It’s no accident that Center4, a new space for accelerating innovation in the nonprofit sector, occupies the ground floor of an office building in New York City’s high-traffic Hudson Square commercial district. Bringing more visibility to what technologists, philanthropists, nonprofit leaders, and social investors can do together to improve health care and human services is one of the goals of this new social enterprise.
“We want this to be a convening place,” explains Ira Machowsky, executive vice president of FEGS Health and Human Services. An 80-year-old nonprofit with forward-looking ideas, FEGS announced the launch of Center4 in July and planned to have the space operating by the end of this year. Raising cross-sector conversations about improving social services is just one goal. Center4 also will be an active development space where technologists can design new tools, or repurpose existing technologies, to improve service delivery. Potential investors will be able to get an early look at tech tools that promise to deliver social good. FEGS, too, may find technologies to invest in at Center4 through its for-profit subsidiary, All Sector Technology Group.
Serving some 110,000 clients annually through a wide range of health and human service programs, FEGS sees an urgent need for New York City’s 42,000 nonprofits to create efficiencies and use technology in new ways. Through its tech subsidiary, FEGS has been able to invest in tools that build nonprofit capacity, such as an integrated case management app for service providers.
At Center4, named for the emerging fourth sector, small organizations will be able to pool their problem-solving strategies and resources to incubate new solutions. For example, 10 foster care organizations might come together around an idea for a technology tool that could improve their capacity for serving clients. “Watch what could happen in Center4,” Machowsky predicts, “if they share an investment so the cost to each agency is lower. That would be an incredible outcome of this center.”
Similarly, service providers may have an idea that’s practical but technically primitive. “If a technology entrepreneur or investor saw it, they could take this to the next level to meet a specific market need,” says Machowsky.
He anticipates rapid technology development in health care and social services in the coming years, as developers dig into the many issues awaiting better solutions. Telehealth services are still in their infancy, for example, yet could be the key to reducing costs for in-home health care. Similarly, online virtual systems could allow for better case management for everyone from the elderly to people with developmental disabilities. “It’s an enormous market for innovation,” Machowsky says.
Budding entrepreneurs with a desire to do social good will get a warm welcome at the new incubator. “We hope to inspire young entrepreneurs whose ideas will be philanthropically supported,” Machowsky says.
Even before the doors opened, Center4 had attracted a high-powered team of advisors, including Brian Cohen, chairman of the New York Angels, and Lee Barba, an active venture investor. Advisory board member Lisa Philp, vice president of strategic philanthropy and director of GrantCraft for the Foundation Center, says Center4 “has the potential to facilitate a range of partnerships among funders, social investors and entrepreneurs, Photograph by federal emergency management agency government, technologists, and health and human service nonprofits.” In the current landscape, Philp sees nonprofits at various stages of technology adoption, “from those that don’t have a website to others that are using mobile apps to connect with their clients, and everywhere in between. I’m excited about the opportunity for people to come together to figure out ways to apply existing technology to nonprofit challenges and to develop new approaches.”