5 Steps to Build a Community Center

The Process

When I started my organization, I was ready to overcome any hurdle or obstacle. I spoke to whoever would listen to me. My goal was to build a community center in Vancouver, WA by 2015. At the very least, it was going to be built by 2020 once our strategy showed the benefits.

Our strategy (directed from the board of directors) was to start with programming in every possible high school in Clark County, Washington. We wanted to be a household name with administrators and teachers. I wrote the curriculum in 2006 and begun teaching “Dream Big 101” in 2008. I created other programs, but DB 101 was the catalyst to it all.

In 2018, I decided to give away my tax-exempt status to another organization but still wanted to share the lessons. After many years of a tug-of-war, I had to move on and I don’t have a center due to many circumstances. I fought it for so long because this dream wasn’t just for me, but for my community.

So when I rewind the years back to get my nonprofit off the ground, I’ll walk you through what I discovered in the process.

In the process of networking and meeting people who could help me build my community center in the early 2000s, I finally found someone. His name is David Judd. He was the City of Vancouver’s Parks and Recreation Director. Not too long after meeting with him, the city laid him and several others off. Therefore, I’m forever grateful for this piece of documentation I now call the 5 steps to build a community center.

Here’s one of our promotional videos for the local schools.

Networking Paid Off

On a night I was interested to learn about city planning, David sent me a great email on how to build a community center. This email has been a great blueprint of how to start and measure my progress. With the advancement of technology and location options, the details aren’t as current.

However, I believe the business principles are still very relevant.

Excluding the details of the email, this is the bones of how to build a community center. I’ve included the original emails with only a few edits. I hope this helps you create the community center your neighborhood needs.

If you have any questions, feel free to email at info@nwebsterllc.com.

My Email to David

From: Nathan Webster
Sent: Wednesday, April 25, 2007, 12:12 PM
To: Judd, David
Subject: FW: First Tuesday, May 1st – A Short Course on Planning

Hi David,

I received the two pamphlets today, and I am very grateful to you. But can you help me out? I’m not sure if I should go to this “Local Planning” seminar. Do you think it would be worth my time?


David’s Email to Me

On Apr 25, 2007, at 1:25 PM, Judd, David <David.Judd@ci.vancouver.wa.us> wrote:

I think you could miss this workshop without serious damage. Understanding the local/COV planning and zoning system, the role of the comprehensive plan and legislative and administrative cases in land use and then the legal issues case history involved in the planning system is something only a few people on the planet really understand—and I am not one of them.

Certainly, when thinking about building a community center, you also become a “developer” of sorts, and knowing all of this stuff would be helpful at some point down the road. In the meantime, however, I think your best efforts should be spent on how you can make the case as to why a community center should be built, where it should be built, who would participate, what would the customers pay if anything, how would that revenue match up to the expenses of the building, what size and configuration would give you the best shot at meeting your goals for revenues and expenses, etc., these are the things that I think you need to focus on first.

5 Steps to Build a Community Center

Here is one idea as to how to travel down the road to meet your goal:

Step 1: Project feasibility. The materials that I sent are those that have been used to show the City Council and City Manager what the need was for this facility, how much of the population in the area would use it, what they would pay to use it, what it would cost to support that use with staff, utilities, what the overall size and square footage should be and how the various spaces will either be revenue generating or not, etc….all of this tells you whether or not a project like this is feasible—can it be done and would it be a success?

Step 2: Raise the capital money to build it and finalize your operating budget: This also starts with a plan. The folks who do this part usually have a pyramid approach with larger donors first all the way down to smaller donors. This plan says who would fund this, what will we ask them to do and how much? Who is best to make the pitch? What sort of recognition will we give them like their name on the building or inside on the wall…also, during this time, the operating budget has to become far more predictable and that will be critical to most givers. They will want to know that money they give you to build the building will not be wasted on a building that cannot pay the light bill during the year. By the way, somewhere now you will need to have acquired a building site and know how your donors can help you pay for it. They will not give you money for buying a site or building on the site unless they are convinced this will all come together and be successful.

Step 3. Preliminary Planning and Design: This is when you know you have a feasible project plus you have enough of a critical mass of people who will support you financially with large donations, then you can commission an architect to do a preliminary design. They work in phases and the first phase will be called the Concept Design when they just outline the total space needed, how the interior of the space would be divided up, approximate costs to build, permitting issues, etc and a ton of other stuff.

Step 4. Final Design and Construction Drawings: Once you have a feasible project that people know will work, and a fundraising plan that has produced big dollar commitments and design concept that excites your donors and potentially many other donors, you can commission your architect to design the building to the construction drawing level so a builder could bid on giving you a price to built it. If you are government, this is highly regulated and must be done through a competitive bidding process. A private firm or individual can bypass this and contract to whoever they want to build the building. As the “owner” you will want to make sure your architects drawings will be easy for the contractor to understand and implement or you will have trouble during construction; and most “owners” would hire a CM (On site construction manager who works for you—not the contractor or the architect) and they camp on the building site every hour of the day and make sure that everything is being built according to the design.

Step 5: Opening: Here is the fun part. The building is completed and now your operating budget kicks in. Your operating plan discussed back in step 1 will have guided you to spend money on marketing the building to the users you want to attract. If you are charging them, you need to sell the building just like LA Fitness does…if you have a major sponsor or sponsors who will help pay for operations—like the privately funded Boys and Girls Clubs—-you can charge less, and the donors will pay your staff and the light bill. If not, you need your customers to feel like the center is precisely what they need and that they are willing to pay an annual fee to be part of it. It is also here that the whole thing is made or broken by who you hire. If they are all like you, honest, smart, highly motivated to good things for kids, etc., then you will have the right people and they will become your voice and sell the place just by being there. If you hire the wrong people, all of this effort could go down the tube with angry customers, unclean building, lack of a creative program that draws people in, etc.

So that sounds easy, right? No…it is hard, but these are the steps that it takes. The Firstenberg Center was a dream for over 12 years before it was dedicated a year ago.

That was with nearly $18 million dollars in public money available to plan and build it. You can do it in far less time, but the steps above and a few hundred more steps will still be required. Most all projects like this start, however, with an operating or feasibility plan like the one I sent you. It is a way that you and others who would help you prepare it can show potential funders, customers, and lead people that this thing can work.

Mr. Social Entrepreneur

The pursuit of building a nonprofit community center for professional development engulfed me. I wanted to do so much in my community and didn’t know where to start because I didn’t want help from the taxpayers. The goal to create this mega building was intimidating, scary and exciting.

When the opportunity became more clear, I pursued it. Ultimately, I needed a lot more help. My thoughts of keeping almost everything “underground” wasn’t going to cut it. Matter of fact, I learned the majority if not all community centers are subsidized by tax dollars.

In other words, they were not private entities.

This is when I, Nathan A Webster, became Mr. Social Entrepreneur and started this marketing agency while consulting, building websites, and helping others with their marketing plans.

I realized the positive impact I was making in my local community (Vancouver, WA & Portland, OR), and I knew I could make it better. Hence, my desire to share the email from David.

Everyone needs to know about this endeavor. It cannot be kept in the dark. Yes, it will be scary, but you don’t have to do it alone.

If you’re not ready to build your community center yet, take the time to learn from my mistakes. My podcast is on iTunes and Soundcloud. I share my experience free of charge.

I write this because my business is personal because this service is for the advancement of all humanity. My failures and successes are for your gain. No strings attached.

Nathan A. Webster, MBA
Mr. Social Entrepreneur
Consulting | Marketing | Websites

Consulting | Marketing | Websites