One of the questions we often hear from social purpose organizations when it comes to impact measurement is “where do I start?” For a busy, capacity-constrained team, it can be difficult to see the value in learning to do impact measurement in ways that feed deep learning, iteration, and organizational improvement. Too often, impact measurement is treated as an arduous and necessary task on a “to do” list for funders or investors that sits outside of daily operations.
This blog is the first in a three-part series highlighting one organization’s journey to use impact measurement for an expanded purpose. It is intended to help other social purpose organizations reimagine impact measurement as a key, indispensable tool in their strategic and operating framework.
Furniture Bank and the road to “good enough” impact measurement
Measuring to survive
When Dan Kershaw took the helm of Furniture Bank in early 2014, the organization was struggling to maintain near-term viability. Formerly an executive in the for-profit sector, Dan set to work learning about best practices in the non-profit sphere. He came to understand that impact measurement offered a way out of Furniture Bank’s fiscal crisis.
Focusing first on operational metrics, Dan and his team moved around the organization (clipboards in hand!) to identify what could be meaningfully accounted for. Calculations soon emerged demonstrating how local furniture availability outstripped the team’s trucking capacity. This effort enabled Furniture Bank to successfully apply for social financing and a truck loan. The resulting funds fuelled a growth in service reach that allowed the organization to break even financially, all within a single year.
Measuring as a culture
The use of simple measurement tools like clipboards and stopwatches helped some of Furniture Bank’s departmental teams to identify additional opportunities for increasing operational efficiency. In measuring outputs of operations, the delivery team shifted to using iPads for furniture selection in place of clipboards. This helped to increase the number of service appointments the team could tackle and reduced errors in product delivery.
Other teams also started to experiment with technology tools – such as online surveys – and engaged key partners to better understand the scope and size of the social challenge at hand. What they uncovered was an annual community service need of 25,000 individuals and families which, at the time, was tenfold the available capacity.
Measuring to scale up
Furniture Bank subsequently began small pilots to test methods for scaling up the number of families it could support each year, using an average requirement of 16-20 items per household.
To inform this work, the team completed training programs and workshops on social enterprise development and impact measurement, including sessions offered by LIFT Philanthropy Partners (LIFT) and Innoweave. The organization ultimately built out a social enterprise model for furniture removal services that now covers roughly 60% of its charitable operating costs. It also developed a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – or outputs – and began tracking and assessing monthly progress against them. Key outputs now include number of individuals and families served, total furnishing items delivered, number of donors providing furnishing items, and weight of furniture diverted from landfills.
The development of KPIs unlocked access to further financing opportunities – in learning how to express the impact of its activities through waste diversion metrics, Furniture Bank catalyzed partnerships with funders and organizations interested in environmental sustainability. The resulting revenue diversification fueled an impressive expansion of services – from 2013-2019, Furniture Bank increased its reach by approximately 62%, helping 13,210 individuals and families in 2019, up from 8,157 in 2013.
Keys to success
In reflecting on the keys to Furniture Bank’s early success with impact measurement, Dan cites resources received through Ontario’s Social Enterprise Demonstration Fund, in addition to those from LIFT and Innoweave. From an organizational culture standpoint, Dan is adamant about the importance of moving away from a scarcity mindset to create a growth mentality that prioritizes “good enough” measurement. In his own words, Furniture Bank “survived 2014 by embracing a ‘progress over perfection’ posture.” Today, the word “can’t” is scarcely heard in the staff lexicon.
In expanding its service delivery model, Furniture Bank combined a culture of measurement with key principles in the lean startup movement, such as a commitment to failing fast, agile project delivery, and resource efficiency. Here, team members leverage measurement to make educated guesses on potential improvements with those who are impacted by its work – from end beneficiaries to intermediaries and funders – and use the results to inform an ongoing growth trajectory.
All of this work requires meaningful investment in staffing and related technology and tools, most notably impact measurement software.
Dan is the first to acknowledge that Furniture Bank’s journey to arrive at a place of “good enough” impact measurement has been far from linear or perfect. Not every experiment or pilot works, not every person the organization hires embraces a culture of measurement, and not every test leads to the desired productivity gains. Yet every failure informs the next move. As Dan reiterates, a “measurement mindset must accept a ‘progress over perfection’ attitude to see results over time.”
Stay tuned for a few lessons learned around Furniture Bank’s ongoing journey with impact measurement as part of the second post in this series.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about how to embed a practice of measurement in your organization and don’t know where to start, check out our Common Foundations. While they weren’t around when Dan and his team were getting going, they now serve as a practical guide for social purpose organizations to ensure they’re engaging on solid ground.
About Furniture Bank (Toronto)
Furniture Bank was founded in 1998 to help individuals and families in the Greater Toronto Area establish their homes. With its partner agencies, Furniture Bank provides furniture at no cost to people transitioning out of homelessness, women and children escaping abusive situations, and refugees and newcomers to Canada. It envisions a country where everyone has the stability and dignity of a furnished home.
More like this
We continue our look at Furniture Bank’s impact measurement practice, examining how the organization’s ongoing journey with impact measurement and willingness to embrace trial and error led to key learnings. The second in a three-part series.
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