IT'S THE STORY OF a small Seattle start-up operating out of a 150-square-foot converted garage. Like the Seattle area's Microsoft and Amazon.com before it, Powerful Voices is bursting at the seams with a growing staff and board of directors. It's the classic Seattle business story.

Unfortunately, the five-year-old Powerful Voices doesn't have a dot-com after its name. It's a nonprofit agency (with a skinny $170,000 budget) that works with troubled teenage girls. When executive director Julie Edsforth recently tried to find a bigger office to accommodate her agency's expansion, she couldn't afford the lowest price she found ($1,300 a month on 23rd Avenue East).

We've come to know the script: Small companies spring up in the backyard one day, and rule the stock market as billion-dollar corporations the next. But it's not the same story for potentially successful nonprofits.

"If you're really small you can deal with a crappy space," Edsforth says. "But it's hard to take that next step."

Obviously, nonprofits can't play ball with Microsoft. They're not in the business of making money. But the problem is more subtle than that. When organizations like Powerful Voices are ready to blossom, there's nowhere to grow in this town. Seattle is squashing successful nonprofits.

Just like all renters, small organizations are at the mercy of landlords. Even landlords who rent out buildings below market rate to nonprofits are kicking out the smaller ones to make room for richer agencies. This isn't a problem for bigger, more established nonprofits, says a United Way spokesperson, which represents about 80 groups in Seattle. Again, it's the small ones that get snubbed when they're poised to expand but can't afford it.

Meanwhile, corporate-backed ventures that can cough up the money are helping to push out those who can't. For example, as reported last week in the Puget Sound Business Journal, Cascadia Quest and the King County World Conservation Corps, an environmental group that's been around for seven years, is being ousted from its Capitol Hill spot so the Seahawks Academy (a school partly funded by the deep pockets of Paul Allen) can absorb the space.

Powerful Voices' Edsforth, who rents month to month, worries about her organization's stability as it outgrows its location. "We have no power," she says. "We feel that any month, we could get notice that we have to leave."

Support The Stranger

Sponsored