By Mark Lennon
Every school has excess furniture. It may be hundreds or thousands of pieces when you build a new school and empty the old one. It may be the odd stream of items that find their way to basement storage areas. It may be old cafeteria tables that you’re replacing, or old bleachers from the gym. Every day, every month, every year, schools have excess furniture.
What to do with it? That’s a painful question. You can put it up for auction or look for a reseller, but there’s not much demand. You can give it away to teachers, or have a yard sale for the community. But there’s not much demand. There’s just not much demand for used school furniture. So most of the time, it gets thrown away.
There’s an alternative: charitable reuse.
June 2002. Chestnut Hill, Boston, Massachusetts
A parking lot filled with dorm furniture. That was the beginning of IRN’s Reuse Program. IRN was founded as a recycling cooperative for education and healthcare institutions. IRN’s role was to take over their members’ loading docks and find a home for all their recyclables: paper and cardboard, cans and bottles, scrap metal, plastics, computers, fluorescent lamps . . . . .
And then furniture. Boston College was the first to call, with all that dorm furniture in the parking lot. IRN’s COO Dana Draper recalls: “We looked at it and said, ‘This is good stuff. Why aren’t you giving it to a halfway house or a homeless shelter, someone who can use it?’ Our friends at BC replied, ‘We’re in Boston. Inside ten miles there are 40,000 dorm rooms and three dozen schools. We all have this stuff to get rid of, and we’ve filled up every shelter and halfway house and thrift store in three states. We just need the furniture to go away and not thrown out.”
So IRN recycled it.
But they knew there had to be a better solution, and started making calls. Not to local charities, but to national and international organizations that provide relief and development aid on a large scale. Perhaps they would be able to use good quality furniture in the quantities that were available from IRN’s members — hundreds or sometimes thousands of pieces at a time.
IRN’s CEO Mark Lennon picks up the story. “We discovered a market failure. In fact there was a huge need among relief organizations for usable furniture — to rebuild after floods and earthquakes, to give families a better home than a tin shanty, to give kids the chance to study at a real desk. There was more need for furniture than we could ever hope to supply. But there was no one making the match.”
Among the generators — the schools that IRN worked with — no one had the time and resources to network with dozens of charities who might be able to use their surplus furniture. Among the potential recipients no one had the time and resources to network with the thousands of schools that might have usable furniture to offer. Neither side had the capability or resources to manage the projects to make the transfer happen — setting up logistics (moving crews, transportation, packing trucks, filling out paperwork, and freight tracking).
Meanwhile good furniture kept going into dumpsters, while kids kept doing their schoolwork on wood planks.
So IRN kept making calls, and started making matches, and began moving surplus furniture to charities. In 2002 IRN shipped two trailers of furniture. In 2003 they shipped 20. Then 85 in 2004. Then 259 in 2005, and from there the program has kept growing. Through mid-2017 IRN has shipped more than 5,500 trailers filled with furniture, provided by 535 organizations in 28 states, and supplying more than 125 nonprofit schools and charities in 43 states and 60 countries around the world. That’s charitable reuse.
How Reuse Works
According to IRN CEO Mark Lennon, simplicity and cost are the keys to IRN’s Reuse Program. “We know that nearly every school is overwhelmed, understaffed, and working within a tight budget. We know we have to make sure that reuse is just as simple as throwing old furniture away, and costs less. Reuse has to be the easy choice.”
The first step is to get an inventory of the furniture to be disposed of. This is what IRN offers charities. “A great thing about working with K-12 schools is that so many charities need the furniture,” says Lennon. “Education is the best route out of poverty, but it’s hard to get much education sitting on a dirt floor. The charities we work with are desperate to acquire classroom furniture and everything that goes with it — libraries, cafeterias, science rooms, teachers’ desks. K‑12 is the gold standard of all the furniture we handle — we can’t get enough of it.”
With the inventory, IRN makes a match with the most appropriate charity or charities. Says COO Dana Draper, “Shipping costs are the important variables. Charities working in East Asia want shipments from the West Coast; those in Africa and the Middle East want shipments from the East. Shipments to the Caribbean and South America are most cost-effective from the East Coast or Gulf States. We do a lot of projects in New Mexico and Colorado, and those shipments can go in any direction, into Tribal Schools, or overland into Mexico. And we work with charities that support schools in American cities and in Appalachia. They’re looking for freight to originate as close as possible to the recipients.”
Labor is the next resource required. Sometimes IRN hires movers, but they prefer if the school or district contracts directly. “Most districts have movers that they already rely on,” says Draper, “people who know their schools and know how they operate. We don’t want to get in the middle of those relationships. And if the school contracts directly, we don’t take a markup, and that helps keep costs low.”
With recipients and a labor force lined up, the project is ready to go. IRN coordinates with the charity to set up transportation, with the mover to get the crew onsite, and with the school or district to make sure the doors are open, lights are turned on, and parking space is reserved for tractor trailers. A small project may involve a crew of three or four men loading a single trailer in the morning. A large project may span a week or more, with multiple crews loading trailers simultaneously from different doorways, or crews moving between a dozen different schools loading 20 or 30 trailers over the course of three weeks.
“No two projects are the same,” says Lennon. “Large and small. With elevators and without. In 90 degrees and roasting, or minus-10 and freezing. But the goal is always the same: keep it efficient, keep it cost-effective, finish on time, finish within budget.”
The Bottom Line: Schools Saving Money; People Helping People
IRN did its first K-12 project in 2004: two trailers, 18,000 pounds total, from schools in New Hampshire and Connecticut. Since then, IRN has worked with 96 more schools and districts from Maine to Southern California and from Florida to Washington. IRN’s biggest K-12 project recovered more than a half-million pounds from a school district near Denver; the smallest captured 640 pounds — a few desks and file cabinets — from a small independent school in the Boston suburbs. In 2017 IRN has another 40 K-12 projects on their schedule, and expects to fill another 300-350 trailers with desks, activity tables, bookshelves, and other furniture for children around the world.
“IRN gave us a four-win solution,” says Donna Woodcock, principal of the Greenfield High School in Massachusetts, where IRN removed more than 1,100 pieces for charitable reuse. “Our community and taxpayers win, we send the right message to our students, the environment wins, and children far away get the biggest benefit of all. It’s not often that a single project can do so much good.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mark Lennon is founder and CEO of IRN-The Reuse Network, which matches surplus assets from US organizations with charities worldwide. Before IRN Mark was recycling coordinator for the State of New Hampshire, where he created and implemented the state’s first recycling plan. Earlier, Mark was a consultant to the U.S. EPA and other clients in waste and energy issues.
Learn more about Charitable Reuse at EDspaces 2017. Mark Lennon will join a panel on Thursday, October 26 from 1:30 pm - 2:30 pm for a presentation on “Charitable Reuse: Managing Surplus Furniture for Financial, Social, Environmental, and Community Benefit”.