South Bend Sustainability Program Helps Nonprofits Reduce Utility Costs and Shape a Greener Future for the Midwest November 23, 2022

In a Nutshell

What: Through a partnership with the City of South Bend’s Office of Sustainability, and CDFI Friendly South Bend, IFF’s real estate team in Indiana is providing energy assessments for 18 nonprofits. The Energy Assistance and Solar Savings Initiative is designed to reduce participating organizations’ utility costs by facilitating energy-efficient building upgrades that also contribute to environmental sustainability in South Bend.
Sector: All
Location: South Bend, IN
IFF Staff Lead: Donna Sink, Senior Owner’s Representative
Impact: Eighteen energy assessments provided to nonprofits, helping them maximize energy efficiency in their facilities so they can re-invest cost savings into mission-driven programming.

For much of the year, the cost of energy has dominated headlines as sharp increases in the prices of coal, oil, and natural gas have threatened global economic output and contributed to an equally acute increase in the cost of living in many parts of the world. While the trends are global, the consequences are felt locally – and nonprofits are no exception. Higher heating, cooling, and electricity bills each month means fewer resources that can be devoted to mission, underscoring the importance of maximizing energy efficiency in nonprofit facilities.

In South Bend, IN, a partnership between IFF, the City of South Bend’s Office of Sustainability, and CDFI Friendly South Bend is helping nonprofits do exactly that through the new Energy Assistance and Solar Savings Initiative (EASSI). Modeled after a similar program implemented last year in Bloomington, IN, with IFF’s support, EASSI subsidizes energy assessments of participating nonprofits’ facilities, offers grants from the city to catalyze building upgrades, and provides access to flexible loans from IFF for costs not covered by the grant.

In addition to lowering participating nonprofits’ utility bills by encouraging the installation of energy efficient systems, EASSI reduces building emissions and increases local sustainability by promoting solar power and creating a pathway for nonprofits to more strategically consider their facility needs.

After the program in Bloomington established proof of concept for the model, South Bend built upon it by nearly doubling the number of participating nonprofits. Thirty organizations applied for the program in its inaugural year, with 18 selected to participate in spring and fall cohorts; a decision informed by the results of the Bloomington program.

“The cohort model is a really important aspect of the EASSI program, in that it brings nonprofit leaders together who have similar challenges and goals so that they can help one another,” explains IFF Senior Owner’s Representative Donna Sink, who led IFF’s portion of the program. “Bringing the groups together for meetings as a cohort also created the opportunity to talk about topics like how to leverage debt to pay for building upgrades that provide long-term cost savings beyond the value of the initial loan.”

For each nonprofit’s energy assessment, Sink’s first goal was to understand the mission of the organization, how their work fit into the broader community ecosystem, and the history of their facility. With this information in mind, a thorough analysis of recent utility bills and a walkthrough of the facility was completed to identify opportunities for upgrades related to energy efficiency and sustainability, as well as general building improvements needed to maximize the lifespan of the facilities.

The need for new insulation, windows, and roofs were common challenges identified during the assessments, but Sink also focused on opportunities to improve the lives of staff by installing features like smart thermostats that don’t require someone to manually adjust the temperature throughout the day. Because of federal, state, and local incentives currently available for solar projects, that was also a focus of each assessment, with Sink determining the viability of installing roof- and ground-based solar arrays that can result in significant long-term cost savings (see sidebar for details).

After assessing each facility, Sink compiled a comprehensive report detailing the findings that was shared with the nonprofits and South Bend’s sustainability office, which provided grants of up to $10,000 for facility upgrades. The reports also provided a tangible fundraising tool for nonprofit leaders to engage their donors on the need for additional support to ensure the organizations’ facilities can fully support the mission-driven work taking place in them – as was the case for La Casa de Amistad, which improved the sustainability of its headquarters and laid the groundwork for significant cost-savings that will be reinvested in programming through participation in the EASSI program.

Going Solar at La Casa de Amistad

Serving South Bend’s vibrant Latino community since 1973, La Casa de Amistad steadily expanded its programming and space for almost half a century before seizing an opportunity to purchase a 41,000-square-foot facility that the nonprofit relocated to in 2021. While the building enabled La Casa de Amistad to bring its extensive operations under one roof for the first time – including youth programming, citizenship classes, legal aid for immigrants, digital literacy programs, an early childhood education center, and more – operating in a former school five times as large as its previous headquarters necessitated a hard look at energy efficiency to reduce monthly utility costs.

“As we got settled into our new space, the big question became how we were going to sustain it as we started getting electricity, gas, and water bills that were exponentially larger than what we were used to,” recalls Executive Director Juan De Dios Constantino Lara. “We started looking at sustainability from a financial standpoint, but also considered the environmental and structural sustainability of the building.”

Referred to the EASSI program through CDFI Friendly South Bend, La Casa de Amistad quickly applied, was accepted into the spring cohort, and began collaborating with Sink. After reviewing the energy assessment report, the organization decided to move forward with several projects, like adding occupancy sensors to the facility to reduce electricity usage, and to invest in a new roof needed to support the installation of a solar array. Though the cost of replacing the roof and installing solar panels was much more than the grant amount provided by the city, La Casa de Amistad was able to leverage the report prepared by Sink to build a groundswell of fundraising support for the projects and to put in place the organizational infrastructure necessary for continued facility improvements.

To do so, La Casa de Amistad established a facility committee on its Board of Directors, which will help manage the ongoing upkeep of the organization’s headquarters. Using the report, De Dios Constantino Lara and the committee began meeting with donors and funders to make the case for replacing the roof as a precursor to the solar project. With momentum established through the city’s grant, La Casa de Amistad soon secured a major donation from a family foundation, which gave the nonprofit $40,000 worth of solar panels. This win led to others, and, within months, La Casa de Amistad had successfully raised the $405,000 needed to complete the projects.

If one of those students ends up going into a career in renewable energies, I’d like to think that this project and the EASSI program will have created a ripple effect that helped make that possible.

“Initially we considered financing the project since the annual cost savings on electricity by going solar were going to be around $30,000, which would have covered the payments on the loan and positioned us to begin benefiting from cost savings after six or seven years,” says De Dios Constantino Lara. “But as we started talking to people about the project, showing them our facility, and sharing the report from IFF with them, we were able to make the case that supporting the project was a sound investment in terms of the long-term sustainability of the organization.”

As an added benefit, the solar project also served as an opportunity for La Casa de Amistad to engage young people in the community by providing them with an opportunity to play an active role in the solar project. In addition to solar panels, the family foundation supporting the project purchased a drone with a 4K camera that the teenagers used to help diagram the rooftop solar array.

“If one of those students ends up going into a career in renewable energies, I’d like to think that this project and the EASSI program will have created a ripple effect that helped make that possible,” says De Dios Constantino Lara. “We knew there would be value in participating in the program, but what we ended up being able to accomplish has been a huge benefit.”


Saving Money While Helping the Environment

Energy efficient facilities can make a meaningful difference in nonprofits’ bottom lines. Let’s break that down using the experience of The Beacon Resource Center, another South Bend nonprofit that participated in the EASSI program.

Operating in a former bowling alley that was partially renovated in 2015 and has since been repurposed as a multipurpose space available for short-term rentals by community-based organizations at affordable rates, The Beacon’s facility includes a gym, multipurpose room, conference room, multiple classrooms, and a small counseling room. Fourteen groups use the facility regularly, with a church, two boxing gyms, a roller derby club, and an adult education program among them.

Keeping facility costs down is essential to The Beacon’s ability to offer affordable rental rates, and the EASSI program provided the nonprofit with several options to reduce its utility costs – like reinsulating areas where energy loss was occurring, adding weather stripping, and installing LED lighting and occupancy sensors to further increase energy efficiency.

Like at La Casa de Amistad’s headquarters, it was also determined that a 40-kW solar array was a feasible option that could produce significant long-term cost savings for The Beacon. With a 49,000-square-foot facility, the cost of installing the photovoltaic system is $79,315. Once installed in the coming months, the system will result in average utility savings of $5,246 annually, achieved through the energy production of the solar panel system and net metering.

Taking inflation into account, as well as the incentives and subsidies available to The Beacon for going solar, it will take the nonprofit 12-13 years to recoup its investment. After that, cost savings derived from the system will directly support the organization’s mission.

“After learning about the cost savings we could achieve through solar, all of which are going to be reinvested in the building and staffing, it became clear that it was a project we needed to complete,” says Jeff Walker, The Beacon’s executive director.

In addition to saving The Beacon money, the use of solar power will reduce the nonprofit’s carbon footprint. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by scientists and students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, photovoltaic systems generate approximately .07 to .18 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour when taking into account the manufacturing process. This is far less than the lifecycle emission rates for natural gas, which generates approximately .6 to 2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour, and coal, which generates approximately 1.4 to 3.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour.

With the World Economic Forum estimating that one-third of greenhouse gas emissions globally are produced by buildings, reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by transitioning to solar energy and increases in energy efficiency by replacing lightbulbs, windows, roofs, and other building features are important steps toward a more sustainable future.

Read about additional projects in Indiana supported by IFF’s real estate team