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Apr 5, 2019

Straight from the heart

Furniture Bank’s two social enterprises provide
needed support for nonprofit’s bottom line

In 2016, Furniture Bank of Central Ohio launched its first social enterprise, Furniture with a Heart, a furniture thrift store, followed by its second venture in 2017, Downsize with a Heart, a service-based enterprise helping individuals declutter, pack and move into smaller homes. Now that both enterprises have been up and running for awhile, Furniture Bank’s President Steve Votaw reflects on how the two enterprises have required two very different mindsets, from launch and metrics, to positioning for future growth.

Furniture with a Heart (FWAH) is like most retail businesses, and Furniture Bank’s team focuses primarily on its sales or top-line growth. From managing inventory to predicting trends in consumer spending, the staff scrutinizes daily sales reports. The weekly workflow is centered on preparing the store’s inventory and staging to maximize sales, with Saturday easily the busiest day of the week. Other significant sales trends have included tax-return season and the early fall when college students are shopping to furnish their apartments.

“Following the trends of other retail brands, as well as looking at our past year’s sales data, allows us to be more prepared to meet customer demands and generate the most revenue,” Votaw explained. “And with each $200 beyond our expenses and overhead, we’re able to furnish an entire home for a family in need.”

The team continues to explore strategies for pricing items to maximize profits, while also ensuring items sell quickly to make way for the constant influx of new inventory.

“With Downsize with a Heart, the metrics we use are quite different,” Votaw said. “As a relationship- and referral-based business, we are more focused on the number of free consultation appointments, conversion rate to sales, and customer-satisfaction surveys.”

When people hire Downsize with a Heart, they have the option of designating the furniture they no longer need as a donation to the Furniture Bank. However, a small percentage of the donated items is sold at FWAH, which generates additional revenue for the organization to fulfill its mission. As a result of the success of both social enterprises, in 2018 the Furniture Bank served 1,600 more families than it would have otherwise been able to accommodate.

Talent and Timing

Growth for both social enterprises has been good, but not without some learning along the way. Identifying potential employees whose motivation is equally fueled by both the mission outcomes and the business profitability has been critical to moving the enterprises forward. And ironically, a strong economy has made this even more difficult. 

“For Downsize with a Heart, we’ve had to create a position that was partially commission-based, which is a really different approach for most nonprofit organizations, at least it certainly was for us,” according to Votaw. “And while we are fortunate that today’s younger generations are familiar with and supportive of social enterprise, we struggle just like the for-profit sector for talent. The strong economy has also impacted our ability to find and keep the talent needed to grow during the busier times. We recruit on multiple sites and have offered additional pay and benefits to keep up with the private sector.”


Steve Votaw, right, accepts the Nonprofit Sustainability Award
for Downsize with a Heart at Aspire 2018

Banking on the Next Big Idea

In March 2019, Votaw pitched a new concept during Philanthropitch Columbus, a fast-pitch competition for nonprofit organizations. This new business model, which combines the nonprofit furniture bank program with its social enterprise furniture thrift store under a single roof, he believes will create a self-sustaining flow of furniture and home goods to families in need, and generate revenue to support both operations, while achieving efficiencies of scale by sharing operating expenses.

“We’re excited to announce that we’ve signed a lease for a location in Lancaster, which will allow us to put this new model to the test,” Votaw said. “We’re currently looking at opening this joint facility in the second half of the year.”

Once successful, this model could be replicated by many mid- to large-sized communities looking to create social impact for more people living in poverty, and it will save communities money by diverting tons of used furniture from landfills. This model will help close the gap in resources available to families in poverty in many communities throughout the state, which currently have no existing furniture assistance programs.

“What the Downsize and Furniture with a Heart enterprises have demonstrated is that we can no longer solely rely on philanthropy and government grants to grow our business,” said Votaw. “As needs in our community continue to increase, we must be innovative in our approach to fulfilling our mission while addressing the needs of individuals who have been impacted by homelessness, domestic violence, eviction, fires and poverty.”

Learn how you can do business with local social enterprises, including Downsize with a Heart and Furniture with a Heart, at www.socialventurescbus.com/marketplace.