Nonprofit Gives Up Tower of Power

Driving the expressway downtown ad exec Peter Brown did something the staff and donors at Boston's most well known homeless shelter had never thought to do: he looked up.

Just down the street from my own nonprofit and visible from the major roadway into Boston, the Pine Street Inn tower is a premium piece of advertising real estate.  Since Peter convinced the Pine Street Inn to sell ad space on the tower in 2000, the shelter has raised $2.3 million, which has all gone to repairing the tower.

Of course, now that the tower is restored to its former splendor the South End community that borders the Inn wants the billboards gone.  And the Pine Street Inn has agreed to do just that, according to the Boston Globe, saying that the "shelter considered it 'lucky' that advertising proved to be an option for fund-raising."

Huh?

First, money is tough enough to come by for a homeless shelter, right?  The tower ads provide a steady stream of income that will serve the Inn well through good and bad times.  Second, if it wasn't for Peter Brown and his tacky ads the tower would still look the way he originally saw it: shrouded in black mesh and unfixed.  Third, the Inn has spent eight years being a good corporate citizen and spending every dime they made off the ads to repair the tower.  How about a few more years to raise some money for things like blankets, food and toiletries.  You know, the things a homeless shelter would need.

The Pine Street Inn is not obligated to remove the ads.  While certainly historic--it was built in 1894 and was modeled after the Palazzo Pubblico, the old town hall in Siena, Italy--the tower isn't located in a historic district.  Besides, it practically sits on the expressway and is in the far corner of the South End.  In short, it's a better billboard site than a community icon, at least for now.

Two lessons here.  First, the tower is a great example of how every nonprofit has to be on the lookout for their assets.  We all have advantages that we can leverage in the marketplace for fun and profit.  Look at what the Pine Street Inn had right over their heads.  They should have been the ones approaching Peter with a way to raise money, and not vice versa.  Second, once you've identified those assets you need to maximize and protect them with your life.  The money the Inn is raising from the tower is just too lucrative to let go or to dismiss as "lucky."  Nor should they be kowtowing to community groups, unless they happen to have $2.3 million in hand. 

Okay, so maybe you don't have a billboard up 365 days a year, but what about a few months or half a year?  Or maybe you could use one of those new blind billboards that one moment would show the tower in all its all glory and in the next be an ad for Dunkin Donuts ice tea?  Cripes, at least use the tower to brand the Pine Street Inn in some meaningful way.

The Pine Street Inn is happy to have the ad-less tower back.  They say the shelter is a beacon of hope and the tower symbolizes that.  That's really beautiful.  Tell that to the homeless men and women you can't help when donations take a dive.