustainability or other goals. Some also dedicate staff time for outreach activities, which might include work for organizations like Journeyman International and Habitat for Humanity, or have a small non-profit sister organization to engage in design projects within their communities.

On the far end of this spectrum, there are a handful of firms, including A Complete Unknown, that operate solely as a non-profit entity.

So, what does it mean to be a non-profit architecture firm? Simply put, a non-profit can only engage in projects that align with its mission as stated in its charter for which it has gained its 501(c)(3) status. For us, these are projects that benefit underserved communities worldwide including affordable housing, schools, recreation centers, etc.

image: Brandon S. Peters, ASLA

Since launching the firm in 2020, it has become clear to us that there is a significant need for this work. Design should be equitable and the ability to provide innovative design solutions should not be contingent on the client being able to pay exorbitant fees. Developers domestically and charities and NGOs abroad that focus on those most in need often have minimal budgets and rely heavily on tax incentives, fundraising, and grants. By working as a non-profit we can reduce the soft costs to the client through what we call low-bono rates (being a non-profit doesn’t mean all the work is pro-bono) and help them early in the process with their fundraising efforts.

Through providing these projects in the United States and internationally we strive to build local capacity in areas that need it, e.g., training artisans and working with local builders. This also amplifies the long-term impact for the end-users of the project and provides decent work that allows people to sustain their families. In our projects in the United States, Malawi, Eswatini, and India, to name a few, we have engaged with the client early in the process, which allows them to take a developed concept to their funding sources and significantly increases the chances of a successful project.

So how can you make a difference aside from joining a non-profit? Speak to your firm about your interest in doing work that makes a difference. We have been fortunate to get buy-in from consulting engineering partners to dedicate some staff to projects like this at reduced rates. Why not have your firm do so as well? In addition to being able to work on projects that can make a difference, international work is a wonderful opportunity to learn about different cultures and ways of thinking that will impact your design approach for longer than just that one project.

It is inspiring to see the passion in the profession to make a difference and it’s exciting that now there are new ways for us to do so, together.

Brandon S. Peters, ASLA, is the Director of A Complete Unknown, a non-profit design firm based out of Washington, D.C. A licensed landscape architect and business development leader, his career has included living and working in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. His time in practice has included work on civic, mixed-use, multi-family, and single-family typologies. He has spoken at the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) Conference in Washington D.C., been interviewed in MARKETER Magazine, and written for the International Federation of Landscape Architects and ASLA. He has also served as a juror for the Marketing Communication Awards and for the Washington Chapter of ASLA (WASLA).

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