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How Furniture Bank Used Innovative Technology to Increase Social Impact

Technology PlanningData & Relationship Management

Furniture Bank is a registered charity and social enterprise that transfers gently used furniture and housewares to people who have recently transitioned out of homelessness (including those escaping abusive situations, refugees & newcomers to Canada, etc.). Their clients are referred through 78 social agency partners and they run their operations with 38 staff members, 50 regular volunteers, 600 corporate volunteers, and 7 trucks. Learn more.

Last year, they developed a solution that enables them to help an additional 2600 households a year. How did they do this? With good tech planning. I spoke with Noah Kravitz (Community Manager and Fundraising Coordinator), Dan Kershaw (Executive Director), Naresh De Silva (Marketing Manager), and Natasha Hynes (Client Services Manager) to get their input on how they managed this process.

This post summarizes Furniture Bank’s responses and insights, so your nonprofit can learn from their experience too!

1. What prompted you to change your operations?

In February 2014, Dan Kershaw arrived on the scene as the new Executive Director. With a
background in startups and growth companies, he immediately saw the parallels between how startups and nonprofits operate. There is a similar lack of resources and the possibility of technology being used to amplify those limited resources. It was also not long before he discovered that the organization had lost about $296,000 in 2013 with a variety of contributing factors. There were clearly problems in the organizational processes and a plan needed to be created for getting back on track and operating better than ever with the ultimate focus being on helping more people.

2. What are some of the problems you identified?

One of the first things Dan noticed in the first month that he arrived were the clipboards that the volunteer showroom guides were using to input the client information. When an agency books an appointment for a client, the client would be taken to the floor to pick furniture items and all of their information would be written down into a paper form and then transferred manually into their Salesforce database. Armed with clipboards, it took about 20 - 30 min. to complete, serving 15 - 20 clients a day. It wasn’t simply that it took a long time, but errors were being made due to the need to transfer between clipboards to the actual databases creating an immediate problem to be addressed.  

3. Which systems were you using and how are you using them now?

Currently Salesforce is the system in use for their client intake information and also for impact statistics. The shift was from using the clipboards to iPads that were integrated with the Salesforce backend so that any information being entered into the iPad was directly populating the databases. The time spent now was 5-10 min. per client for inputting information doubling the number of clients that they could serve and reducing the number of errors.

4. Why did you choose this particular setup and which resources did you use to make your decision?

Salesforce had already been implemented 6 - 7 years ago by the previous ED who was a programmer and had done heavy customization. As the bulk of the work resembles regular retail, it has been able to keep up with vast amounts of information and it’s easy to pull from the data. As Salesforce had been in use for so long and had been a relatively satisfactory experience, the cost of having to do a major overhaul by going with another software just didn’t outweigh the benefits.

Because of the previous customization, there was a need for high-level consulting and implementation to ensure that nothing was lost or broken while tweaking the system. BigKite Consulting was chosen, because they were one of the few consultants who specialize in Salesforce, their office was down the road, and were looking to do it pro bono at an estimated $30,000 - $40,000 for the project. They had the experience to be able to continue to customize Salesforce to respond in a way that was needed.

5. How did you set it up and train staff? How long was the implementation phase?

July 2014 was when the consulting process started with BigKite Consulting. During the development process there were several meetings with BigKite and by September they were ready with prototypes set up to test. 'Sample Tests' using the iPad were used to increase comfort level and maximize training for the client service staff & volunteers. The new system went live on January 5, 2015.

For the most part, the switchover has been positive, especially if you consider that the vast majority of volunteers (corporate volunteers) would only volunteer/use the system for a day so the training needed to be simple. After a 30 min orientation, they are now on the floors with their iPads changing people’s lives.

6. What were the greatest challenges or surprises during implementation?

The greatest surprise was how much faster the checkout process has been for the clients and client service staff. The time allotted for the furniture selection process is 40 minutes; many clients have appointments to attend after, so making their visit as smooth as possible is important. The entire time to checkout is now less than 15 minutes.

7. What have been the biggest benefits of expanding how you use technology?

With the ability of being able to shorten the amount of time spent with each client, there have been afternoon shifts that are being added to the traditional mornings shifts growing the number of clients that can be served. Currently within the City of Toronto, there are 20 - 30,000 people that are newly arrived refugees or immigrants, going through some state of abuse, or transitioning out of homelessness. Furniture Bank was able to serve 5,500 of them last year. With this new system, they’re looking to double the amount of families they serve this year. There is a major opportunity to leverage tech, volunteer, and social enterprise elements to scale up.

And on top of  the successful iPad/Salesforce integration, Furniture Bank was able to pull out of the nearly $300,000 deficit and even create a small profit that they could invest back into the organization.

8. If you could give advice for other nonprofits in choosing to expand their use of technology for their operations, what would it be?

Above all else, you need good people and a good process that plays to people’s strengths, trains them well, and is able to balance the team so that weaknesses are being supported by other people’s strengths. As Dan pointed out, technology is simply an amplifier of whatever process that is in place - whether that be good or bad. So make sure your process is good.

Have an analytics dashboard so that you can see where your benchmarks and measure everything. Regardless of the system, there is always a way to measure. You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Make sure you use technology for the right reasons. Pick a technology that is low maintenance, easy enough to use that you could teach it to your kid, and you are accounting for overhead costs in maintaining the system. Don’t rely on partners or consultants - think through whether or not you can maintain it on your own. Allow and encourage for experimenting; these days, people are being asked to pick one technology and stick to it. It’s really best if you just test it out. More info about tech use and productivity at Furniture Bank can be found in their media pack.