Some say The Collaboratory is without focus, but founder Peter Benkendorf sees a single mission.
“Our reason for being is unleashing Dayton’s potential,” he said.
That includes bringing people together to bring ideas to life, resulting in projects like the Dayton Sewing Collaborative, Silver is Gold and Dayton Porchfest. Some projects originate from within The Collaboratory, but many people show up with their own ideas. The organization helps to build the movement.
That’s what happened with The Journalism Lab, a nonprofit organization that was co-founded by Irish journalist Stephen Starr to give residents access to learn industry skills to report and engage in their communities.
Starr moved to Dayton in 2018 with few local connections – his wife had grown up in Columbus, but the pair had met and lived overseas before moving to Ohio. A Google search and an email led Starr to Benkendorf and The Collaboratory.
“Lots of us have ideas, and lots of us have half-baked plans. Getting them out of our heads and into reality is a big step,” said Starr, who nominated Benkendorf as a Dayton Daily News Community Gem.
Benkendorf asked Starr pointed questions and helped him map out the direction of the organization. The Journalism Lab was launched in 2020.
“Coming in with a completely clean slate, he helped me form my initial ideas about the region as well,” said Starr, who lives in Beavercreek and works as a freelance reporter.
Benkendorf, 61, now lives in the St. Anne’s Hill neighborhood, but The Collaboratory got its start in Chicago when he founded the nonprofit organization Involvement Advocacy in 1992. Its first initiative connected residents of the Cabrini-Green public housing community and a north shore suburb after a shooting in each location.
His daughter enrolled in the University of Dayton in 2006. Not long after, Benkendorf, who is originally from Cleveland, realized that the city would be a great place to continue his work and moved here in 2009.
“I felt like I needed to get back to my urban roots,” he said.
One of The Collaboratory’s first local projects was the Ten Living Cities symposium held that year, highlighting and celebrating urban renewal programs in Dayton and other cities that were listed in a Forbes list of the country’s fastest dying cities published the year before.
The Collaboratory has since launched almost two dozen initiatives and has co-created, incubated or otherwise supported more than 50 other projects. The organization makes a difference because it shows others the impact that they can make, he said.
“The other piece is the ability to see dots that others can’t see, and connect them in ways others can’t imagine,” he said.
One of its newest projects is the Community of Well-Being Initiative, which aims to measure the well-being of residents throughout the Miami Valley with a goal of helping everyone reach their full potential to help the region thrive.
“This is transformational work that nobody in the country is doing,” he said.
The Collaboratory’s role isn’t to run programs, Benkendorf said. Instead, it flourishes on the “unexpected outcomes of improbable pairings,” helping new initiatives build networks, form relationships, find the right people and fit into the community.
“We’re here to get stuff started,” he said.