Organizing one move is difficult enough.
Now imagine organizing 25.
That’s essentially the challenge faced by Furniture Bank, a Toronto-based organization with a unique, but crucial niche in the city’s charitable sector: Helping 25 residents or families who would otherwise have no couch, dining table, or in many cases even beds outfit their homes with donated furniture every day.
It’s a tall order, but one the charity has been able to meet head on thanks to the non-profit arm of cloud software vendor Salesforce.com – and the results of its efforts would leave even the most profitable business green with envy.
By implementing a custom version of the Salesforce platform, Furniture Bank has gone from supporting roughly 5600 clients in 2014 to an expected 10,000 or more by the end of 2016 – an increase of at least 78 per cent that recently earned the charity an Ingenious Award nomination from the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC).
“If Salesforce went away tomorrow our charity wouldn’t grind to a halt so much as become instantly tiny,” Dan Kershaw, Furniture Bank’s executive director, tells ITBusiness.ca. “The act of going to 50 homes every day and collecting the right furniture, getting it processed, and allowing 25 families to come in and select their furniture before delivering it just couldn’t occur without the interconnectedness that comes from Salesforce.”
Kershaw likens his struggle to promote Furniture Bank to the challenge faced by food banks in 1988, a year after umbrella organization Food Banks Canada (originally the Canadian Association of Food Banks) was founded.
“I always throw out the line that I wake up every day and it’s 1988, that there are some people who know furniture banks exist, but most are learning about it for the first time,” he says. “For me it was the same thing – I spent 17 years in startups and growth companies in all lines of technology and business. And when a recruiter said, ‘come work for Furniture Bank,’ my reaction was, ‘What?’”
Like food banks in 1988
Furniture Bank was founded by Sister Anne Schenck, a Toronto-area nun who, over the course of working with Somali refugees, noticed time and again that many of the families she supported were missing key furnishings – sleeping on the floor, using milk crates as chairs or tables – while many of their neighbours were throwing out couches.
Federally registered in 1998, the charity accepts clients strictly through referrals, with women and children fleeing from abuse representing one third, refugees representing a second third, and the remainder what Kershaw calls the “recently housed” – runaway teenagers, former homeless, war veterans, evicted elderly, the mentally ill.
And though Furniture Bank’s staff are all too aware that few ITBusiness.ca readers – including this writer – will have considered the problem of living without furniture, it’s one that paralyzes thousands, in every urban centre across Canada, Kershaw says, including 50,000 people in the Greater Toronto Area alone.
“The intuitive, rational side of us will agree that when you move into a house or apartment it doesn’t come with furniture, and that if you’re homeless, you don’t get furniture free of charge,” he says. “But for most of us it’s a silent, invisible issue.”
Mechanically, Furniture Bank is a very elaborate, and expensive, operation – its current efforts span 26,000 square feet, 48 staff, and 11 trucks – yet before implementing Salesforce the organization relied on a mix of Microsoft Excel, paper, and folders to manage its financial records and keep track of its stock, Kershaw says.
That started changing in 2007, he says, when former executive director Leonard Howe, a veteran executive aware both of the Salesforce platform and its non-profit arm Salesforce.org’s commitment to donating that platform to charities, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions, began programming a customized platform for Furniture Bank, though it would not be implemented for another two years.
As a charity, Furniture Bank qualified for what Salesforce calls its “Power of 10” program, which grants an organization its first 10 Salesforce licenses at no charge before granting additional licenses at an reduced rate, Salesforce.org chief revenue officer Allyson Fryhoff tells ITBusiness.ca.
“We believe that non-profits and educational institutions can really benefit from Salesforce technology, but are held back sometimes by cost,” she says.
Since 2009, Furniture Bank has been using Salesforce technology at a reduced rate to power its entire operation, including donations, dispatches, and inventory, with both the core platform and a newly implemented iPad app playing a key role in the charity’s recent growth, Fryhoff says.
And she would know – in addition to donating its platform, Salesforce gives employees seven days of volunteer time off per year, and the Silicon Valley-based Fryhoff has used a few of hers to volunteer at Furniture Bank while staying in Toronto.
“It’s really an amazing place,” she says. “To see the excitement of these people who were able to go from checking in to choosing new furniture to having it ready to go on the trucks was incredible.”
Using the iPad app, Fryhoff says she was able to check in clients, help them browse Furniture Bank’s stock for everything they needed, from couches to cutlery and, once they made their selections, create invoices for the furniture and arrange its transportation.
“I was able to work with a gentleman who was coming off the streets and into his first apartment,” she says. “He had two small children, and knowing the impact Salesforce technology had on streamlining the process really painted an incredible portrait of how Salesforce technology was positively impacting others’ lives.”
In fact, the company’s Toronto team visits Furniture Bank every two weeks, executive director Kershaw says, calling them the organization’s “number-one volunteer group.”
“We’re really big on IT but unfortunately there aren’t a lot of groups like Salesforce that support charity in tech,” he says. “So if you could put the word out to any like-minded groups among your readers who want to see the impact of technology on charity, we’d love to welcome new visitors.”