With 3 months under my belt, I thought as the new Executive Director, Operations I would reflect on the most stunning things I have learned about Furniture Bank and the Social Enterprise it has created over the last 5 years.
What is Furniture Bank’s Social Enterprise?
First a little background on what a social enterprise is. Simply put – Social enterprises apply business solutions to social problems.
Our goal at Furniture Bank is to leverage the social enterprise to work towards achieving sustainability through offering commercial services instead of relying solely on grants and donations. The wonderful thing about operating a Social Enterprise is since there are no shareholders in a non-profit organization, the profits from the related social enterprise are completely re-invested in the work we do at Furniture Bank. Thus every opportunity we are able to provide a pickup or delivery service allows us to reduce our dependence on grants and donations.
In 2014, we are expanding our Social Enterprise with the addition of workshop we call Repair Up that will look to provide a valuable service as a carpentry and upholstery workshop for the community. Our Social Enterprise operates as the logistics arm for us at Furniture Bank. We are a registered charity that collects donated furniture and household goods, and provides furniture to refugees, new immigrants to Canada, women and children coming out of abusive situations and the formerly homeless.
Furniture Bank provides three distinct services: a pickup service for people who wish to donate furniture to Furniture Bank, a low cost furniture delivery service for clients of Furniture Bank, and a low cost moving service for clients as well. We are one of the largest Social Enterprises in Toronto and we work hard to be a major employer of people with barriers to employment. We provide job and life skills training and/or employment to youth experiencing barriers, individuals suffering from minor mental disabilities, people with disabilities, people receiving social assistance and other people with limited employment opportunities through our Skills Training and Employment program Leg Up.
We are very proud of our successes in helping our participants take their first steps towards financial independence.
For me, I have spent all my professional life running businesses within the traditional capitalist model – where business principles, market forces and growth values (competition, diversification, entrepreneurship, innovation, and a focus on the bottom line) ruled. As successful as these businesses were – I continued to see greed completely crowd out any social responsibilities we had to leave the world in a better state than we found it. Big or small all companies should have an active social outcome agenda the fits the aspirations of the employees and their shareholders. My personal shift into Social Enterprise (and Furniture Bank) frees me to apply my skills and energy fully knowing each success is supporting creation of more good in the world, and where possible co-existing with traditional public sector services to support the public interest.
What’s so special about Social Enterprises?
I believe social enterprise in Canada is the business model for the 21st century.
A definition I found most helpful is: ‘a social enterprise is a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners’ (DTI, 2002). My simple summary of this definition is “making a profit and a difference”.
In my short time here, what I have found inspiring about the social enterprise at Furniture Bank is how it infects everyone it touches with a boost of positivity and appreciation of the benefits of making a contribution – be it donating their favourite old sofa, donating their time to help as a Showroom Guide, or donating their skills and time to become regular volunteers and board members to help guide the growth of Furniture Bank across Canada.
I have been searching for more meaning in my life as my children grow, and the traditional capitalism model continues to fail in stepping up to help social and environmental problems. For me I have found that Furniture Bank and its social enterprise in its short time has helped me see the opportunity to fully realize this search for meaning.
I reflected to my team here – we are trully blessed, we have a charitable mission that can be fully addressed across Canada IF as a society we actively begin to call Furniture Banks across Canada and donate their furniture rather then sending them to the garbage dump.
We serve over 70 agencies across the GTA at the moment, but we set our sights on supporting all agencies that represent our clients, and in turn look for corporations that want to partner with us to secure the furniture donations.
What Will Be New at Furniture Bank this year?
My background has always been about maximizing the potential of technology on businesses processes. We have been fortunate to be powered by Salesforce.com through their 1:1:1 pledge and their platform since 2008 which has become one of key mechanisms to scale beyond a Toronto neighbourhood, into an organization that collects gently used furniture from Oakville to Pickering, and north to York Region and distributes them to clients in need from across the GTA. However my time with the startups, mobile, ecommerce, SAAS and digital businesses has taught me we can do so much more. The heart of this is the importance of the digital channel for communicating the impact we have as we operate. As you might imagine, getting people to care deeply enough about our cause is extremely challenging, particularly given the number of emails, social invitations, and requests most people get on a daily basis.
Traditionally a nonprofit has a hard time sticking out from the pack and getting onto everyone’s radar. With my arrival we have chosen to focus on radical transparency, giving our donors the security and comfort of knowing that every piece of furniture or dollar they donated would directly benefit the charitable cause. While I won’t go so far to say we are trying to transform nonprofit marketing, we are determined to share over 16 years of stories, social impact and milestones as Furniture Bank moves into the future.
To that end we immediately rebuilt our website – moving away from a “developer can only touch it” to one where all staff are encouraged and expected to active contributors. We each see amazing things every day and I wanted to empower everyone here who was telling me these stories to start telling our donors, partners, and friends. So mornings, weekends, evenings, and my short stay in the Cardiac Ward (all is well now) we relaunched FurnitureBank.org .
There is still lots to do, but leveraging a marketing automation platform (Hubspot) we are now able to actively conduct ongoing inbound marketing and build an online community of individuals who know, love, and share Furniture Bank with others — and then moving their engagement along to inspire them to take action in donating their furniture to our cause, and in turn their time and resources to further our mission. We have never had the ability to put our supporters at the center of Furniture Bank, by marrying our website, to Hubspot, and in turn to Salesforce.com, we are creating a mechanism that allows us to connect a furniture donation with the Furniture Bank cause to help end families without!
I discovered while getting my orientation, that we have over 15 years of stories written down, but never published, so these uplifting and powerful stories will be posted here at the website for everyone to read and share.