The Social Social Enterprise

Furniture Bank is gradually becoming a household name. It’s becoming synonymous with the idea that if you have furniture that you no longer need and want to get rid of it, that you can donate it. This is fundamentally what Furniture Bank does. We collect and inspect furniture and household items and work with partnering agencies to connect us to individuals and families who need these items to continue a journey, their journey. We focus on women’s shelters, newcomers to Canada, homeless in transition, youth, children and families and we ensure that the service does not cost them a single penny.

Within the social enterprise space, Furniture Bank is also well-known. According to the Toronto Enterprise Fund, we are the largest and have become one of the most successful social enterprises in Toronto.

So, all in all, sounds like a pretty good story. But, is it enough? Is the “business” of Furniture Bank impacting systemic root cause? Are we creating sustainable change? Are we fundamentally transforming lives? These were difficult questions to answer for us, and in the last year or so, we’ve been actively discussing, thinking and re-thinking our “business” model to see if there was a way for us to strategically leverage and re-position our existing assets, our existing “business” to create sustainable change and to transform lives so much so, that the long term impact achieves a macro level result.

Before I elaborate, let’s just do a quick definition of social enterprise. “A social purpose enterprise is a business venture established by a not-for-profit organization that creates both community connections and real economic opportunities for homeless and at-risk populations by developing business that balance both revenue generation and a social mission” – Toronto Enterprise Fund Website.

The outcome of all the discussion has led us to a point of transformation or what we believe to be transformational particularly in the social enterprise space. So, how do we plan on doing this?

There’s a Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This proverb, embodies the exact strategic direction of Furniture Bank. What we currently do today is an essential part of the social services ecosystem in Toronto. For example, a partnering agency connects us to a homeless individual coming out of a shelter into a transitional home and we provide this individual with some of the things that we take for granted like a home and furniture and household items. This is all thanks to generous donations from you, our donors. This is our “business”, our life blood. It is the “revenue generating” side of our “business”. The furniture improves quality of life but only in the short term.

Imagine now, if we extended our relationship with these agencies and their clients and also provided them with employment. Sustainable employment and not necessarily employment within Furniture Bank. Imagine if we connected and created path for someone from being completely homeless on the street or escaping a war ridden country to being fully employed, receiving a pay cheque, raising a family and giving back to the social services ecosystem. Well, this is precisely the vision of the program we are launching in 2013.

What’s beautiful about Furniture Bank is that its operations are diverse and simple. It provides a solid platform on which to build, measure and implement programming in the traditional social services sense. Working with our partnering agencies as our primary source of at-risk youth and newcomers, we want to be the grounds to teach them life skills, give them work experience through formal training and certification, empower them with the ability to acquire a job and then actually find them a job by working with amazing private sector organizations who share our same vision.

Furniture Bank is now Canada’s largest, Social Social enterprise. It is transformational and it will change lives and hopefully other non-profits similar to ours will consider the same model. Our programs have the potential to provide multiples on your social return on investment. If a donation of $1 today provides a social return of $2, the implementation and success of this programming model, can turn that $2 into $10.

Stay tuned for more updates on our progress!

By Andrew Chung 

About Andrew: For the last 13 years, Andrew has been involved with the United Way in a variety of capacities including impact analysis, strategic consulting and primarily, agency assessment. By day, Andrew is the VP of Products and Innovation at Veriday Inc., a digital marketing firm. This is Andrew’s fourth year on the board of Furniture Bank. In his capacity as the Chair of Development, he works in partnership with the Executive Director of Development on transformational strategies in fundraising, marketing and program development. 

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