July 28, 2021

The Chicago Furniture Bank is Refurnishing 3,000+ Homes a Year

The Chicago Furniture Bank is now the country's largest furniture bank.

When Griffin Amdur, Andrew Witherspoon, and James McPhail were assigned to Speakman, a freshman year dorm  at UPenn, neither imagined that they would eventually sign a lease to an industrial warehouse and run two nonprofits together.

Penn Housing services' random assignment created a friendship that saw Andrew visit and fall in love with Griffin's hometown, Chicago. The friends had a lot in common: they were ambitious, they were from the Midwest, and both wanted to do something impactful.

By their senior year, it became clear that the two friends would not be joining the rest of their friend group at desk jobs in the fall. Griffin cites a realization that "he's young" and should use this time to take risks. Andrew, who was also considering teaching, was profoundly impacted by the death of a close friend. He wanted to do something impactful with his life. Andrew shared, “If I died at 27, I didn't want to only be able to say that I made my boss more money." 

Both reasons, along with their discovery that that furniture is the least recycled household item in the US, encouraged dynamic brainstorming sessions. Their first idea was a for-profit business that "reverse transported" and sold used furniture to China. They quickly realized, however, that there was a demand for this furniture in Chicago. With mentorship from the Philadelphia Furniture Bank and $100,000 from the President's Engagement Prize, the trio founded the Chicago Furniture Bank (CFB) in May 2018. 

CFB is a nonprofit that collects donations of used furniture and household goods. It then distributes "complete furniture packages" to families and individuals facing poverty for a suggested donation of $50. 

The furniture bank is grounded in the founders' and their partners' ultimate belief that everyone deserves to sleep in a bed and eat on a dining table. They achieve this mission by acting as an intermediary between those who need furniture and those who need to get rid of it. But its impact extends far beyond its warehouse walls, as they create jobs for at-risk youth, reduce environmental waste in landfills, and provide a cheap and socially impactful junk removal service. 

As a team of three, Griffin, Andrew, and James were able to distribute thousands of household items. Four years later, CFB has 35 full-time employees, furnishes 15 homes a day, partners with 400+ organizations, and is the largest furniture bank in the country. In this way, CFB helps address the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of “No Poverty” and “Decent Work and Economic Growth.” Both of these SDGs are furthered by Griffin and Andrew’s latest creation: The Honest Junk Company. The new company earns over $2 million in revenue, which it uses to support the Chicago Furniture Bank. With the precision expected of two finance majors, Griffin and Andrew credit their success and ingenuity to a three-phase approach: Scale. Sustain. And then scale again.

Scale

Griffin described the “scale” phase as "just growing and giving away" as much furniture as possible. Their focus on forging partnerships allowed them to achieve this aim. They created partnerships with established organizations like Housing Opportunities for Women, Family Rescue, and A Safe Haven before their first workday. Today, CFB has partnered with hundreds of  local social service agencies who refer Chicagoans in need of furniture. 

In response to those inquiring how 23 year-olds could establish credibility with nonprofits and government agencies, Andrew responded, "You can't tell a person's age on the phone… and our work speaks for itself." 

Griffin explains that forming partnerships was simple because their pitch was a clear win for local agencies: "We are giving your clients, who have no personal belongings, furniture for free… they were sleeping on the floor, now they have a bed." This meant that demand was always high.

On the supply side, CFB received many donations by providing furniture companies with a low-cost removal service. Before CFB’s pick up service, furniture companies were spending money destroying the furniture they could not sell. They did this to stop others from selling their inventory in secondary markets. By donating to CFB, furniture companies can save money and be socially impactful. It was also this pick-up service that spawned their highly successful junk-removal company.

Financial Sustainability

As the furniture bank expanded, the founders recognized that they did not want to be fundraising for the rest of their lives. To serve more Chicagoans, they needed to hire more people, rent a bigger warehouse, buy a third truck, and they needed cash to do so. 

They decided to treat their nonprofit "like a business" and added an earned revenue company component to the furniture bank. Because they were already providing the services of a junk removal company to their corporate partners, it was intuitive to extend their junk-removing operation to private and public clients. 

The Honest Junk Company is the second nonprofit junk removal company in the country. It donates all of its profit and furniture to the CFB and, because they don’t destroy furniture, they can keep costs low. In turn, they offer clients low prices with high impact. 

The Honest Junk Company has recently expanded their junk removal services into the residence hall and hotel liquidation services. The company charges universities and hotels to remove furniture that has very little resell value. By the end of the 2021 school year, they will clear furniture from a 500 room hotel and 1,200 dorm rooms.

CFB is self-sustaining through earned revenue from The Honest Junk Company. This year, The Honest Junk Company is projected to make $2.2 million in profit to cover CFB’s $2 million operating budget. 

Andrew and Griffin emphasize the importance of nonprofits as self-sustaining, something exceptionally rare in the nonprofit world. They now only need to fundraise to expand their capacity. The collaboration between CFB and The Honest Junk Company provides a more significant social and monetary return on donations than a typical nonprofit that only spends its donors’ money. They can tell stakeholders that "every dollar donated creates $25 cash flow for the organization." As a result, they've had massive success with business-minded donors. 

Scaling out: Problem-solving

CFB is focused on impacting as many people as possible. They are on track to furnish 3,400 homes a year by 2021. And 5,000 homes a year by 2023. 

The founders describe themselves as "nimble." They are always focused on expansion but are willing to adapt and innovate in pursuit of this goal. "We don't really have short-term goals, we just solve problems that get in the way of the three phases," said Griffin. They don't believe bureaucracy or "red line" should get in the way of their mission. 

Future Initiatives

Andrew and Griffin have two new initiatives in the pipeline.

Previously, CFB could only offer 15 daily furniture selection appointments, which would become booked weeks in advance. By launching “Cosmos,” an online catalog where clients can pick out furniture packages before their appointments, CFB will be able to work with more individuals and families.

The second initiative addresses CFB’s constant demand for beds. When universities and hotels started spending less money on refreshing their rooms because of COVID-19, CFB’s liquidating projects slowed. These projects, along with donations, were essential to meeting the needs of clients: CFB supplied about 500 beds per month to those in need. So, CFB began spending $40,000 a month to buy beds during the pandemic. To solve the "bed problem," Griffin and Andrew developed a mattress rebuilding operation, where they collected used mattresses and broken beds and reupholstered or repaired them. They give the beds to clients and resell them if they have too many.

Griffin and Andrew's productive working relationship contributes to their success. The duo never loses sight of their social impact goals and alway aims to be bigger and more efficient. 

Looking to help them out? Here are a few things they need: 10 semi-trucks, introductions to people who run hotel chains, introductions to mattress manufacturers… and all your junk. 

A Speed Round With the Founders

1. How do you like your eggs in the morning?

Griffin: Sunny-side

Andrew: 2 cups of coffee. But if he ate breakfast, scrambled.

2. Worst advice you’ve gotten for starting your business?

Griffin: Be patient

Andrew: Relax it will all come together

3. Best advice you’ve gotten for starting your business?

Griffin & Andrew: Work, work, work

4. Quarantine hobby?

Griffin: Following the market

Andrew: Reading the news

5. If you could only have one item of furniture in your house, what would it be?

Griffin: Bed!!

Andrew: Couch

6. What is one social issue you would like to help address by the time you retire?

Griffin: Furniture poverty

Andrew: Employment opportunities for African Americans in inner cities

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