Furniture Bank of Central Ohio embraces social enterprise


As Steve Votaw interviewed to be president of the Furniture Bank of Central Ohio four years ago, he knew the nonprofit had to change its operating model. Revenue came mostly from philanthropy, but a long-time sponsor wanted to spread its support — which was significant — to more organizations.

With the aid of its new strategic initiatives board committee, the furniture bank turned to the more sustainable model of social enterprise.

“It wasn’t something we just woke up and did. It was a process that we had to go through,” Votaw says.

Today, he is a believer. Not only does he think all nonprofits should move in this direction, he likes how some for-profits have explored social enterprise, which also helps the community.

Two enterprises, one mission

After conferring with the Cleveland Furniture Bank, social enterprise experts and a retail consultant, the furniture bank started with a thrift store in April 2016.

“We take a small percentage of our furniture that’s donated to us and try to sell that,” Votaw says. “If we can, for example, sell a sofa for $200, we can give a family 15 pieces of furniture.”

With the surplus from the Furniture with a Heart store, the furniture bank served an additional 400 families in 2017.

Then the nonprofit doubled down, opening Downsize with a Heart, a downsizing and moving business in 2017. The service isn’t at the profit level that the thrift store quickly achieved, but Votaw says it’s moving in that direction.

“Both these social enterprises closely relate to our mission in that they deal with furniture and they deal with families,” he says. “We felt that we should give it a try since we have thousands of kids who sleep on the floor every night.”

Getting results

The nonprofit’s operating expenses and the number of employees have increased — its hires for the furniture bank and thrift store are typically those who have struggled with employment. The furniture bank also created a marketing budget and hired a part-time person to support those efforts.

Thanks to its pivot, however, the organization was able to stabilize. At its peak, the furniture bank served about 4,000 families, Votaw says; last year, it got back up to 3,400 families.

And the organization isn’t done growing its social enterprises — Votaw says an announcement is coming in the near future.


Partnering with CCAD

Last fall, the Furniture Bank of Central Ohio collaborated with the Columbus College of Art & Design; students designed chairs, tables and end tables from particle board.

Votaw found the results amazing and creative but difficult to implement. Volunteers can create more than 5,000 pieces annually from simple plans.

For the next project, students may build a jig for constructing bed bases.

“That’s something we would use all the time, and it’s a big problem for us. We’re excited about the next step,” he says.