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January 15, 2009

New Hope for the New Year

Well, it's been an interesting ride for us. In this last year we've accomplished so much, yet had some really bad circumstances that affected so much of what we do and what we're able to do. We've settled in to our new space and in a way, we've had to start over.

We've tried to stay completely positive and hope that in the long run, all that we've experienced will be okay and that all things happen for a reason. We like our new location, but during these horrible economic times, we're just struggling to get back to where we were. We've lost so much money, staff, and energy...but not heart. 2008 was a growing experience; not necessarily in the way we'd hoped or anticipated, but experience nonetheless. I think we've said before that somehow, through everything, we've been able to distribute many more materials than we ever have to help in the building and renovating of shelters and housing. We've been able to persevere, but as I'm sure many people throughout the country are feeling, we take it day by day. We don't know if we'll have enough money to pay the little staff we have left, we don't know if we'll be able to pay ourselves which would be devastating for our own family.

With a baby on the way, it's hard sometimes to stay upbeat, calm, and not let worry consume me...us. But, we do the best we can, and know that what we're doing is needed and right. In terms of our new location, we had our first 50% off sale (which we do annually). We didn't really know what to expect and it went pretty well. We've had a lot of positive feedback from customers which is great and truly helps push us along. We just started running a cable commercial which we are really excited about. Check back soon, and you'll be able to watch it on our website. We hope that someday, they'll be a Materials Matter store near you.

I do have high hopes for this year. Materials Matter is looking to come back bigger, better, and stronger than ever. We have great hopes that things in this country are going to turn around. If nothing else, we've seen it in the hopes of people.

Now more than ever, non-profits are needed to help others. Now more than ever, we need more affordable housing and shelters. We need to fix up the shelters that are out there. The non-profits need so much in a time when people have so little.

August 29, 2008

Why Reuse Trumps Recycling and Reduce Trumps ‘em Both

Every Monday morning I hear the procession of truck engines and hydraulic arms working their way through my neighborhood. One truck comes for my trash, a second for my green waste (lawn clippings and such), and the last picks up my recycling. The trash is eventually buried, the green waste composted, and the recycling, well, recycled. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that jazz, but have you ever wondered what happens to all that recycled stuff we throw away?

That’s right – throw away. Just because the bin’s a different color doesn’t change the significance of this wasteful action. One could argue that while recycling has its virtues, it actually goes a long way toward encouraging waste. We throw our recycling in the blue or green bin, and a truck hauls it out of sight and out of mind. We hope that these materials are eventually refashioned into something useful once again, but is the process of recycling itself really green? Sure it’s better than the alternative (burying it), but how green is recycling? I guess it depends. In an attempt to answer this question, let’s take a look at the afterlife of a discarded plastic bottle.

After you’ve enjoyed that cold bottle of water and tossed it in the recycling bin a lengthy chain of events kicks off to convert that plastic bottle into something new and exciting, right? Well, 80 percent of the time, your bottle winds up in the landfill anyway regardless of your intentions. For the 20 percent that make the journey to resurrection, it’s a long arduous road.

Your bottle is tossed into a container marked for recycling. Once a week, a large diesel fueled truck rumbles through your neighborhood and collects these relics and hauls them off to a sorting center. There your bottle is separated from the riffraff and joins ranks with millions of bottles just like it and is compacted into large cubes or shredded and baled. From here, your bottle is placed onto another diesel truck or train and usually exported to China for use in manufacturing plastic stuff.

After arriving in China via container ship, your bottle is loaded on another diesel truck where it is transported to a facility that processes the bales into plastic pellets. These pellets are the primary ingredient used in molded and extruded plastic. The pellets are eventually shipped to a factory where they are molded into something you might find useful again, packaged, and loaded onto a diesel truck; taken to the port; loaded onto a container ship; sent across the Pacific, loaded onto another diesel truck, taken to a distribution center, loaded onto another truck, delivered to the store, purchased by you, brought home, used for a brief time, and finally re-recycled.

The amount of energy consumed to recycle your bottle is immense. So immense in fact, that the earth would’ve been significantly better off if you drank that water out of the tap from a glass rather than from a bottle.

So it seems clear that while recycling is ok and clearly better than tossing refuse into a landfill, it’s not exactly an environmental panacea and may in fact promote the very behavior it’s intended to eliminate – egregious wastefulness.

A far superior alternative is Reuse. Why not take something in its present form and reuse it? This concept seems like common sense, but every year billions of pounds of perfectly good stuff ends up in landfills: kitchen cabinets, windows, doors, sinks, tubs, tile, paint, wood beams, countertops, paneling, office furniture & supplies, appliances, ad infinitum. This waste could build thousands of new homes and shelters without the costly energy input of ‘recycling’ it first. It’s this very niche that Materials Matter has carved out for itself, and is why to date Materials Matter has diverted over 75 million pounds of building materials destined for the landfill to construction projects benefiting other non-profits.

Keeping the material away from the landfill or recycling process is important, but equally important is the cost savings beneficiary organizations realize when they use recovered building materials in their construction projects. Unlike recycled products that often cost more than their ‘new’ counterparts, reused materials can often be had for pennies on the dollar thereby significantly reducing construction costs for cash strapped agencies. Often, these materials are reused in the very same communities where they are recovered further reducing the environmental impact.

Even more compelling is the fact that a lot of this recovered material is brand new. That’s right, brand spankin’ new. Let’s say, for example, that you order some custom blinds for your home, but the order is messed up so you send the blinds back. What do you think happens to those blinds you sent back while you wait for the factory to make you new and hopefully correct ones? Landfill? That used to be the case. Fortunately, more companies are teaming up with organizations like Materials Matter to find homes for their unwanted or mis-measured wares. In addition, more homeowners are deconstructing or eco-demolishing their remodeling projects as they realize that a charitable tax deduction beats paying a contractor to rip out and throw away perfectly good kitchen cabinets and bathroom sinks. Without Materials Matter and agencies like it, our society would miss out on a significant opportunity to reduce our collective ecological impact. Reuse trumps recycling at every turn, but we can do even better.

I mentioned earlier that one could make the argument that recycling encourages the wrong behavior, wastefulness, and while it’s good we’re conserving natural resources by recycling them over and over again, we’d be far better off if we recycled less – literally. Less packaging, fewer bottles, fewer bags. Imagine if everyone refilled the same water bottle or coffee cup every day. Imagine if everyone used canvass shopping bags, bought concentrated cleaning products (which use less packaging), cooked whole foods (again less packaging), and generally consumed less. Less consumption equals less recycling. Less recycling equals less waste (energy). Less waste equals less want.

My grandmother used to always tell me when I wouldn’t finish my dinner, “Waste not. Want not.” As we waste, there are multitudes that want. Materials Matter fills a crucial societal role by wanting the waste and wasting not.

May 2, 2008

Gas Prices, Taxes and Lay-offs, Oh My!

I just spent $69.78 to fill up my car. YIKES!!! What in the world is going on? I also just heard stamps are going up.again! Oh, and I keep hearing about new taxes for this and new taxes for that. I've heard about so many different new taxes lately that I don't even remember what they are for.

I just know that I was going to be paying them. Well, this is not only a nonprofit's nightmare. It's obviously a nightmare for every hard-working person whose income just can't keep up with inflation. Oh, and all those people who have been laid off.

Our business is based on picking up and distributing donations to the nonprofits that need them (IN OUR TRUCK). In California, regular unleaded is hovering around $3.60 a gallon. That puts the diesel needed to run the truck at over $4.00 a gallon. Yet, financial donations have been
lowering probably due to the economy and the fact that many of our corporate supporters are related to the housing industry which puts us in quite the bind. Everyone is really feeling the crunch and boy does it hurt.

I know that this isn't just a problem for nonprofits, but in a business dependent on donations from the general public, it is a problem that is definitely affecting us. I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir. I just felt the need to vent a little. It's really hard sometimes since I write the checks and see the expenditures. As with so many, we've tightened our belts, but sometimes it seems there just aren't enough holes. I don't want to get political, but I truly hope that all the politicians see that we need some help.we need some change. I don't know what the answers are, but I know whatever is
going on just isn't working.

April 2, 2008

How the End of the Housing Boom Hurts

As self-help preacher Tony Robbins clamors on to the stage, the LA Convention Center erupts like a revival hall with screaming and cheering and the sort of palpable optimism usually found at political rallies and children’s birthday parties. It’s not a seminar on locating your personal power. It’s a real estate expo circa 2005, and thousands of people have shown up to attend workshops with titles like “Power Investing,” and “The 125 Percent Program,” and “Getting Rich With Real Estate From A to Z.” The median home price in California has soared to half-a-million, and there’s no sign that the end is near.
Only there are. Many signs. Predatory lending is rampant, and the sub-prime lending crisis is looming. Many mortgage corporations had already begun to downsize. And only three years later, we are staring down the face of a national recession, and the building industry is leading the way.

So what happened? For those of us in the nonprofit industry, the housing boom was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we received enormous financial support from builders, contractors, and the banking and mortgage industry. Times were very, very good the housing industry. Interest rates for home loans were low and a shortage of affordable housing was driving prices up. Boom prices in cities were fueling a construction boom in the urban outskirts like the Inland empire. Corporations and their foundations could afford to give generously. And with all the building going on, there was plenty of excess materials to go around.

On the other hand, the affordable housing and shelter crisis was growing steadily worse. Housing price inflation had made buying a new home a pipedream for all but 18% of families. California’s home ownership rate—40%—was the second lowest in the country. Solutions were hard to come by as homeowner groups opposed new developments of high density affordable housing at every turn. Over 60% of Los Angeles County residents were renting, and many of them were in overcrowded, substandard conditions. Economic speculators, perhaps like the ones learning how to get-rich-quick at the LA Convention Center, were making matters worse, driving up rental prices in once affordable neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the bursting of the housing bubble hasn’t lead to an increase in housing affordability. It’s just lead to stagnation and foreclosure. Although the grant money from the housing and mortgage industry has dried up dramatically, the housing crisis remains the same today, if not worse, making the challenges facing nonprofit builders even greater. Here at Materials Matter, we have witnessed a big decrease in excess material donations from manufacturers and distributors, as companies look to cut costs during the downturn. To make up for it, we’ve had to turn to other ways to cut construction costs for nonprofits, like increasing our bulk-purchasing programs. We’re also partnering with different companies to expand our reach and donor base—the nonprofit version of diversifying your portfolio.
As general acceptance of a recession grows, our Home Improvement Outlet at least, is seeing increased sales. Right now people are more likely to improve the home they’re in rather than buying a new home. And they are looking for a bargain in the process. Hopefully it will help us weather the downturn and continue to help the nonprofits that are struggling to make a difference. And maybe we’ll be teaching a seminar at the next big real estate expo: “Power Recycling,” or “The 40 Percent Program—How Those Of Us Who Own A Home Can Help Everyone Else Get One Too.”

March 7, 2008

Sick but Surviving!

Sorry we've been out of touch for a while. We've just had round 3 of whatever this illness is that's going around. And when I say we, I mean our entire staff has been sick at one or more times in February and March. It's really tough because it completely knocks you out and makes it hard to function let alone get any work done.

Being sick started at such a pivotal time, too, as we've been working on an exciting new partnership for the Home Improvement Outlet. Bargain Mart, the store that occupies the space next to us, is partnering with Materials Matter to share space and proceeds. This gives Materials Matter the opportunity to have a much better selection of products for our customers as well as a way to increase our exposure, ultimately helping us to support our programs to get materials into the hands of nonprofits and recycle. While we are downsizing our own space, we can consolidate our merchandise to make sure that we only are selling the products that sell, instead of wasting floor space.

It’s a great model of a new kind of partnership for us, and we’re thrilled. We’ve begun to make changes throughout the store, and will have a grand opening/reopening on March 14 – so we’ll definitely have a lot to say after next week. We’re making so many positive changes and it’s really exciting. We’ve also been opening the doors to many new distribution partners expanding our mission to serve many more organizations. In the past month we’ve distributed over 200 pallets worth of products to nonprofits. We are having a ‘Distribution Week’ to our Community Chest members during the week of March 17, so there is a lot going on, but we’re just trying to get and stay healthy. We’ll take pictures of the grand opening and of the Distribution Days.

January 24, 2008

It's Not Easy Being Green... But It's Getting Easier

The last few years have been great for raising awareness and boosting green commerce. Many in the business community, from large corporations to small businesses, are starting to see that adopting a greener attitude makes sense—conserving energy and supplying environmentally sound products and services benefits the environment and the bottom line. It's difficult to tell at times whether real change is taking place behind the claims, but it appears even Target and Wal-Mart are taking measures to reduce their environmental impact. Recycle

The same could be said for social enterprises like Materials Matter. We've had some banner years of growth recently, as nonprofits and businesses alike see the value of creating business models that benefit the "triple bottom line" of positive financial, social and environmental outcomes. The announcement of the America Forward initiative is evidence that the movement is about to grow new muscle with the support of policy makers.

The road has been far from smooth for either cause. Though describing activities that have been going on since the Girl Scouts sold their first box of Thin Mints, the term “social enterprise” has taken a meandering path into the public awareness, surfacing in discussion of everything from the Grameen Bank and it’s hero-founder Dr. Muhammad Yunus to the feel-good deliciousness of fair-trade coffees. And there were the cautionary tales as well, such as the Harvard Business Review’s 2005 article titled 'Should Nonprofits Seek Profits?' or the June 2007 SEEDCO Foundation report called “The Limits of Social Enterprise.” The latter argued that nonprofits running commercial businesses generally leads to frustration and failure, either of the venture itself or of its revenue projections. The overall agreement in these articles seemed to be that “unrealistic expectations” about financial outcomes are the root problem of unsuccessful earned-income ventures for nonprofits.

When are unrealistic expectations not the root of dissatisfaction? And when are they not accompanied by the kind of beautiful hope where all great changes are born?

Materials Matter is a venture that embraces both green commerce and social enterprise as our basic business models. We salvage materials and rescue excess, saving them both from landfills. Those goods are then distributed to nonprofit building shelters or housing, or sold to the public to create earned income we can use to run our organization and bulk-purchase the materials we can’t find in the wild. The crew here knows all about frustration and failure, but we also know about resilience and success. We hope that 2008 brings more good news for both green commerce and social enterprise, proving that activism can be incredibly powerful when it finds a way to work within the market.


January 7, 2008

Why We Do What We Do

Wishing everybody a Happy New Year! It's interesting when asked why I do the work I do or why I got into this field. I never really thought about it at all until recently asked during an interview for a newspaper article [See it here “Couple seeks ways to re-use building materials to aid Orange County nonprofits”]. Starfish

I believe that people can make a difference in so many different ways. Some people become doctors, some people have a lot of money to make donations to philanthropic endeavors, some people volunteer, etc. Jason and I chose to do this because it’s what we know how to do. We both fell into our work with nonprofits, and with Materials Matter saw an opportunity to help nonprofits and ultimately help people have a better life.

Many people don’t view nonprofits as a business. Whereas, looking at the business models for big builders as well as the Targets and WalMarts of the world, they have distribution centers and do large-scale purchasing to achieve the biggest discounts they can. They pool their resources and spend the least amount of money and time to run in the most efficient ways they can. We saw a need for that in the nonprofit world. There are something like 130,000 nonprofits in Orange County, California, alone, all fending for themselves. Our thought was to pool the nonprofits -- to create a place for collaboration so that we can all achieve more and ultimately serve more individuals in need. Some may need a home, some may need a warm place to spend one night, some may need a meal, some may need a safe haven from abusive family. There are so many wonderful and meaningful charities throughout Southern California and the country. If we can make an impact and help to increase the number of projects that can be done and ultimately help many more people, well who wouldn’t feel good about that?

We know that what we do is needed. We know that this is our way to make a difference. Sort of like the starfish story where the boy is on the beach and throwing starfish into the ocean. The dad asks why he’s doing that as there are hundreds and thousands of starfish washed on onto the sand. The boy says yes, but at least this one will live today. (Or something like that...) Well, that’s our philosophy. If we can make a difference in just one person’s life, than we’ve done what we set out to do.

Also, we know what it’s like to have rough times. We know what it’s like to feel like there’s no use going on -- that one bad thing keeps happening after another. And when there’s one thing that makes you smile or forget everything else for just a minute, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. We hope that we provide that, not only for the people in need, but also for the people who work at the nonprofits and struggle daily to accomplish their work.

We don’t get to hand the families keys to their new homes, or open the doors to the shelter that will keep them from their abusive spouse. We don’t get to see the children’s faces when they see their room painted and the leaks repaired. We don’t get to install the windows in the facility or the shingles on the roofs. We’re not the Habitats, the HomeAids nor the Rebuilding Togethers who actually do the projects. But, because of the materials we provide to these and other nonprofits, they will be able to hand out more keys, open more doors and bring more smiles to more people…and that’s why we do it.

December 6, 2007

Mission Impossible? A Day In The Life Running A Social Enterprise

Materials Matter's primary social enterprise earned-income stream comes from the Home Improvement Outlet, a discount store open to the public that sells brand new and salvaged building and home improvement supplies at 50%-80% off retail. Most of the product we carry is overstock, discontinued, slightly damaged, or buy-backs donated to us by companies who otherwise would have sent it to a landfill or sold it to a for-profit liquidator. Some of the donations like this that we get are set aside exclusively for use by the nonprofits we work with, and the rest goes to the store where both the nonprofits and the public can purchase it. All the proceeds from store sales are fed back into our programs, sustaining 60-75% of our organization.

So the store’s a pretty big deal.

Materials Matter’s continued success hinges upon the successful building and growing of sustainable income streams like our Home Improvement Outlet. Just like traditional charity golf tournaments, cocktail luncheons, fancy $300-a-plate galas—we spend a lot of time nurturing our store.

When I say nurturing, what I really mean is rolling up our sleeves, cranking up the classic rock station and driving around the forklift through a fog of warehouse dust. I mean busting out the dollies and moving product by hand from the back of the warehouse to the front of the store and trying everything in our power to give our 35,000 square feet of open warehouse a friendly, inviting atmosphere. I mean painting signs and fixing broken credit card machines and arguing with soda-machine vendors. And I mean tirelessly working the phones to get more donations or to negotiate new bulk-purchasing deals on products we can’t seem to get donated. Customers Lining Up Early

One of the big challenges and tensions for nonprofits engaging in social enterprise is the amount of time that must be dedicated to building and growing these earned income streams. The work of running any business can be difficult, and for nonprofit workers who are used to being closer to the meaningful end-result of their labor, it can be downright demoralizing. You have to wear so many hats it’s dizzying. There are many days when it feels like the mission is impossible, and the days when we all have to put our do-gooder hearts aside and crunch numbers and make tough, bottom-line decisions. And then there are days like today.

It’s Saturday, December 1st, the day of our third annual 50% Off Sale at the Home Improvement Outlet. It’s about 7:30 in the morning, and there is a harsh cold bite to the air. It rained something biblical the day before, and we just can’t believe our luck that it stopped in time for our big day. Neither can the 100 customers who have already lined up outside the building. They are already jockeying for position, pushing others aside, claiming rights to carts, grabbing stacks of “sold” tickets, leaving their 10-year-olds to hold their place in line while they stock up on the free coffee and donuts. The store will not open until 9:00 am, and when it does it will be absolute chaos.

Customers swarm the aisles in search of the deal of a lifetime on flooring, hardware, bathtubs, sinks, faucets, doors—the list goes on. Jason, the president of our organization, is working the floor like it’s the New York Stock Exchange. Our Communication Director is trying to sell a couple on a brand new kitchen cabinet set. I’m shouting for the next customer to come up to the register. Volunteers hustle to and from the back, searching for stock and helping customers load their cars. After 8 hours of frenzied shopping and only a few customer “I-got-here-first” fights, our store is a certified disaster-area and everyone is properly exhausted. And we will have earned a big chunk of the operational cash flow we need to survive another few months working the mission.

On Monday, for Jason and me it’s back to business suits and financial reports and strategic planning. And dreaming up new ways to make it easier for nonprofits to build homes for struggling families that we may never meet, but whose lives we are committed to changing.

-Alison Riback


November 26, 2007

Part 2: Who's the Baby?

Editor's Note: Below is the second post from the winners of Project Enterprise (scroll down to read the first). Over the next 6 or so months, Alison and Jason of Materials Matter will pull back the curtain on what it takes to run an entrepreneurial project with a humanitarian mission. They will try to post about once a week. If you want them to discuss any particular topic, send an e-mail to ProjectEnterprise@thirteen.org and it will be forwarded to them. Thanks for reading!

By the way, in the fall of 2002, Jason and I started dating and got married in February of 2005. We had our daughter, Alexis, in July of 2006. We have some great days and some not so great days and sometimes the days turn into weeks, but we hope that we've laid a foundation for something great. The next 6 months will be pivotal for us. Again, we're struggling a little with the finances and are looking to expand the ways in which we seek funds. We've more or less survived on our sustainable income models, and due to the market, we need to start looking for grants and donations. So that will be a major focus in the upcoming year. With the right funding, we can look to expand the model and see if we can replicate in other parts of the country.
The McKinstrys

We hope that there will be opportunities to really reach out to many more nonprofits which in turn will help build more affordable, transitional and emergency housing. We are also looking to expand our programs to reach more low-income families. We hope to have more products suited to helping them have the ability to improve their homes and ultimately their lives.

Thank you for letting us share our story. Thank you for voting. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your support. We look forward to the next six months.

Talk to you soon.

Jason and Alison

November 15, 2007

Project Enterprise Winners: Hello from Alison and Jason

Editor's Note: Below is the first post from the winners of Project Enterprise. Over the next 6 or so months, Alison and Jason of Materials Matter will pull back the curtain on what it takes to run an entrepreneurial project with a humanitarian mission. They will try to post about once a week. If you want them to discuss any particular topic, send an e-mail to ProjectEnterprise@thirteen.org and it will be forwarded to them. Thanks for reading!

First of all, we want to thank everyone who voted for us. More importantly, we want to acknowledge the other three organizations that we were so humbled to be nominated with. They are all doing incredible and extremely interesting work. We hope to hear more about them in the upcoming months and wish them the best of luck with all they are doing.

Yeah!!! We won!!!

For those of you who don't know, Materials Matter is a nonprofit 501(c)3 charity whose mission is to provide the material resources nonprofits need to build housing and shelter and revitalize communities; to equip low income families with the materials and supplies they need to repair and care for their homes affordably, and to promote conservation through materials recycling.

To give you the quick spiel.

Materials Matter envisions a greener, more just world where all families can achieve a higher level of economic independence, and improve their lives and neighborhoods, and where government, for-profit and nonprofit sectors all work together to meet the triple bottom line of positive financial, environmental and social outcomes for all.

We provide overall benefits for the community while directly affecting the 'distressed and underprivileged'. We are dedicated to being a leader in cooperative resource development for nonprofits serving Orange County, the Inland Empire and the entire Southern California region.

We harness the collective buying power of the nonprofit community and the goodwill of the business community to secure low-cost and donated materials and supplies. With regular access to our services, organizations save precious financial and human resources, and ultimately build more homes and shelters and serve more families in need.

We hope to eventually take the model nationwide and from there... Who knows?

But…We Do Have Some Challenges

In the summer of 2007, we decided to embark on a big change. We decided to expand our mission so that we could help all nonprofits, not just Habitat for Humanity. We disaffiliated from Habitat for Humanity [see Materials Matter History for more explanation] and went our own way. This was an interesting time that we can talk about as a separate entry. It was extremely exciting and trying at the same time. We were losing this $4 billion name brand recognition, but that name brand was also holding us back. As Habitat we tried never to compete with the affiliates which prohibited us from seeking most grants, donations and having events. We were now free and able to leap from buildings and shout our name. The question was, how do we climb up to those roofs? And did anyone want to hear us shout?

The last five months have been amazing and very challenging. We've been more successful that ever, but yet been struggling financially -- we think mostly due to the housing market and the way we've been structured. Again, we can talk about all of this more in the upcoming journal entries, but let's just say, it hasn't been easy. However, we knew that with the rebranding and introduction of this semi-new entity without the fancy name needed some help. We discussed the hiring of a PR firm to help get the word out to the community. And, if anyone is thinking of starting a nonprofit or even has any business that needs a little kickstart, I'd say, hire a PR firm (a good one with references and a lot of experience that meets your needs).

Continue reading "Project Enterprise Winners: Hello from Alison and Jason" »

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