How Non-Profits Use Technology to Generate Greater Social Impact

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I have always been fascinated with solving problems. For my entire career I’ve been drawn to roles that required me to use technology to bridge gaps, invent solutions, and fix broken processes.

This bug of entrepreneurship drew me from startup to startup where I accelerated growth, built products — and industries — that never existed before, and did it quickly. So when I joined Furniture Bank three years ago, I couldn’t put my problem-solving, startup experience aside.

Furniture Bank is a national charity with a mission to transfer gently used donated furniture to people in need of a fresh start, including women and children fleeing abuse, newcomers to Canada, and those escaping homelessness. They all have one thing in common: the need for a fresh start. We embrace the power of furniture to transform lives. The need is great. We estimate that there are upwards of 50,000 recipients, from all walks of life, in the Greater Toronto Area alone without items that are necessary to call a house a home.

So to help as many people as we can, we need to use precise logistics to ensure our clients get the resources they deserve in the most efficient and respectful way. For me, the way to do this was to apply technology and make it work across the organization wherever bigger impact could be found leveraging technology.

I’ve taken what I learned from the tech startup world and applied these principles to Furniture Bank with resounding success. Often seen as “overhead” – this investment in technology has provided greater impact for our donors, and the recipients they support.

Here are four ways other social enterprises can do the same.

  1. Help your organization evolve. At Furniture Bank, we’ve built our tech stack on a foundation of the Salesforce platform, which we’ve grown over time. From booking appointments, to dispatching trucks, to tracking inventory, to helping our clients choose furniture on the floor, we’ve found ways to make the most of what cloud solutions have to offer. We use the platform throughout the entire donor journey as well as our recipient journey, making the process from either end smooth and seamless.
  1. Monitor and measure your social impact. Most charities and not-for-profits are not self-funded. In fact, most have multiple stakeholders including foundations, government bodies, volunteers, and individual donors who expect your organization to use the funds you’re given in a responsible way. We use Survey Monkey, Hubspot, and Primus Cloud Call Center to provide data that leads to insight. You can use technology in your organization to analyze your processes, and create impact reports to showcase your outputs and outcomes of impact and affirm your organization’s legitimacy. The analytics we produce from our technology are used to identify opportunities to become more efficient and drive more impact in the future.
  1. Optimize your resources. Not only does your technology choice need to be user friendly, but it should solve multiple issues. Our implementation of cloud-based solutions has helped Furniture Bank to double our social impact. In 2014, we had 46 employees serving roughly 5,600 recipients. In 2016, we have 48 employees expecting to serve over 10,000 recipients. By removing paper from the equation and replacing with Apple iPad’s that work together with a Salesforce1 Mobile App, we’ve been able to streamline our processes and lower expenses without compromising our mission or service level. This makes choosing furniture more efficient and effective for our clients in what is often a stressful time. We go further leveraging Skedulo to ensure our trucking teams are always performing at their best. With a clear understanding of your processes – you can leverage technologies to leverage your own resources.
  1. Share your stories with stakeholders. Charities — including Furniture Bank — are often fuelled by volunteers and staff who are passionate people who want to change the world, but might not be familiar with the technologies we use. We are actively promote the development of a Decent Workplace, and leverage technology to ensure we get immediate feedback from staff. Leveraging technology from TinyPulse we improve staff performance, increase volunteer engagement, and ensure Furniture Bank gets better every week. We make time to listen and train or stakeholders. When your employees and volunteers are exposed to technology solutions that clearly help them do their job better, they’ll embrace it.

Being an entrepreneur is inherently risky, but with social entrepreneurs, the risks are much bigger, as they tackle important intractable problems. More important, it takes a tenacious and resilient attitude.

Bill Drayton, one of the foremost thinkers in the world of social enterprises once remarked that “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.” We find being “revolutionary” is a lot more effective when you leverage technology when doing it.

For us a Furniture Bank, the investment in technology allows us to scale up, to measure outcomes and impact, to allow our donors to have a greater positive impact through us, and ultimately with the right investments we will solve the problem of too many Canadians living in unfurnished homes.

Charities, social enterprises and not-for-profits should harness the power of technology to optimize their impact on the communities they serve and help kick-start that revolution. It could make a world of difference.

Dan Kershaw is the executive director at Furniture Bank, a social enterprise offering furniture removal and pickup.

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