CEO of the Year, Small Nonprofit

Furnishing Futures

By
From the December 2013 issue of Columbus CEO

A woodworking shop buzzes with activity just down the hall from James Stein’s office. The president of the Furniture Bank of Central Ohio is proud to say that the nonprofit now makes—not simply redistributes—furniture to Central Ohioans in need.

“We made about 4,500 pieces of furniture here last year with our volunteers. Marion Correctional made about 2,500 pieces for us, and we’re still growing that as we can,” says Stein.

Stein’s background in logistics has furthered his ability to procure the materials and build the partnerships necessary to serve the Furniture Bank’s 4,200 –plus clients. Stein’s peers have recognized him as the Small Nonprofit CEO of the Year for 2013.

*Interview has been edited for length.

The mission here is to provide free furniture to families struggling with poverty. I could sense from the time I first got acquainted with the organization as I was getting ready to move on from my business, that there was just a lot of logistics here which played well to my background.

I also had an interest to see if a lot of the approaches to managing a for-profit business would also apply to a not-for-profit business in a good way and it turns out, I think they do very nicely.

When you make the decision to work for a nonprofit organization, you’re making a decision that I’m willing to do this because it’s something I want to do not because it’s going to be as financially rewarding as something else might be.

I got a great education and I got good career opportunities. There are just a lot of folks in our communities who haven’t been that fortunate. I just had the real interest to try see if we could balance the scale a little bit and use some of my time for the remainder of my career trying to give back.

We have the typical days like any for-profit business might have—trucks break down and people don’t show up for work. Meanwhile we’re committed to the clients and the furniture donors who are helping by donating furniture that we’ll do a certain thing at a certain time.

We tell people it feels like we’re running a small airport here some days. Just the things constantly coming and going in all directions and all of the things we have to deal with throughout the day to try and hit the targets that we like to set from a service standpoint.

We’ve really worked hard to make sure, as much as possible, that when the family comes they get the things they need. It’s not just a grab bag and you might get lucky and you might not. We’ve got ten or 12 furniture items that to us are the things that everybody needs to have.

We started… monitoring and managing what we call “fill rate.” So a client comes in and says they need 15 pieces of furniture—how many of those 15 am I able to give them? We run 14 out of the 15 most of the time.

I’ve always been just a curious type of person and I don’t like the idea that something can’t be done. Because my life experience would tell me that if you connect with the right people and keep pursuing an idea, little by little keep breaking down the barriers, eventually you can probably get there.

We’re realizing with the help of (the) Columbus Foundation and their purview of the community is that we still have a long ways to go in terms of how many families could really use our help. Last year we served about 4,200 families. We really think the annual need is in the 8-10,000 range…It tells us we’ve got more work to do. We’ve got a ways to go. We’re in what we call a capacity-building mode right now. The organization is now 15 years old. As such, I sometimes say, ‘Well, we’ve passed the entrance exam.’ We’ve proven the concept, we’re here to stay; now we need to continue to get more of the community involved and realize what a good thing this is.

Much like in for-profit business, things don’t stay constant. Through 2008-9 and 2010, we saw a slowdown in donations because at the same time there was an increase in used furniture stores popping up all over the city.

We want to be able to serve more families. What that’s going to mean is before very long we’re going to need more facility space. We’re actually studying that right now with the help of our board and some professionals in the community to see what’s (an) alternative solution, and which one might make the most sense for us.

It’s very important for us that whatever decision we make for our facility is the best one that we can come up with so that we’re making great use of donor dollars.

I’m sometimes an idea person, but I recognized a long time ago that there are only so many hours in a day. The best way to grow and lead is to involve other people. Let them be part of it, let them share their skills, and encourage them to stretch. I think that’s worked well for us here. It applies as we work with the staff, it applies as we work with the other agencies that we work with, it applies as we work with our board.