The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) is an umbrella membership body serving the voluntary and community organizations collectively known as the Third Sector. NICVA's mission is to strengthen the sector by providing advocacy, support, and leadership. The importance of the sector was elevated as the government struggled to provide social services during "the Troubles" -- three decades of sectarian conflict beginning in the late 1960s. Third Sector organizations expanded their efforts during this era, and NICVA adapted to support them with trainings and tools, by hosting convenings, and through facilitating policy work.
When the Troubles came to an uneasy close in 1998, the Third Sector evolved to support the government's peacebuilding efforts. While NICVA played a key role in steering the continued growth of the sector, physical space limited its operations and impact. A labyrinth-like facility with small rooms and columns made it hard for NICVA to attract and serve members. The building's location in South Belfast was inaccessible to many Third Sector organizations.
To address these challenges, NICVA leaders chose to construct a new headquarters that would support the organization's mission and serve as a center for the Third Sector. They also infused the project with an even greater vision: to help build a peaceful and fair Northern Ireland. The organization had support to pursue its aspiration through sizeable grants from The Atlantic Philanthropies and other philanthropic and public funders.
NICVA made the courageous decision to build on a site in North Belfast that served as a peaceline between predominantly Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. Although the community viewed the area as "still in a spiral of decline," NICVA's building design represented confidence in its future. A large, open foyer would connect the two previously divided communities physically and symbolically. Windows and other design elements would bring accessibility to an area that typically fortified structures due to violence. NICVA emphasized stakeholder involvement throughout the project process, communicating with staff, area residents, government officials, and others to build relationships and create a shared vision for the new facility.
The building opened in 2001 to a positive response from neighbors and has generated significant benefits since that time. NICVA expanded its programs and services and increased membership from 250 to more than 1,000 organizations. An attractive facility drew participants who might not have otherwise attended convenings. It also contributed to professionalization of the Third Sector, helping it move from a group of "golden-hearted amateurs" to become a legitimate complement to the government. The high-quality design also made a powerful statement in a section of Belfast struggling to recover from the Troubles. NICVA's success encouraged investment and brought many Third Sector organizations to its location on Duncairn Gardens-- helping create a center for social change-making. This case study is based on research conducted by MASS Design Group in March 2015. Funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, it illustrates how a capital project can strengthen its primary constituents, while also serving social change and economic growth in its neighborhood.