The Furniture Bank of Central Ohio provides clients with clean, decent furniture at no cost. It's a charity that operates like a business.

In a modest facility on a modest street in a modest neighborhood just a couple of miles west of downtown Columbus is an organization with a simple, but far from modest, mission: to help transform the lives of Central Ohio's needy by providing them with couches or chairs on which to rest, tables at which to eat and beds on which to lay their heads at night.

The Furniture Bank of Central Ohio (FBCO), founded in 1998 as Material Assistance Providers (MAP), has grown in just a dozen years to become the second-largest furniture bank in the nation. In its first year, working out of donated warehouse space, MAP provided furniture to 75 families. In 2010, working from its own, $1.25 million facility on Yale Avenue in Franklinton, FBCO served more than 4,000 families. With total revenue exceeding $3.3 million for fiscal 2010 (through June 30) and functional expenditures of nearly $3.2 million, FBCO has become a good-sized nonprofit business.

Much of the credit for the furniture bank's early success goes to founder Jeff Hay, who left the organization at the end of 2005 and died of a heart attack in September 2009, at age 48. Hay "just had an infectious ability to get people passionate about the cause," says Don Slobodien, a consultant to FBCO. "He saw it as a calling."

"Jeff Hay was truly an entrepreneur," says Jeremy Ball, manager of administrative affairs for Big Lots, a major FBCO donor. "He had the heart for serving humanity. He really was the one who put a lot of energy and effort into getting things going and helped make the furniture bank what it is today."

Credit for FBCO's recent growth goes largely to Jim Stein, Hay's successor, who co-owned a trucking, warehousing and logistics company and served as a volunteer FBCO director before becoming president in 2004. Stein, whose FBCO compensation for fiscal 2010 totaled $124,870, says he took the job "as a way of giving back to the community."

"I felt like I was one of the lucky ones," Stein says. "I got a good draw: I was born in the U.S. ... and my parents afforded me a good education, a good upbringing and so on, but not everybody is that fortunate. ... I've been really impressed by how hard our clients work to better themselves. They're not lazy, they're not bums, they've just had some unfortunate circumstances or an unfortunate start in their life, and they're really anxious to move themselves forward, and the furniture we provide them gives them a major boost in doing that."

Alan Veatch, an FBCO director, says Stein has moved the organization "light years ahead from an operational efficiency standpoint. Jim always has been--and, I think, still is--very clearly a leader and a thinker," Veatch says. "He's decisive. He's flexible. He comes up with ideas, but I think he's willing to work with others to be a consensus-builder."

Showroom Shopping

Each day, 15 to 17 clients, usually referred by the furniture bank's 40-some human service agency partners, schedule an appointment to visit the Franklinton headquarters. Accompanied by a case worker, a client--typically someone who has struggled with challenges such as homelessness, unemployment, domestic violence, immigration, a house fire, disability, relocation or, particularly of late, bedbug infestation--will "shop" the furniture bank's expansive showroom for such essential furniture items as mattresses, box springs, dressers, sofas, stuffed chairs, coffee tables, end tables, kitchen tables, kitchen chairs and lamps. Bed frames, dishware, desks, cabinets and appliances such as televisions, stoves, refrigerators, microwaves, washers and dryers are also available.

Allowing clients to select 12 to 14 pieces of furniture gives them autonomy at a time when they may have relatively few options available. Client choice "is hugely important, because it's dignified and it's respectful," says Shannon Easter, director of supportive services for Faith Mission of Ohio, which serves Central Ohio's homeless.

"The families we work with are in such need, and so the service provided by the furniture bank is invaluable to us and our clients," says Lois Ross, a community service worker with Franklin County Children Services. Ross recently brought to FBCO a mother of nine who often does several loads of laundry a day, but had no appliances. "Through the furniture bank, we were able to get her a washer and a dryer. We'd looked at purchasing it for her, but this way we were able to not have to use taxpayer money," says Ross.

Castoffs from institutions and households have always been the lion's share of the furniture bank's offerings; historically 70 percent of furniture donations have come from individuals, the remaining 30 percent from hotels, motels, colleges, universities and restaurants. Donated items must be in usable condition, free of rips, tears, stains and animal hair.

FBCO trucks make four trips daily, picking furniture up from donors and delivering it to clients. Pickups are free within a 16-mile radius of Columbus. Generally it takes only two to three days for a donated item to arrive at its new home.

One agency that takes advantage of FBCO's delivery service is Faith Mission, which attempts to place some 600 people a year in permanent housing. Such clients "don't have anything but their clothes and the things that are with them," Easter says, so a stop at the furniture bank is essential.

Easter finds FBCO's delivery charge of $50 to $65 "extraordinarily reasonable," compared to other alternatives. "It used to be we had to arrange that for clients," she says. "Oh my gosh, talk about challenging." FBCO also charges the mission a $45 referral fee for each client served, but the two fees together only partially cover the estimated $225 cost of providing a houseful of furniture.

Donations, grants and fundraising events cover the bulk of FBCO's annual operating budget. Big Hearts for Empty Houses, the nonprofit's largest fundraiser, brings in about $500,000 annually, while two volunteer-run furniture auctions and periodic sales bring in about $90,000 each year. Payroll for 13 full-time employees (excluding Stein) exceeds $500,000 annually, and volunteers donate 1,000 hours of work every month to keep things running smoothly.

Made from Scratch

Historically, FBCO's donors have contributed mostly upholstered furniture and not enough wooden items. So Stein turned to Big Lots for help, and Big Lots responded. "We look at the relationship with the furniture bank as our most significant partnership," says Ball, a former FBCO manager. "We see the furniture bank as a basic needs organization in the city. ...We consider it a partner right along with the [Mid-Ohio] Foodbank and the Community Shelter Board."

Through Big Lots, FBCO connected with the Sauder Woodworking Company, based in Northwest Ohio. In 2009, Sauder donated 560 dresser kits, which proved a hit with both clients and the teams of volunteers that helped assemble them. Next, Sauder agreed to donate imperfect but otherwise usable sheets of laminated particleboard to the furniture bank. Using FBCO-designed templates, volunteers build small kitchen, coffee and end tables as well as dressers. "Sauder has really allowed the furniture bank to expand exponentially the furniture it can provide," says Ball.

Since November 2009, volunteers from Nationwide, Limited Brands, Ohio State University, BMW Financial Services and area churches and universities have built more than 1,100 tables, and FBCO has increased its supply of kitchen tables, coffee tables, nightstands and end tables by 25 percent to 30 percent. In the last year, Stein says, volunteer hours have tripled.

Some 265 Nationwide associates have helped build tables at the furniture bank's workshop and in Nationwide's own offices in downtown Columbus and Dublin. "We are a very large company, and [volunteering] gives associates an opportunity to network, to build relationships within the company," says Julie VanDeLinger, manager of the Nationwide "On Your Side" volunteer network. "It fosters team-building and provides people a way to get to know each other in a different way. ... Employees really feel proud of this, and it provides an opportunity to see something very tangible." The insurance giant pitches in financially as well. Since 2003, the Nationwide Insurance Foundation has provided the furniture bank more than $193,000 in grants.

Needed: Dressers & Mattresses

Though the 48,000 pieces of furniture collected and redistributed in 2009 is an impressive number, Stein says there was demand for 55,000 to 66,000 pieces, if FBCO had the resources to provide them. Stein hopes to triple donations over the next 10 to 15 years so the furniture bank can serve 10,000 to 12,000 families annually.

Additional production may soon come from a partnership with the Ross County Correctional Institute. The prison's woodshop was shuttered because of budget cuts; the furniture bank has been raising money to hire a production supervisor, purchase materials and reopen the shop.

In December, the furniture bank was a participant in the Columbus Foundation's Great Needs Challenge, which provided matching funds for donations to seven local nonprofits. For every dollar donated to FBCO, the foundation gave 50 cents in matching funds. Stein plans to reopen the prison woodshop early in 2011 and build some 2,500 dressers. Using free inmate labor will cut the cost to an estimated $48 per dresser.

Stein hopes the additional capacity will enable FBCO to provide many clients with two dressers rather than one, as it does now. "Last year, we took in about 2,500 dressers in donations," he says. "If we can produce 400 to 500 with volunteers, on top of 2,500 with Ross Correctional, that would be significant."

Reopening the prison woodshop "seems like a win-win," says Lisa Schweitzer Courtice, vice president for community research and grants management at the Columbus Foundation. "With limited resources and high needs, we were really looking for some of the highest-performing organizations in our community, and we wanted a breadth of services that met critical needs. We understood from [FBCO] that they had a high demand for their services and anticipated even a higher one for next year."

The Columbus Foundation has also provided financial support for a study intended to help FBCO launch a new line of business--mattress recycling. The furniture bank typically gets donated mattresses when a hotel or a university dorm replaces furniture. But often, such donations are contingent on the furniture bank's willingness to take all of the mattresses-even if some of them are unusable. That requires FBCO to take apart the unusable mattresses and recycle much of the material-a process that demands more volunteers, as well as dedicated space for the work.

The Columbus Foundation-supported feasibility study FBCO conducted in the first half of 2010 examined a West Coast organization that has successfully recycled mattresses for nearly a decade. Stein says he thinks they've developed a financial model that will work, but the furniture bank needs more mattresses--ideally 7,500 to 10,000 annually. "We need to start to make connections with mattress retailers and other sources of supply, and as we can establish some flow of mattresses in our direction, we can start the process," says Stein. "We're actively working on the process right now, we're just not there yet."

Given the concerns about bedbugs and other contaminants, FBCO won't recycle mattresses at its Yale Avenue facility. "We're going to be very, very careful not to cross-contaminate," says Stein. The furniture bank will also likely use different trucks to carry mattresses bound for recycling than it does for those headed to clients' homes.

The Columbus Foundation's Courtice calls both the recycling study and the prison furniture-building effort "examples of the creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit that you find at the furniture bank."

An Easy Ask

Slobodien says it's not difficult to make the case for the furniture bank, no matter what a prospective donor's pet cause may be. Care about kids? More than half of FBCO's clients are under age 18. Concerned about poverty? About 84 percent of the clients have a household income of less than $10,000. Is waste a worry? The furniture bank's efforts annually divert more than 35,000 cubic yards of solid waste from the landfill-a pile that would be 23 feet deep over an acre of land.

"We protect women and children from domestic violence, we respond to emergencies very quickly, we help people who have moved to Columbus have a better life, and just the bottom line is people don't have to sleep and eat on floors," says Slobodien.

FBCO board member Veatch, an attorney and partner at Campbell, Hornbeck, Chilcoat and Veatch, says there are plenty of positives about the furniture bank, but the one that most motivates him is that FBCO's services are all provided in Central Ohio. "I'm a big fan of missions that help take care of people in my own backyard," says Veatch. "You haven't lived until you've been down at the facility and stood at the back and seen the look on kids' faces when they realize that they're going to have a bed of their own. You hear them make a comment like, ‘I'm really going to have my own mattress,' and you realize, it's like Christmas morning," says Veatch. "If there's anything that will motivate you and excite you and make you feel like you're making a difference, it's spending even a half-hour there."

Though much has changed over the years, the organization's motto, "Turning Empty Houses into Homes," is as reflective of its mission today as when MAP was incorporated by Hay. "You can provide shelter but if you don't have a couch to sit on or a table to eat dinner, it doesn't really provide for a wholesome atmosphere," says Ball.

Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the February 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.