Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Refugee Stuff --Running a Furniture Donation Program --the problem of storage. Part One

At last! Now we begin to get away from the basics, get away from the the "common sense" big picture issues, and instead get into some specifics as to how exactly to run a refugee center furniture donation and distribution program.

First, just to rehash (and remember if you wish to review the previous posts please do so, starting from bottom to top, oldest to newest scrolling down the page, beginning in late March), the purpose of a furniture donation and distribution program is to find people who have more furniture and material goods than they need, convince them to donate the excess to your program, and then get the donated goods to people who do not have enough and can use them at the time they are needed in usable condition.

Interestingly enough, this is not an uncommon operation for a charity to be involved in.

Many, many cities have some kind of furniture collection and redistribution charity. These often serve a wide variety of populations. For instance, the Schenectady Home Furnishings Program tells me that their clients fall within several groups, refugees being just one of them. The others include economically disadvantaged and needy people, persons who have just suffered a house fire or other disaster that caused loss of their belongings and domestic violence victims who have had to relocate suddenly without being able to bing their furniture and many of their other belongings.

Based on my experience, many of these charities would love to touch base with others who do the same thing. By doing so they can swap tips, share overloads should they get too much of an item, refer clients who wish to donate but fall outside of their service area and more. Few feel threatened, in my experience, by hearing that someone else is trying to enter the furniture donation and redistribution field, although many will be too busy to chat at length. One actually suggested to me that we should establish a formalized Capital District network of such programs in order to facilitate communication and increase efficiency.

Which brings us to the issue of storage and a furniture donation and redistribution program.

Sometimes in order to facilitate this process it helps to have an area where you can store the furniture and other donated goods. That way you can get things at a time that is convenient for both you, the picker-upper, and the donor, who often is quite strapped for time. If you store them properly then you will be able to access the goods at a later time when you wish to give them away and it is convenient for the receiver to receive them.

To return to military analogies again, there's a series of jokes called "Murphy's Laws of Combat." There's one of these that says "In combat, a company of tanks, lost twenty miles down the road in the wrong place, is less useful than a man throwing rocks who is in a place where you can use him."

In other words, if you can't use something when you need it, if you can't find it when you want it, it's not useful to you.

And it is the nature of storage that when lots of things become stored together, things get lost. Then you accumulate junk, which often gets in the way of the other useful things, and they in turn get lost. Which means you often wind up with something that less resembles a storage program than it does a junk heap full of interesting exotica. (I hope to write more on this later.)

A well run storage area is generally an important part of a furniture donation and redistribution program. You should give the matter of storage some thought before you set out to to collect furniture and other material goods and do good in the world. If you don't, well, I get tired of saying it, but you will wind up with THIS. You don't want this. Nobody does.

So let's look at some of the options for storage areas.:

First, there is the "no storage area" option. Although difficult to do, people tell me that this is the procedure followed by the furniture donation and redistribution charity in Troy, New York. Although I have not had the privilege of speaking to its manager, his peers speak highly of him. Apparently what he does is simply make a list of people who wish to donate furniture and what they have, and then matches it up with a list of needs. When items match in an efficient manner, he then takes his truck and does a pick up from the donor and a delivery to the receiver with no storage in between.

This works for him.

However, it is my belief that it would not work for most people.

First, many donations prove to be useless and need to be turned away. (i.e. you arrive to pick up a couch and discover that it is ratty, useless, missing cushions and smells bad. The donor did not, for whatever reason, understand what you would accept and then you are placed in a position of having to turn the useless item away. This happens sometimes.)

Second, and this is particularly the case with refugees, donors often need things quickly. One serious problem with the center in Albany (as with many of its problems) lies with its parent organization which was unable or unwilling to give much advance warning of when refugees would arrive. It was not uncommon for us to be told that a family or refugees would arrive in Albany within, say for instance, three days, thereby putting us in a position where we had to scramble to prepare for their arrival. (I'm not sure why this was. My understanding is that many other agencies get better warning than we did as to when their refugees would arrive.)

You cannot reasonably expect busy people to drop what they are doing and arrange for you to pick up their couch in two days without giving them a darn good reason. And, quite frankly, we did not have one aside from our parent NGO had problems.

Remember, the goal here is to not just find people with too much stuff and get them to donate their excess stuff, but to have them do so in such a way so that they find it such a good experience that they encourage their friends to do the same thing. If you dump your problems on the donors, making your emergencies their emergencies, and do so week after week, people will not find donating their furniture to you to be a pleasant and satisfying experience. They will then donate their goods to another program or just throw them in the trash.

So in some cases, one can run a furniture program without a storage area. However in most cases you will need one.

We had a large storage room in the back of the area of our building which we rented from a moving and storage company. Access to the area was done primarily by passing either through the office area on foot after taking the pedestrian elevator or stairs or else by taking the freight elevator up through the area controlled by the moving and storage company.

At first this sounds ideal, but naturally there were problems.

First, access to the freight elevator was controlled by the moving and storage company. The moving and storage company had many expectations from the refugee center that although quite reasonable were just not being followed. Therefore friction was occurring.


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