Sunday, April 19, 2009

Refugee Stuff: Running a refugee furniture program: Communicating needs

I think it's pretty obvious that when I assumed the position of furniture coordinator at the refugee office, the situation regarding furniture, and for that matter the situation regarding the office itself, was a mess.

Not only did people on the outside of the agency have no idea what the refugee center wanted, they also had no idea who to ask or where to go to find out that information.

If, for example, they called the office and asked, likely as not, the person who answered the telephone had no answer for them or gave them inaccurate information. (More on this later.)

The head administrator, as stated, was in over her head and preoccupied with such weighty matters as helping refugees "find their voice" instead of helping them find furniture as promised and contracted.

Because she was always behind and busy covering up mistakes instead of fixing them, I decided to do something about it and sent out a mass e-mailing to explain to general donors what we wanted. (Remember, if you tell people what you want from them, they are more likely to give it to you.)

Here's an excerpt. (I have, due to time and e-mail changes, lost the portion of the document where I introduce myself.)

Although it looks very obvious, believe it or not, prior to this there was no document of this sort for distribution to the general public or potential furniture donors.

The response from the public was positive and it helped straighten out a great deal of problems with a furniture drive that was being organized in the state health department that was finding themselves increasingly frustrated with dealing with the head of the refugee center who was unable to tell them what they should and should not give to the center.


We need basic furniture that is usable as is. Tables, chairs, full and
twin size beds, shelves and couches are all in constant demand.

We do not have the facilities, manpower or space to do furniture repair,
even minor touch up, sanding and basic repair. Also, since our mission
is to provide people with furniture they can use immediately upon arrival,
we cannot fulfill this mission by expecting our clients to do this

Although, naturally, many of the refugees are able to repair furniture,
others are not. It's our job to provide all the people who arrive with
basic furniture upon arrival, long before we are able to sort out which
people can repair furniture and which cannot. Therefore we only accept
furniture that is usable as is. Since assuming this position, I've spoken
to several furniture pick-up and delivery charities and they all turn away
a great deal of material. Sadly, we are forced to do so too.

(Should someone out there wish to repair furniture for us and have their
own tools and facilities to do this, then I would love to communicate with
you. Also should someone have a few basic tools that you do not need, such
as wrenches, screwdrivers. etc. that could be used to assemble beds and
such that would be something we could use. Honestly, I'm not looking for
anything fancy here, just a screwdriver set and a couple wrenches for when
I do not bring my tools to work. No circular bench saws please, no matter
how beautiful. )

For reasons of space and manpower, we do not accept clothing, except for
winter clothing. Please bag and clean them first.

We do accept bedding. Please bag and clean them first.

We also do not wish to accept toys and electronics, especially such things
as stereos with no speakers and computer printers that do not come with
computers and video games that probably belong in a museum. Should you
have some good quality, unwanted, usable-as-is electronics please check
with us before donating. For electronics, if we can find it a good home,
we'll gladly accept it and pass it along. If not, we'd rather not take it.

We do accept kitchenware, but ask that people remember that we seek the
essentials. Sometimes we receive "gimmicky" kitchen tools that people
decided they didn't wish and in such cases, we often don't quite know what
to do with them either. (An exception is rice cookers, which are in great
demand, should people wish to donate them.) Plates, silverware, cooking
pots, and drinking glasses are all in demand.

In all cases, please use common sense and if in doubt check first. (I
mean, who was it who donated the lava lamp to the refugee center anyway? I
mean, I think it's cool, but it just doesn't fit our needs.)

We do
provide tax receipts for donations if requested.


We have a storeroom . We rent a van. Then we take it out and move it to
where it is needed. We use volunteers to help. Some of our volunteers are
refugees. Many are not. I am a half-time paid employee, but I started out
as a volunteer English teacher at the center

We do furniture pick-ups and would like to do more, but the need for
pick-ups is greater than our ability to keep up with them. (Again, this
is not uncommon for furniture pick-up and delivery charities.)

Currently we can only do pick-ups during business hours on weekdays. I do
hope to change that but it's surprisingly complicated and doubt if
anything will change during the next month or two.

Should someone be able to donate a secure storage space in Albany or the
surrounding area, that could facilitate things. Clearly several issues
would need to be discussed, but if you can donate a storage space for
furniture and make it accessible to us on weekdays, evenings and weekends,
then I'd love to talk to you.

We would also love to discuss alternatives to renting a van for furniture
pick-ups and deliveries. Should someone wish to help us in that area,
again, we'd love to talk to you.


Yes, but please keep in mind our office is a busy place.

It is open on weekdays from 9:00 to 5:00, and Wednesdays by appointment.
Expect to wait a few minutes after arrival. It is normally full of many
people, some with urgent needs. (If you've never seen our office, it
resembles a clinic of some kind but with people speaking six languages.)
Our office is located in the Nipper building (with the giant dog on top)
on Broadway in Albany.

Light things can be brought up the elevator through normal pedestrian routes.

Should you wish to donate heavy items, such as furniture, this requires
that we coordinate use of the freight elevator to the rear of our building
with Arnoff's Moving and Storage. Please call ahead or contact me directly
should you wish to bring them in. Please do not bring furniture or heavy
items on the regular elevator. It contains some sensitive sensors and if
items are dragged across the floor or exceed weight limits, it could
require a visit from a repairman.

Nevertheless, should you wish to bring us furniture that we can use,
please rest assured we would love to speak to you. E-mail me at this

Any questions, e-mail me. We also seek landlords who would like to rent
apartments to recently arrived refugees involved with our program. Again,
contact us for details.

Peter Huston
Housing Coordinator,


There you have it. A simple document that filled a specific need and clarified a great deal.

By providing such a document to the people who need it, including not just the potential donors but people within your organization who are likely to communicate with potential donors, you can save yourself and others a great deal of time, increase efficiency and avoid a great deal of frustration.

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