Furniture Bank, a charity and social enterprise on a mission to ensure all Canadians have the dignity of a furnished home, was founded in 1998. In the 18 years since, it has grown from serving a few hundred people each year to being on track to create homes for over 10,000 individuals and families in 2016.

That growth has been especially significant in the last couple of years – a time period when we doubled our impact… without increasing our workforce. For example, in 2014, Furniture Bank had 45 employees and served 5300 clients (those referred to us to access free furniture). Today, we still have 45 employees, and served 5400 clients in just the first 6 months of 2016 – a doubling in our primary social output metric in 2 years.

How did we do it? There are many reasons (not least the immense generosity of our donors), but much of that growth can be attributed to a change in organizational mindset, which allowed Furniture Bank to:

  1. Embrace technology as a source of increased productivity;
  2. Engage partnerships with organizations in the corporate sector.

Technology For More Good

Let’s face it – many of us working in the social sector are already working harder than we ever have; tackling huge social problems with limited time, money and resources. So how do you expand an organization’s impact without working 60 hour weeks?

At Furniture Bank, we found the answer lay in working smarter. We had to find creative and more efficient ways to make our tight resources go further. Technology allows us to do this.

For example, all our operations run on a CRM platform called Salesforce, which is the software of choice for some of the world’s largest corporate entities. This allowed us to go from an organization that relied on pen and paper to take orders, track inventory and schedule pickups & deliveries, to one that engages in those operations in real time across multiple devices… Mobile phones (carried by our furniture movers), iPads (used by our volunteers as they help clients pick items of furniture) and desktops (used by our staff to schedule and track client appointments).

The result: the efficiency gains have enabled us to serve up to 25 client families each day, and increased motivation among volunteer and front line staff.

Another example: we skilled up and now utilize a host of digital marketing products (email marketing, an optimized website, search engine and content marketing, social media, and analytics) to increase traffic to and conversions on our website. The result: a marked increase in awareness (125% more unique visitors to the website each month), and a 70% increase in the number of individual furniture and financial donors since 2014.

I know what you’re thinking… doesn’t tech cost money? The answer is ‘it depends.’

Some of the technology solutions we have adopted at Furniture Bank have been donated to us by the companies or foundations associated with the products (Salesforce, Google Apps For Work) and individual donors (iPads). Others are free or heavily discounted (Slack, Adobe Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office Suite) via non profit programs like Techsoup. And in the case of some software products like Hubspot and Skedulo, we have made an investment in them because we believe, and have evidence to prove, that the financial and efficiency gains outweigh the cost outlay.

Partnerships Amplify Good

Here’s another self evident statement to us: Furniture Bank alone does not have the capacity to create homes for all Canadians living in furniture poverty. The inherently complex nature of the social ills that social and non-profit organizations seek to tackle necessitates the use of strategic relationships, including with private sector companies.

For example, we’ve recently partnered with Endy Sleep, a Toronto based mattress retailer. When an Endy Sleep customer wishes to arrange a ‘no hassle return’ for their mattress, Furniture Bank will dispatch one of its trucks and a pair of movers to remove the mattress directly from the customer’s home. Mattresses collected by Furniture Bank will then be made available to the charity’s clients for free.

In Endy Sleep, we found a willing partner in the fight against furniture poverty. By choosing to outsource their pickups to Furniture Bank, our social enterprise benefits from pickup revenue, our clients benefit from mattresses collected, and Endy Sleep and its customers change lives.

As mattresses are a critically important item for our clients, we have also fostered relationships with organizations like Sleep Country and Simmons (who donate their overstock and recycled mattresses to Furniture Bank clients) as well. A similar partnership that enhances the lives of our clients is the one we enjoy with You Move Me. By undertaking to service our pickup customers requiring an express removal service, together, we ensure that everyone has the opportunity to see their gently used furniture go to a family in need.

In fact, one of our key marketing strategies involves outreach efforts to B2B intermediaries, those companies whose customers are in a situation that calls for the services of a furniture removal service… for example, when they have recently bought new furniture. Just like Endy Sleep, Furniture Bank has found another partner who is aligned with our social mission: Toronto-based furniture and accessories retailer casalife. The partnership consists of in-store and online messaging driving to Furniture Bank, as well as a social media campaign, visible signage on casalife’s fleet of delivery trucks and a volunteer team of casalife employees who donate their time at Furniture Bank’s warehouse.

Additionally, casalife has donated its 35,000 square foot South Etobicoke showroom as the venue for Furniture Bank’s annual gala fundraiser, “Chair Affair” scheduled for October 28th.

The punchline: don’t be afraid to ask (via an email, an invitation to connect on Linkedin, a Tweet or even a phone call). Most companies want to be good corporate citizens, and as the market increasingly rewards companies who think and act ethically, more often than not, you’ll find a receptive ear at the end of the line.

Innovating with the Social ‘End’ Impact in Mind

Furniture Bank knows that furnishing homes for tens of thousands of people across Canada is not going to occur over night. We actively embrace a long view of what a Canada full of true homes looks like, and seek to deploy technology and foster partnerships to make this picture a reality.

Here in the GTA alone we have a wait list of agency partners that will require us to scale our operations to serve over 50,000 people. On our own, scaling 500% is not possible. But with the right technology infrastructure and mutually aligned partnerships, we are confident that we can continue to grow to meet that demand. In fact, we will continue to scan for partnerships and technology solutions that permit us to ensure all Canadians enjoy the dignity of a furnished home.

Naresh de Silva is the marketing & growth manager at Furniture Bank.

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