The 4 Things You Need to do When Starting a Furniture Bank (Plus 1 Bonus)

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We get asked a lot of questions about starting a furniture bank. Ending furniture poverty benefits those suffering from chronic homelessness and other poverty issues. And the need is there. In Canada, almost 13% of Canadians experience core housing needs. In the US, 13.4% of people live below the national poverty line and in some cases, being slightly above the poverty line is just as difficult.

So, if you were heading out the door to start a new furniture bank, what would be the first stop? Furniture Bank thinks there are four primary considerations (with a bonus at the end):

  • Define the Need
  • Learn About Space Limitations
  • Understand How You’re Getting Furniture
  • Determine Funding

These four things are an absolute must in order to run a successful furniture bank with any chance to expand if (and when) the needs arise.

Defining the Need

starting a furniture bank

Poverty (and subsequently, furniture poverty) is rampant in our society. So, the need for furniture banks is almost always there. But, maybe you live in a more affluent area. Or maybe you’re from a small town, and the need for these services isn’t as big. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start one, but the needs of the service might be different than in an urban environment.

Most furniture banks leverage referral agencies to help determine eligible community members that require their services. To help more people, establish a network of agencies in your area and act as the furniture hub to support these organizations and their members.

However, you’ll need to know the focus of the local agencies helping people in need. Many agencies focus on different things: newcomers, homelessness, at-risk youth, women and children leaving domestic violence. Understand your area and where you can help. Additionally, when you do research, the agencies helping community members might already have elements of a furniture bank as part of their program, so maybe you’ll need a different approach.

If it makes sense to continue building a furniture bank program, move to the next step.

Space, Space and More Space

Furniture banks are always space-intensive. Having adequate space to accept, store, and ship furniture is key for any successful furniture bank. Many furniture banks start out of church basements, garages, or in a small warehouse. However, the most successful furniture banks rely on a large space to process and store furniture. In most cases, to facilitate efficient and effective operations, a furniture bank should be at least 4,000 square feet.

If obtaining a space of that size isn’t possible to start, it’s ok to start out small. But make sure you have a plan for growth. You probably do not want to burden your budget with a large space if you only initially require a small space to conduct the activities of your furniture bank. Over time, however, you may require more space, and it might be easier to grow within your existing space than to plan a move.

Getting the Furniture

Delivery boys with truck

To fight furniture poverty, you need furniture (also known as in-kind donations). Consistent in-kind donations of furniture are essential to your program. Your inventory level and the number of community members you can help will depend almost entirely on these contributions. Most furniture banks accept donations from individuals and corporations. Large corporate donations from furniture retailers and hotels will be the most efficient way to initially build your inventory.

However, the other thing to consider is how will you get these items? Do you have trucks to collect the goods? Or are you relying on people to drop off furniture? Running your own vehicles gives you a revenue-generating option as you can create a professional furniture removal service and run it as a social enterprise. But the cost of obtaining trucks is high.

Some considerations when deciding your vehicle options:

  • Contracting with an independent transportation firm
  • Renting a truck as needed, such as one day a month or once a week, to do pick-ups
  • Leasing a truck on an ongoing basis
  • Purchasing your own truck(s)

How Will You Be Funded?

funding
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

There are many different funding options for charities – earned revenue, government funding, and donations being the primary examples. Even though the work furniture banks do can often lead to government grants, it shouldn’t be your sole source of revenue. In Canada, only 20.9% of revenue is generated by government funding. In the US, it’s significantly more, as a whopping 94% of revenues for tax-exempt organizations came from some sort of government funding (contracts, fees, grants, and gifts).

Government funding can be a great source of revenue when you first start out. However, you don’t want to rely on it. What if priorities or governments change and you no longer have the revenue to run your furniture bank?

Donations are great and show support from your community. However, once again, they make up only a small amount of what you need to run your furniture bank. The amount of revenue generated from donations is around 12%.

Other funding methods consist of foundation grants, corporate donations, and special fundraising events. To help increase your chance of becoming a recipient of any grants, make sure you track the data of the community members you serve. Collect the basic demographic information (individuals and families) and their situation (formerly homeless, newcomers or refugees, at-risk youth, women and children, etc.). Knowing this information will help you target grants that work to help solve these challenges.

Operating a social enterprise is how many furniture banks around North America provide themselves with a majority of their revenue. Operating a furniture removal service or a thrift store is built into the work we do – collecting and giving furniture.

The Technological Bonus – Software

While the most important things to get a furniture bank off the ground are discussed above. Before you officially get going, you’ll probably want to figure out your software needs. There are many options. And, for the first bit, you might not need a ton of different software, especially if your run a small operation. However, once you start to grow, you’ll want to make things as easy as possible. These are just some of the areas you’ll want to consider having dedicated software options:

  • Inventory and in-kind delivery tracking
  • Community member management
  • Communications and marketing
  • Fundraising
    Trucking and logistics

Using technology helps your track both operations and your impact. Software can give you an understanding of where you need to improve, where you excel, and enables you to give hard data to potential funders. Focus on the things above, but don’t forget about software once you get going.

It’s Only the Beginning

This post isn’t a full intensive guide to running a furniture bank. However, it should give you some stepping stones to see if starting a furniture bank is right for your area. Additionally, it should give you an idea of operational considerations to make sure you succeed in getting furniture and helping your community members out of furniture poverty.

All furniture banks have the combined goal to end furniture poverty across North America. And the best way to do that is to give them the items they need to turn their house into a home. Above are just some of the steps to start doing just that.

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