It takes a very special type of soul to run a non-profit in any economy, let alone one on the rebound from a recession (a statement many would claim is up for debate).
And that’s exactly what Community Design Collaborative (CDC) Executive Director Elizabeth Miller is: a genuinely kind individual who finds happiness in the simplicity of everyday tasks. She has a true passion for helping cities run more efficiently and effectively, especially her own beloved Philadelphia.
In 2011, the CDC celebrated 20 years of collaborating with various community organizations, civic associations and social service agencies to provide pro bono predevelopment design services to non-profit organizations in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas. Last year alone, the group had 30 projects and 7,781 volunteer hours completed, valued at $768,622.
For half its existence, Miller—a self-proclaimed Philadelphia junkie—has been standing at the helm. Since 2001, she has made sure the Collaborative remains just that—a place where people work as a team to provide the design services that can make for better communities and more productive citizens.
She didn’t always take her mission so seriously, though; Miller claims she had sworn off non-profits before she came to her role at the CDC. “I was just doing it on a whim,” she admits with a giggle.
“I think I was at my best because I wasn’t nervous about it,” she says of the interview process. “If I’d really wanted it, I probably would have done something to mess it up.”
Luckily, she wasn’t.
“It’s tireless work,” Miller says of the non-profit sector. “You’re constantly raising money and making sure that you deliver on what you’ve promised, but there’s typically no end in sight of the need.” Miller has had plenty of training on how to satisfy the need CDC serves, from her serendipitous bachelor’s degree in Growth and Structure of Cities from Bryn Mawr to a childhood spent on air force bases.
“I was a military brat, so I grew up all over the place. I knew air force bases pretty well and they were pretty much cookie-cutter, but they provided all sorts of great neighborhood amenities. Childcare, a church, a theater—they were all sort of systemized.”
So while she definitely knows a thing or two about city mechanics, she is very forthcoming about one important fact: she is not a design professional. Nevertheless she is often asked to serve amongst them. Miller keeps her finger on the pulse of the Philadelphia design world through two major volunteer gigs. She serves on both the city planning commission and the steering committee for its Design Advocacy Group (DAG). DAG is a group of design professionals (many of whom previously served as AIA presidents) who try to set an agenda for design and built environment priorities in the city.
Choosing to be proactive in this way, rather than reactive, transfers over to her work with the CDC. Typically, the Collaborative operates via service grants. A community-based group will apply, their application will be reviewed by the CDC, and then a site visit is done to match them up with the appropriate team of design professionals. The design team will then assist the group in completing the first 10 percent of its project.
The CDC arranges approximately 20-30 of these partnerships per year, but began having trouble accruing more funding. (Contrary to popular belief, there are still costs associated with the process, despite the services being pro bono; the CDC heads up the project management piece of the puzzle.) So instead of waiting for the money to come to them, Miller and the CDC team developed a five-year initiative called Infill Philadelphia. Created to address the broader design issue of small, scattered sites throughout the city that hinder community development, Infill engages other non-profit partners in order to provide funding for a variety of phases: a pilot of affordable housing (sponsored by The Philadelphia Neighborhood Development Collaborative); commercial corridors (in partnership with Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Coalition); food access (in partnership with The Reinvestment Fund and The Food Trust); and industrial sites (in partnership with Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation).
“There’s a big issue with vacancy in Philly, so there are opportunities. It’s just a question of making it equitable and making sure everybody benefits,” Miller says.
Firms are recruited to work on all these issues, a jury reviews site projects, and the CDC creates publications and holds events surrounding them to build awareness for these bigger picture, design-related issues affecting Philadelphia—identified by the organizations who deal with them on a daily basis.
“I’m in awe of the groups that we work with,” Miller says. She is also in awe of the strides Infill has made thus far. “It’s really captured people’s imaginations of what could be.”
Volunteering for the CDC can do that too for design professionals, she believes. “It’s a great opportunity to work directly with a community-based client. You get a better understanding of what the needs are and are able to implement those needs into practice later on,” building the groundwork for better planning in general over time, she explains.
And as she looks toward the future, Miller hopes to move past her “old man complex,” as she calls it, better utilizing social media and speaking engagements to launch the Collaborative to even greater heights.
In the meantime, her uniquely optimistic outlook on life is something we can all learn from. “Almost anything makes me smile—people buying vegetables at the market or a fresh cup of coffee.”
One thing does send her over the edge, though. “I hate when people throw trash on the ground. It drives me bonkers.”
Cities around the world are silently thanking her.
back to top