Kiva: Design Leader

Nonprofit micro-lender designs office space to evoke mission


| By Michele Chandler |

[dropcap]G[/dropcap]obi, the Labrador, carrying his leash in his mouth, ambles toward the office’s front door. Two men let out loud whoops as they duel in a rapid-fire Ping-Pong game. Employees have finally cleared out of the popular giant orange hammock that dominates the Quiet Room. It is near workday’s end at Kiva, the high profile nonprofit that moved to a high-spirited new office in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood in December. Another day at the office behind him, Gobi is ready to leave, too.

Kiva’s motto is “Loans That Change Lives,” and its microfinance business is helping people around the world. With small amounts of cash raised online from many global benefactors, the nonprofit awards loans so micro-entrepreneurs—a motorcycle taxi driver in Kenya or a vegetable farmer in Azerbaijan—can transform their businesses and improve their lives.

Since its 2005 founding, the San Francisco nonprofit has lent $287 million to nearly 733,000 people in 61 countries including the United States, where loans have been awarded to struggling mom-and-pop establishments in places including hard-hit Detroit and New Orleans. The average loan has been $389, and Kiva reports a 98.9 percent repayment rate.

The organization’s new 17,000 square-foot office at 875 Howard St. incorporates numerous reminders of Kiva’s mission and is designed to help workers create and collaborate, while being uber-flexible in the here and now and in the future. The non-profit—much like those who avail themselves of its service—also needed to leverage a little bit of money into a lot of return. The space, where Kiva moved in January, feels like a tree house, a warehouse and an office rolled into one.

[pullquote_right] In each meeting room, one chair is green to represent the entrepreneur seeking a loan. [/pullquote_right]Employees receive constant reminders about their mission. World maps, globes, books on microfinance and other reminders of the nonprofit’s global impact are everywhere. There are 13 small meeting rooms that can be closed off, including a library and the hammock room, their doors labeled with the names of places where Kiva operates: Beirut, Managua, Istanbul. In each meeting room, one chair is green to represent the entrepreneur seeking a loan. The color reflects Kiva’s logo—a young plant bearing two leaves.

A flat television screen mounted at the front entry shows a world map, with animated, bold-colored lines periodically snaking out to show where the latest Kiva loan originated and where the person lives who received the funds. (Watch it at On the way to the cafeteria seating area, there’s yet another world map mounted on the wall, with the faces of the nonprofit’s youthful volunteers attached to the cities where they are stationed.

The Howard Street location caught the eye of Kiva’s leadership when the organization’s rapid growth had it bursting the seams of its original headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission District. After starting 2011 with 42 workers, the organization had exploded to 85 by the end of January 2012. The office also had to accommodate another 40 volunteers who arrive at various times of the year to attend a weeklong training session before heading to an international site.

In its former building, Kiva grabbed space as it became available, resulting in an inefficient, 12,000-square-foot hodgepodge spread over three floors. “We were growing so fast the concern was that people wouldn’t know who their colleagues were because we were so separated,” said Jason Riggs, Kiva’s communications director. The new office “was our first opportunity to really think through what we needed in a physical space and how to reflect the values of the organization.”

The environment is open and minimalist with polished grey concrete floors, high exposed ceilings and abundant use of recycled and refurbished construction materials. Studios Architecture in San Francisco donated about 550 hours of design work. Much of the furniture and other services also were donated or purchased at a steep discount. “We pitched in and built reception desks and conference tables, painted the walls and designed graphics, all that kind of stuff,” said Kristin Lacy, an associate sustainable design manager at Studios. “It is just a really creative use of materials, and that happens throughout the space.”

Wooden shipping pallets, still stamped with the international destinations for their cargo, were fashioned by a local artist into an inexpensive decorative wall for an open conference room, enclosed only on two sides. A woven wooden wall 64 feet long and 10 feet high at Kiva’s entry runs along the main office walkway. Thin strips of inexpensive wood veneer are interlaced through tall, silver-colored metal posts, creating a pattern designed to convey the feeling of movement. Other frugal yet artistic and functional strategies include using doors salvaged from other Studios Architecture remodeling projects around the Bay Area.

Kiva’s headquarters is filled with touches that help the space adjust to changing needs, including overhead track-mounted sliding doors and lightweight, easily moveable chairs, couches and footrests. In one recent 12-hour period, the break room went from being a place where a work team outlined its objectives for the year to a place where people hung out late to watch Bollywood films projected on a rear wall, Riggs said.

The space emphasizes communication to an elaborate degree. Most of the doors are finished with special paint, so people can write on them with chalk or dry-erase markers. Magnetic paint applied to walls in or near the cafeteria allows items to be posted there using disc-shaped magnets the size of watch batteries. “I knew magnetic paint existed, but I’d never used it before,” said Don Davella, construction manager at Plant Construction, who said it took about seven weeks to redo the space.

People also can write on the break-room table, which easily seats 20 and in the course of a day might go from lunchtime dining area to intern training space. Indeed, the entire break room wall doubles as an enormous writing pad. “We tried to give them as much space to display what they do and to express themselves,” Lacy said.

There are no private offices or cubicles at Kiva, not even for the organization’s top brass. Instead, every employee sits communally with others from their department at one of several long tables. Related departments are located close to each other to make it easier for people to strike up conversations. For example, the team that coordinates volunteers sits next to the marketing group, which relies on volunteers to relay stories about borrowers who have received a microloan. The arrangement saves space and fosters interaction.

Kiva’s co-founder and chief executive, Matt Flannery, has no dedicated spot. Instead, he totes his laptop to a new location in the office each day. “He likes to be able to work in different spaces because it helps him have different perspectives,” Riggs said. “It helps his creative process, being next to somebody different everyday.”

A handful of dogs, like Gobi, accompany their owners to the office. Dogs are welcomed, Riggs said, because Kiva believes that worker productivity and happiness “are very much intertwined.” For some employees, being able to bring pets to work is a powerful motivating force. “Having access to the outdoors, views outside, animals—we know all these things are rejuvenating for people. By allowing that rejuvenating environment to exist in our office environment, we are doing a lot to help move forward the health and happiness of our employees as well.”

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