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Next Mile Project puts the startup accelerator model to work for non-profit world

Could the startup principles that build billion dollar companies help change a billion lives? That’s what the Next Mile Project is hoping as it puts 15 non-profits through its accelerator program.

“For non-profits, particularly in Boston but also around the country, there are a lot of great groups that are trying to do very passionate work. But one of the things that often gets lost is an understanding of what other non-profits have already done,” said Vilas Dhar, who, along with his brother Vikas, founded the Next Mile Project. “What we decided to do is create sort of an immersive-type space where that kind of collaboration not only happens, but is encouraged.”

The non-profit incubator is located in the North End offices of Dhar Law, LLP, the firm the two brothers founded in 2010.

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Dhar Law’s physical space, which it now shares with non-profit in its accelerator, includes shared offices, a board room, and a kitchen, among a number of other shared utilities. While these may seem like basic necessities for private sector companies, Amber Oberc, US managing director for the Tanzanian Children’s Fund, explained that one of the most difficult things about working for a small non-profit organization can be the lack of a physical home base.

“We’re so cost conscious, because we want everything to go to our end-client, that we can’t afford really nice office space. We rent places for board meetings and we go to coffee shops, but it’s really demoralizing,” said Oberc, whose organization was one of the first to join the Next Mile Project. “It has made all the difference in not making me feel isolated, but then also giving a lot of really rich resources. I could not be happier with it.”

Even so, the physical amenities and collaborative culture are just the start of the benefits provided by at the Next Mile Project. Since opening their doors to non-profits in June of 2012, Dhar Law has provided pro bono law advice, as well as administrative and structural resources, to each member organization. The Next Mile Project also hosts various panels, workshops, brain trusts, and social activities to help the organizations expand their networks and grow at an accelerated rate.

“A lot of it has just been the relationships and the network that we tap into. Organizations are at different stages of their evolution, so that’s a beautiful way that we can learn from each other,” said Oberc.

Exporting the model

The non-profits located in the Next Mile Project’s office space are not the only ones hoping to benefit by their model. The innovative blueprint of a private sector law firm housing and supporting non-profits has also caught the eye of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a Palo Alto based organization founded in 2000 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty.

After 13 years of providing grants for science, patient care and environmental conservation, the Moore Foundation is now looking into other ways that it can further its impact in those areas and in the non-profit sector.

“We’ve gotten our model down. It works well for the causes and organizations we support. But couldn’t it be better too?” questioned Mandy Tuong, assistant general counsel to the Moore Foundation. “We’ll keep making grants. This is more to supplement that to make sure we’re really examining the full spectrum of what we can do.”

In an effort to learn from the model that the Next Mile Project has established, Tuong flew to Boston on Friday to meet with Dhar to discuss the various ways that the Moore Foundation could replicate parts of his innovative system at their own Silicon Valley office. Tuong explained that the idea of providing pro bono law advice or accelerator resources to organizations in the Moore Foundation’s program fields particularly interested her, but that her only true agenda during the visit was to learn as much as she could about the model Dhar has created.

“It’s a privilege to be able to be at an inflection point where we can say, ‘And then what? What more can we do?’," explained Tuong. “It strengthens the causes that you care about because you’re helping to strengthen their efforts.”

A lab of their own

One of the tools that the Moore Foundation could potentially utilize is the Next Mile Project’s media lab, which has already made a difference for the organizations in the non-profit incubator.

The media lab, made up of an army of interns from local colleges, aims to tell the stories of member organizations, and aids them in some of the more technical and creative aspects of running an organization.

“We said at the beginning that we really need professional quality work. This is stuff that’s going to go in front of potential funders, or on their website, or shown at a 10-year anniversary gala, so it has to be great,” explained Michelle Nigro, a communications associate at Dhar Law who also runs the media lab internship program for the Next Mile Project. “They really blew my mind with what they created [last semester]. It was amazing.”

The interns in the media lab use their specialty skills, ranging from copywriting, to graphic design, to video editing, to lift the small organizations to the next level. According to Nigro, the students working in the lab have produced everything from optimized social media profiles to filming and editing public relations videos to creating logos for new organizations.

The hope moving forward is that the lessons learned at the Next Mile Project will soon be made available to non-profits around the world through case studies, templates, and legal forms.

“In the end, we really want to encourage other private sector firms out there to work on non-profit and charitable issues. The Next Mile Project has paved the foundation for them to do that,” said Dhar.

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