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A brightly striped bunk bed. Beautiful hemlock handrails. A row overflowing with hardwood flooring leftovers. An antique single bed with an abandoned refinishing job. Habitat for Humanity’sReStores are cornucopias for home reno bargain hunters. One of the best known social ventures in Canada, ReStores give donated building materials and home furnishings a second life while generating revenue for local Habitat affiliates.


The ReStore idea was born in Winnipeg in 1991 as a way to fund the organization’s home building projects for low-income families. Today, there are more than 700 Restores across North America and Australia; 62 of which are in Canada, with six more opening this year.


From the beginning, the ReStore concept was not only about generating funds but also about making a positive environmental impact by diverting materials that would normally head for the landfill. In the last decade, the stores’ environmental mission has grown increasingly relevant and it’s now become a destination green business. ReStores track their environmental impact along with their sales: since 1991, Habitat for Humanity Canada estimates stores have diverted more than 80,000 tonnes of materials from landfills.


Building without structure


What makes the ReStore social enterprise model unique – and challenging – is the fact that every store is owned by a local Habitat affiliate.


“There is no corporate structure to encourage consistency,” says Sam Purdy, national director of ReStores Services at Habitat for Humanity Canada. Despite the valuable global Habitat brand – one that’s been independently pegged at $3.1 billion – a lack of brand consistency and leveraging of the brand is one of Purdy’s biggest pet peeves.


For example, there are several different logos in use at stores across the country. While branding standards were put in place a few years ago, “we offer them the opportunity to improve and they decide to accept it or not.”


Most stores do, but ultimately, the decision to improve a store comes down to money. ReStores are part of a charitable structure and budgets are tight. At least 80% of all staff must be volunteers due to Canada Revenue Agency restrictions on charities.


Constant and consistent revenue


Despite the challenges, ReStores are doing what they set out to: generating constant and consistent funds to fulfill Habitat’s mission. The average store has sales of $450,000 a year. In 2009, Canadian ReStore sales were $27 million, with $9.6 million in profit. “Without ReStores, some (affiliates) simply couldn’t build as many homes,” says Purdy. He estimates one quarter of the homes constructed in Canada would not have been built.


The former President of Ryobi Technologies Canada, Purdy left the corporate world and joined Habitat in 2008 after a very short flirt with retirement. In the last two years, he and his team have strengthened the organization’s national program of support for ReStores, which includes the production and distribution of PSAs and other marketing and promotion, governance assistance, training programs, group discounts, and IT infrastructure.


Purdy is now ready to retire for real. He’s leaving Habitat at the end of May, confident in the bright future ahead for ReStores.


“There is significant opportunity to grow the ReStore business in Canada,” says Purdy. More stores, increased sales volume, and greater efficiency at the store level will lead to more profitable stores – and more homes built. “It’s already happening.”


When stars get in your eyes


ReStores will certainly remain the eclectic stores that they’ve become known for. Artists, home renovators, cottagers, and those who can’t afford to shop elsewhere make up just part of the diverse range of returning customers who know that the hidden gems you don’t find on one trip may be there the next. Among the more interesting items donated in the past are a fire truck, pianos and organs, part of the sets from Cirque du Soleil and Mike Myers’ Love Guru, even a birthing table.


Purdy sees plenty of opportunities for nonprofits to establish their own successful social enterprises. But he cautions them not to lose sight of their mission.


“They need to really understand their own business and how it will impact [that],” he says. “It can consume you. Understand your resources, people and otherwise. Get people in the right position. And invest wisely. Just make sure you don’t get stars in your eyes.”


Jennifer King is the director of Social Ventures initiative, Capacity Waterloo Region.

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