Nonprofit work experience: beneficial for all, but far too rare
Good Deeds, Good Design
Good Deeds, Good Design is the title of a book edited by Bryan Bell, founder of Design Corps, that responds to the notion that the quality of nonprofit design work must inevitably be compromised. Max Bond, FAIA, a partner at New York’s Davis Brody Bond and an architect noted for his interest in underserved communities agrees with the premise of Bell's book. “I always thought that it is really an artificial separation. An interest in community and social issues in no way reduced my interest in design.”
Bond should know. His early career mixed experiences at traditional firms with time spent working in Ghana’s national construction company, as well as the Architects Renewal Committee of Harlem. He recognizes that he was afforded significant responsibility in those settings that young architects are typically not given. Bond's design work and thinking are more holistic as a result. He says when prospective employees are interviewed for his firm, “We try not to compartmentalize. We seek out employees who look at life a little differently.”
Non-profis in other fields
The architecture and engineering professions are unique in requiring a post-graduation internship that is typically completed entirely in a private firm setting. In other professions, providing for either a formal or informal "internship" is often done in conjunction with community or public service. Teaching hospitals, for example, help meet that profession’s obligation to provide care to uninsured and indigent patients, while simultaneously enabling recent graduates to gain significant practical experience. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, teaching hospitals constitute only six percent of the nation’s hospitals, but they provide nearly half of all hospital charity care. Although medical residents hold a limited license or permit to practice, they remain under professional supervision during their residency.
The legal profession does not require a formal internship, but recent graduates and their employers still confront the challenge of transitioning from an academic setting to a professional setting. The National Association of Law Placement estimates that ten percent of 2006 law school graduates took what are typically one-year positions as judicial law clerks in federal and state courts. These clerkships provide invaluable direct experience for recent graduates in a public setting, and graduates with this public experience and perspective are highly sought after by private law firms.
Supply and Demand
The design fellowships described above are the two most significant opportunities for young architects looking for these kinds of opportunities, yet together they account for less than ten positions annually for approximately 4,000 professional degree graduates. Although specific data on the total number of architecture graduates taking design positions with nonprofit or community-based organizations does not exist, Beth Miller, who directs the Community Design Collaborative of AIA Philadelphia, argues that there is far more interest on the part of young people than there are opportunities supported by the profession. “There are lots of young people who would love to take a full-time job in a nonprofit,” says Miller. The Collaborative recently established a full-time position of its own for a design fellow, but can support just one fellow on a two-year rotation.
One of Miller’s goals for the Collaborative is to expand the demand for full-time architectural services by community-based organizations. She does this in part by changing the perception of the role architects play. “Many organizations tend to hire design services as consultants, on a case-by-case basis,” says Miller. “We try to get the ones we work with to see the value of having an architect on their board or even on their staff, to encourage a better understanding of the role of design in their community revitalization efforts.”
In addition to changing the perceptions of potential clients, nonprofit experiences can be useful for interns in broadening their own views of what architects can and should do. Leslie Norvell agrees. Norvell is a landscape architect who has spent time volunteering for Miller’s Community Design Collaborative and who works full-time in a local landscape architecture firm, Lager Raabe Skafte Landscape Architects. “It’s one thing to watch someone else do something and think, ‘Oh, I would do this differently.’ And it’s another thing to be in the hot seat yourself.”
Given the concerns often expressed by architects about the transition from education to practice, there would seem to be significant potential for the profession to formalize positions for young architects to work in community settings. The fact that other professions have institutionalized this kind of practical training of recent graduates to meet community needs implies that the architecture profession may have a duty here as well as an opportunity. In the meantime, individual interns and the firms that hire them will continue to seek out and benefit from singular experiences in local nonprofits.