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PODCAST – The One Thing: Jen Sobecki, Designs for Dignity

Wednesday, April 3, 2024
Natalie Terchek
This week on The One Thing podcast, our hosts, Robin Bettenhausen and Tom Kallai, spoke with Jen Sobecki, Chief Executive Officer of Designs for Dignity, a unique Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to transforming spaces for other nonprofits.

This week on The One Thing podcast, our hosts, Robin Bettenhausen and Tom Kallai, spoke with Jen Sobecki, Chief Executive Officer of Designs for Dignity, a unique Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to transforming spaces for other nonprofits.

With over two decades of experience, Designs for Dignity has redefined the concept of design by ensuring every individual has access to environments that nurture the human spirit. The organization provides nonprofits with creative and functional design on a pro bono basis, as well as access to discounted finishes and furnishings to create beautiful, meaningful and dignified spaces. From creating safe havens for survivors of domestic violence to fostering a sense of empowerment among marginalized youth, Designs for Dignity’s work transcends mere aesthetics. Notable projects include Aspire Career Academy, The Harbour and Zacharias Center.

“[Designs for Dignity] was born from the idea that everybody should have access to good design,” Jen says. “It’s been a tremendous journey, and it impacts the lives of not only the clients but the staff serving these people.”

Witnessing the joy and gratitude of the residents as they step into their newly designed spaces reaffirms the organization’s mission to restore dignity through design. From application submissions to leveraging word-of-mouth referrals, each project is carefully curated to maximize impact. With a lean team and a network of dedicated volunteers, Designs for Dignity breathes new life into spaces that serve vulnerable populations.

Jen emphasizes the need for nonprofits to think beyond immediate needs and consider future growth and flexibility in their spaces. Tune in as Tom and Robin explore the intricacies of the design process with Jen, touching upon the importance of timing, stakeholder buy-in and long-term vision.


Welcome to The One Thing Podcast brought to you by the Horton Group. My name is Tom Kallai, and with me as always is Robin Bettenhausen.

So, it is winter in Chicago and for the past week we’ve all been stuck in the freezing cold, which keeps everybody stuck inside your house. And if you’re like me, when you’re stuck at home, you start to notice all the little things that are sitting around, maybe all the little projects you still haven’t gotten to, and all the things that might drive you crazy, or also the things that might make you feel really comfy and cozy. And I’ll say this, in the past week, I think I’ve noticed that the thing in my environment that drives me the most up a wall is my kids love to leave every little trinket or every little thing that they’ve taken out on the stairs for someone else to take up the stairs. I think they’re expecting either me or my wife to do it for them, but I’m just like, we have to stop this. It’s driving me bananas. Robin, is there anything that you’ve noticed over like the last couple weeks of Sub-Zero temperatures that you really love or that are driving you nuts?

You know what, I think along that same vein, ’cause I also have three kids, as you know, walking in the door and seeing the piles of boots and gloves and coats. I mean, the teenager doesn’t wear coats, but the other ones do. So, it’s just everywhere. I’m with you, it’s just all over the house.

So, coming off a week where we’ve all been smacked in the face with our own personal environments and the effect they can have on us, I can’t think of a better guest than our guest today. Jen Sobecki is the chief executive or chief Everything Officer, as she would say, of Designs for Dignity. They’re a Chicago-based nonprofit whose mission is a bit different from what we usually see. Designs For Dignity works in the service of other nonprofits, uh, in a really unique way. So, Jen, thanks for joining us today.

Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

So, I’m gonna give you the same question that I just gave to Robin. While we’re stuck inside or if you’re stuck in the house, are there things that you really enjoy or really can affect your mood or things in a positive way or maybe in a negative way?

Uh, a little bit of both. You know, I think from when the, when it’s cold outside, there’s nothing better. I love to cook and eat. I’m always thinking about my next meal, so making a big pot of spaghetti sauce or putting a roast in the oven. Um, but things that annoy me is all the salt

that gets tracked into the house, taking the dog out. And then you gotta, I feel like all I do is clean the floors, but, um, spring is on its way.

I hope so. Looking forward to some sunshine and, and Spring for sure.

A Need for Design Help

Fingers crossed. Absolutely. So, I mean, designs For Dignity has a very unique offering to nonprofits. How did you first identify the need for design help in the nonprofit space?

You know, we’ve been around for, this is our 23rd year, and we were pretty much born from the idea that everybody should have access to good design. And how that occurred was with our first project up in Gurnee called Zacharia Center, and they had funding to build a building from the ground up, but they had $0 for furnishings or finishes and that sort of thing. And so, our founder, Susie Fredman, was friends with the executive director and she said, “You know what, let me tap into my vendor resource partners and see what I might be able to pull together.” And she made a few phone calls and before you knew it, she’s got conference tables, task chairs, you know, kids’ tables, um, bookshelves, you name it, carpet tiles. Uh, and we were able to outfit this 12,000 square foot space with the help of basically the excess that’s in the design industry. You know, maybe it’s a discontinued finish or fabric and that sort of thing. And so all these resources got redeployed for this sexual abuse counseling center, and that was the birth of Designs for Dignity. It’s like, if we can do this for them, why can’t we do this for every nonprofit in Chicagoland? So, 23 years later, we’ve got 280 projects under our belt. We’ve deployed almost $18 million in furnishings or finishes. So yeah, it’s, it’s been tremendous, and it impacted the lives and not only the clients, but the staff that are serving these people too, which is great.

Engaging with Nonprofits

That’s amazing. How would a nonprofit typically engage with Designs for Dignity and what does that process look like, start to finish?

Sure. So, we have an application process online on our website. It’s a PDF that folks can download. If they have questions, they can reach out to myself or my colleague Ed Hanlon. And, um, we look, really look at, you know, some of it is word of mouth. So, if we’ve worked with, for instance, I know you guys talked to Ben over at Cornerstone Services and that’s how we kind of got connected. He might reach out to fellow peers and say, “Hey, Designs for Dignity did this for us. If you’re looking to renovate or if you get funding from state or federal to like renovate your space, they should be the first person you call because they’re gonna stretch those dollars for you.” Um, you know, and we do that in a design driven way. It’s not just, you know, churn and burn and spend down a grand, it’s, it’s really done in a purposeful way. So, you know, whether it’s word of mouth or application process or sometimes a board member of ours might run into a nonprofit that needs our help, it’s like we just, you know, keep the, keep the pipeline going and look at where we can make our best impact. So, looking at the number of projects we have on our docket at the time, who, you know, who are clients serving, what’s the ch impact that we can have with leveraged donated inventory and design hours and that sort of thing. So, um, we typically take on anywhere from 10 to 12 projects a year on our roster. So, you know, we do a lot with a little, ’cause we’re a staff of two and we really engage our core of volunteers to make things happen.

Mm. From a process perspective, about how long does it take? Does it really depend on the, the type of the project you do about 10 to 12 a year?

It does, I think depending on the scope of, you know, if it’s a ground up facility, you know, you’ve got other people involved as part of the team. Um, if it’s a quick refresh of a lobby or a counseling space, that can be, you know, as short as a couple of months or, you know, a couple weeks if we really have our stuff together. Um, and, you know, can plug resources from A to B, we have a 23,000 square foot warehouse that we utilize to house carpet, tiles, furnishings, lighting, you name it. Um, and we get that replenished every, um, spring when the showrooms inside and outside of the Merchandise Mart are ready to turn over and show their new wares, if you will. We’ll pick up carpet tile, we’ll pick up task chairs, conference tables, and then store that in our warehouse and then redeploy that through the designers that volunteer with us on all of the project sites throughout the year. So yeah, it’s, uh, it’s quite an operation, but the, the end result is tremendous to see, you know, these spaces get refreshed with, you know, excess in the industry. Uh, and, you know, everybody is giving back and keeping things sustainable too for our environment, which is awesome.

I’m just thinking back into my own life and anytime I’m gonna start any kind of like home renovation or project, I usually think like, I can do this myself, and then I get a third of the way into the project and realize I have none of the tools that I need and I’ve got a hole in the wall and now, um, 12 trips to Home Depot.

Yes. And it’s like, why didn’t we just call the people who know how to do this rather than you trying to do it yourself?

So, applying that same logic, what kind of slip ups or issues do you see maybe some of the nonprofits that you help with get into that you can maybe help them out with before it becomes an issue?

Sure. I think, um, one of the biggest issues that can happen is that we get involved too late in the process with the organization. So, they’ve already got floor plans done and you know, I, uh, paint color, you know, too much already picked out and we might have been able to help redesign a space that either, you know, allows more programming to happen. Um, you know, and then the other would be not having buy-in from their board of directors or key stakeholders to take on a project. So, then you kind of like stop and start. Um, and then the last one probably is like, not thinking big enough, not thinking long term enough, like reach for the pie in the sky. Like, you know, don’t design the space that you’re gonna outgrow in a couple of years, you know, because then you’re wasting all those resources on something that, you know, now you’re busting at the seams because you’ve got more counselors on staff. And so, you know, helping folks think bigger, think long term, you know, how are they, how are they seeing themselves grow in the next five years And then we try to, you know, design the space, you know, for future growth or maximize space or keep things flexible enough that things can ebb and flow so that they’re not, you know, growing out of their space before they need to

’cause it, you know, it’s kind of, a lot of times it’s a one-time shot that they get with funding or, you know, an opportunity to do that. So, we wanna make sure we’re putting their best foot forward in that process.

Yeah, I think that’s a, that’s a great note that Designs for Dignity isn’t just, you know, isn’t just like picking out paint colors, it’s designing functionality for the long-term fulfillment of the organization’s mission.

Absolutely. And it’s hard to do that without a bunch of in-kind donations. So, we had noticed that in 2020 Crain’s had outlined that the in-kind donations of those materials and furnishings that you just talked about, two designs for Dignity had actually tripled under your leadership. And so we were curious, how do you build such a strong network of manufacturers and vendors? And you mentioned designers who are willing to make those in-kind donations and provide that pro bono work.

Sure. So, you know, it takes a team to do what we, we do, you know, I have an excellent colleague, Ed Hanlon, who’s our project manager, and he really oversees all the ins and outs of our inventory. Um, and you know, we’ve been around 23 years, so it’s like mentioning NeoCon or Design Days. We have those relationships with those showrooms or vendors and they know like we’re their first call when they’re ready to turn over stuff. It’s like, let’s go to Designs for Dignity and then whatever they can’t take, maybe we’ll then ship it to a different showroom. But they know we’re really the most sustainable outlet for these resources. So, you know, building those relationships each and every year, reaching out when we know they’re gonna close down and what do you have for us? We’ll go tour the showroom. Um, and then even, you know, with our volunteer designers and the design firms that we work with, if they’re renovating a for-profit project and know that a bunch of seating or tables need to come out of their spaces, we’re also their first call, which is great, you know, and it, it, and they know that the product’s gonna end up, you know, in its next chapter and benefit, you know, those that wouldn’t be able to have those, you know, it’s like, it’s nice to have mass matching task chairs and not have duct tape on the arm keeping it together. You know, just because you’re a nonprofit doesn’t mean you need to look like a nonprofit. So, we really bring that dignity to every space that we’re designing.

Engaging Designers to Commit to Pro Bono Work

And just to follow up on that, ’cause I, I think it is interesting that you mentioned earlier that it’s a staff of two and that it’s all just volunteer work. How have you engaged with designers to get them to come on to do pro bono work?

Over our two decades there, you know, you’ve witnessed some ebb and flows like when the financial markets crashed in 2007, it was like a lot of designers are like, “I’ve got a lot of free time. I don’t have the clients, what can I give you some hours?” And so you start that, you know, you meet people where they are with their capacity to be able to give back time and talent. Um, and a lot of the firms, they kind of pledge kind of like, we’re gonna give back a percentage of our billable hours to Designs for Dignity or another organization to do some pro bono work. And I think we’re fortunate that we’re usually top of the list for those give back hours. Um, and I think we give designers an opportunity to work on something that’s not, it’s a different type of project. So, you think about, you’re truly making a difference for women fleeing domestic violence situations, or you’re giving, you know, youth that are LGBTQA home because they’ve been kicked out of their apartment or their family’s house because of who they are. And so, and that makes a big difference on the designer’s psyche too. Knowing the work that they’re plugging in and giving back is truly making a tremendous impact, uh, for those that we’re serving. You know, so it’s kind of, I wouldn’t say it’s addictive, but I do know that we have several designers are like, okay, when’s my next project? Like, what can I hop back on? I’m done with this one, you know when can I get back into the, you know, the hopper for something? So, it’s cool.

I love that you mentioned the different missions of the organizations that you work with. You know, we look back and I know there was a 2019 article in IND, uh, magazine and it said that Designs for Dignity was founded on the belief that every individual should have access to environments that support the wellness of the human spirit. So, you guys have designed great spaces, super welcoming, super beautiful for places like the Harbor, Aspire and Cornerstone, and they all have very different missions. So how does the individual organization’s mission and culture help inform the design of that space for that specific client?

Absolutely. Each client that we work with is different. They might have a different mission. They’re in a different, you know, area of, of Chicagoland. And so, we do a participatory design process. We bring all the stakeholders to the table, whether that’s board members, program directors, executive directors, you know, the counselors, because every input that they have matters in the output that we create for them. So, you know, we need to hear from the people that are boots on the ground doing the work. What do they need? What’s a typical day in the life of your work as a counselor or a medical provider, that sort of thing. So, we bring to the table all the experts that are needed. If there’s a need for lighting design, we do that. Um, but we, you know, we’re acutely aware of the populations that they’re serving and we approach every project with, um, a trauma informed lens, which means, you know, basically we know every organization we’re working with in one sense or another, the people that they’re serving have experienced some form of trauma. Whether that’s, you know, experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, having food scarcity. You know, so you’re going to a food pantry. How do you create a space that doesn’t feel like a food pantry? It feels like instead that you’re grocery shopping and you have choice and autonomy to get the things that you need to bring home to your family to have a nutritious meal. Um, so, you know, and in other aspects we’ll do incorporating branding colors or looking at color in itself, it’s like we want to incorporate soothing colors into an environment. So that creates, you know, a sense of calm and safety for, you know, say it’s a counseling center or um, a women’s shelter and that sort of thing. You know, there’s a reason that McDonald’s and Burger King are bright and, you know, flashy colors. ’cause they want you in and out of that space where, you know, you go to a spa, you go to get your hair done. It’s like those are in, usually in greens and soothing colors ’cause it makes you feel relaxed and calm and, you know, it plays a number on your psyche. So, we definitely incorporate, you know, all of those principles to make sure that we’re putting out a design that fits the bill for each or in every unique organization we’re serving.

I love that, Jen. I just think I can’t wait to see all the different spaces that you’ve designed. We’ve been able to walk through Cornerstone, but I wanna see the rest.

Designs for Dignity Recent Projects

Absolutely. I feel like this last question is a little bit like asking a parent, which child is their favorite, but I’m gonna do it anyway. So, of all the projects that you’ve been a part of for Designs for Dignity, is there one that sticks out in your mind as being truly, you know, transformative? Whether it was the biggest physical change or the biggest impact for, you know, the people that it served at the organization that you helped? Anything that stands out, who was your favorite child? Jen, just tell us.

I know, right? Uh, you know, it’s, it’s hard. There’s been so many projects, but I think one of our most recent projects, hands down has gotta be our work with the harbor. Um, you know, we worked with the architect and the client to create a ground up shelter on some land that they had adjacent to their old shelter, which was, you know, they inherited the building, and it was an old, like, kind of farmhouse. I mean, it was so tattered and torn and needed to be torn down. And it broke my heart that clients were actually residing in the space. But, you know, the program had to do what they could do. Um, but we came in and created a shelter that had two separate wings. One for the younger girls that were, you know, experiencing homelessness. And then another for the older girls, you know, just ’cause it’s like, if I’m a teenager or 1819, I don’t wanna be hanging out with the 10 and 12 year olds ’cause you’re, you know, you have different interests and, and all of that. So, we created this space that they could each thrive and live in their separate wings, but could come together and cook together, sit down and watch TV programs together. Um, and it was to the tune of like $180,000 worth of Don. We got flooring donated furniture, donated carpet tiles. Um, we had the kitchen backsplash, the client had a relationship with an appliance of vendor, so all the appliances were donated, you know, and overall it was like a $2.6 million project. But to be able to save that $180,000 that can go back into program for those young women, Mm-Hmm. Um, and I think the fact that, you know, knowing and witnessing where they were living before and then watching them be able to go through that front door and cross that threshold and have their own individual room with a brand-new comforter, it just doesn’t get any better than that. Quite honestly. You, you see, you know, the girls are like, oh my God, this is for, you guys did this for us. Like, it gives them such a sense of self worth and empowerment that, um, you can’t make that up. So, it’s definitely hands down my favorite project that we’ve done most recently. Um, and I would say Zacharia Center, our first project, even that though, that was before my time. We worked again with them on a Skokie facility. And, you know, and the same thing we took, we built a fireplace right in the entrance and it was built with bricks from old bricks from Wrigley Field. Um, so there’s like repurposing a little piece of history, but then when those clients who are, you know, have experienced sexual abuse walk through that front door and there’s a soothing fireplace and they sit and wait until they’re, you know, their counselor’s ready, it’s like you can’t get much more dignified of a space than that. And I think, um, and I think the staff are proud to work there too, when our work is done. So, um, I have a lot of favorites, but those are two that, that, you know, stand out to me.

I love it. That’s fantastic. Thank you so much.

And, um, I just think what was meaningful about today was just to learn more about the spaces that you’ve created, the people you’ve created them for. I love the idea of thinking about maybe even waste, right? Like you talk about a conference or NeoCon and afterwards, what happens to all that material, the ability to reuse in such a way that is a gift to others.

And I, I love everything that you shared. So, Tom and I just want to say thank you for joining us today. We will link some of those, um, projects in the show notes here on our podcast. Great. We’ll also put in your, um, website, but I really hope that you’re just flooded with requests from our other groups that are listening to this. And just again, want to say thank you so much for joining us here today on The One Thing podcast.

Thanks so much. It was a pleasure to be here.

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