Furniture Bank and building for long-term sustainability
Start with the 1% challenge
As organizations committed to serving the public good, charities, nonprofits and social purpose businesses have an outsize responsibility to take time for self-reflection and plan for our uncertain future. Dan Kershaw, Executive Director of Furniture Bank, reflects that the sector is in the midst of a perfect storm. In the face of inflation, government cutbacks, changing funder and investor priorities, and a decline in individual giving, many organizations are at risk of extinction.
According to a survey from Canada Helps, a majority of charities think that digital adoption is important for their future, yet more than two-thirds report that this work sits low on their priority list. Dan believes that this scenario generally extends to the practice of impact measurement in the third sector. With frequently overburdened teams, limited resources, and programs or products that need immediate tending to, it can be easy for organizations to rationalize doing nothing outside of attending to funder and investor reporting requirements.
Yet, as this series has shown, impact measurement has the potential to serve as a lifeline for social purpose organizations to achieve financial viability and establish a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.
Undergirding Furniture Bank’s commitment to a more holistic and consistent measurement practice is the “1% challenge,” which harnesses the power of compounding. Here, the team is learning to prioritize areas that need significant improvement – such as data management – and then setting reasonable, daily progress markers to shoot for. Of course, this approach is reserved for outliers who are willing to persist over time. For Furniture Bank, it’s akin to skating where the puck is headed.
When it comes to creating solid infrastructure to enable this long-term effort, Furniture Bank is striving for a flexible, scalable and financially sustainable system. A few core ideas along this path are shared below.
Build a Minimum Viable Model
While money from funders and investors can go a long way in fueling impact measurement, it’s important for organizations to commit to essential practices that can be achieved with in-house resources and skills. “If you’re waiting for a perfect, fully paid solution, it will never happen,” says Dan.
“I’m always embedding social impact measurement as an expense line in my funding agreements, and so far I’m getting it. However, the core of our model has to be sustainable. Because at some point I assume the external funding will stop. How will systems be maintained without grant or investment dollars?”
For Dan, the solution lies in creating a “Minimum Viable Model,” where impact measurement underpins a process of continuous improvement and innovation. (Check out the first and second posts in this series for more on this effort).
Setting a Minimum Viable Model (MVM) means that certain gold standards are unlikely to be met, particularly when times are lean. For example, you may not link indicators of change to financial proxies. The purpose of an MVM is to set a baseline of “enough” measurement to strategically inform how an organization delivers on its work. Dan simplifies this to, “We measure. We learn. We build. And that’s a constant thing.”
Build for a flexible, network-wide approach
Many measurement models are “built like a house of cards,” says Dan. “So that if you really try to shake it up or add something significantly different, the system isn’t robust enough to weather the shift. Hence, you get institutional inertia. And you lose out on opportunities to improve as you go.”
In building for flexibility in the Furniture Bank model, Dan highlights the importance of allowing for disaggregated data sets. “I need something where I can look at our impact at a lego brick level, not a completed set level.”
On the flip side, it’s also important for Furniture Bank to ensure that micro-level information – such as a bed delivered and its effect on the recipient – can be rolled up into a framework that is common to similar organizations, enabling both organization-level and sub-sector or sector-level insights. This vision aligns with the Common Approach’s work to create a Common Framework for all social purpose organizations.
Leverage technology to support the development process
When it comes to leveraging technology to support its long-term trajectory, Furniture Bank uses free tracking tools – including Google Forms – while it’s testing and iterating on new potential metrics. Here, “it’s about getting the measurement capture process right. The right information, the right frequency, the right format,” explains Dan. It is only once this is achieved that the team embeds the chosen metrics into a purpose-built solution, such as RIDDL or Sametrica.
Currently, Dan and the Furniture Bank team are prototyping an expansion of its data management system to permit other furniture banking charities to connect to its network. This would allow other similar organizations to leverage the Toronto platform for both program operations and outputs for their own impact measurement systems.
Invest in culture and skill-building
From a leadership perspective, a persistent commitment to creating an organizational culture of impact measurement is threaded through every endeavour. Here, we return to the 1% challenge: “It’s about the momentum that comes from each small success,” Dan encourages. “Each challenge creates this momentum. And suddenly, the team is moving ahead. They’re learning. People are feeling pride in playing a role in contributing to measurement analysis, or to story collection.”
True to the nature of compounding, Dan is mindful not to rush or disrupt this culture-building process. Anyone on the Furniture Bank team who is interested in impact measurement can participate in its daily practice and in formalized training, at their option.
Dan relies on a few key champions – himself included – to set the tone at every turn, ensuring a Minimum Viable Model is sustained. Borrowing from Jim Collins’ “Flywheel effect,” Furniture Bank’s long-term aspiration is to move from good to great, building momentum beyond a point of breakthrough.
Are you interested in learning more about how to embed a practice of impact measurement in your own organization? If so, check out our Common Foundations. They 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.
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