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August 14, 2009

Social Entrepreneur Shares Her Blessings

Like many others, Theresa Wilson’s metamorphosis into social entrepreneurship happened by chance. After her life took a devastating turn, Wilson was humbled and awed by the many acts of kindness bestowed upon her by friends and strangers alike.

Wilson kept every note, every card of encouragement, many pictures and other blessing reminders in a basket she grew to call the “blessing basket.” She used her blessing basket as a prop when she began speaking at women’s organizations to inspire others to overcome their difficulties. Inspired by her words and perseverance, many women began requesting baskets of their own and thus “The Blessing Basket” project was now born.

How does it work?

The Blessing Basket connects weavers in under-developed countries to markets in developed countries. Today, their baskets can be found in Whole Foods Markets and numerous independent retailers across the United States. By paying so-called “prosperity wages” the company continues to improve the lives of approximately 3,000 men, women and children living in several African nations as well as Indonesia.

The Blessing Basket operates with volunteers, a small staff and a host of advisors.

Find out more: The Blessing Basket

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 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.

July 23, 2008

The Struggling Economy Spells Doom and Gloom for Charities

Daniel Gross, business columnist for Newsweek and Slate, turned his eyes towards the latest victim of the economic downturn in his most recent column, cheerfully titled “The Coming Charity Crisis.” His tone is appropriate. Thanks to the sluggish market, fundraisers from splashy celebrity galas to Salvation Army clothing collection bins and the charities they support are all feeling the pinch of declining donations. And while large impressive multi-million dollar gifts usually get most of the press, Gross points out that mega-gifts make up only 1.3% of all donations. The bread and butter of nonprofits in America is smaller donations from individuals who support the cause, accounting for 75% of all donations in 2006. So as wages flag, and gas prices dig in, and the health of the upper-middle-class consumer starts to show fatigue, we can expect donations and nonprofit budgets to take a big hit.

The mysterious guru over at the Don’t Tell The Donor blog has taken a rickety time-machine in to the future and agrees. But you don’t need a time machine to predict this decline—the writing has been on the wall for some time. Giving USA Foundation and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University reported individual and corporate giving actually declined in 2007 when adjusted for inflation. Target Analytics reported yesterday that revenues had declined in the first quarter for 60% of the nonprofits in their study.

At Materials Matter, we can confirm that with our own anecdotal evidence. Not only are donations down, but our ability to afford to pick up and deliver in-kind donations has dramatically decreased with diesel soaring to new price-heights. Around here we call it the “new math.” When a donor calls in with some extra windows and doors, or some leftover hardware from a construction project, we have to calculate pretty quickly how much it will cost us to pick it up in our fuel-inefficient truck using the donation’s current whereabouts, the size of the donation, and whether it’s on route to or from another pick-up. Then we have to decide whether the value of that donation will be worth the cost of transportation. It’s put a huge dent in our “always say yes to a donation” philosophy.

Corporate giving has also declined, and we are currently surviving on a lean staff and the revenue from our social enterprise store. As predicted, a home improvement outlet that offers 50-80% off retail on cabinets, flooring and everything else is not a bad business to be running when the housing bubble bursts and the economy slows down. Still, our Board of Directors is sweating. And it’s not from lack of air conditioning. Though that might be the next to go if gas prices continue to rise.

What to make of this new, gloomy philanthropic landscape? The experts agree on one thing: it will take some time for the economy to recover. This isn’t a normal recession, but the unraveling of a massive credit bubble, and a $300 stimulus check won’t help the 30 million people being foreclosed on. (If you haven’t heard it yet, by the way, you should give an hour to listening to the This American Life special on the credit crisis called The Big Pool Of Money.) Charity giving will most likely slump this year and the next. To stay afloat, we all have to nurture our social enterprises and return to the time honored strategy of asking friends, face-to-face, to support the causes we care about most.

June 20, 2008

Success Stories Fuel Social Enterprise

In times of constantly streaming bad news -- a stalling economy, gas prices inching ever-closer to $5/gallon, donations slumping -- we all need a little good news to cling to. For those of us at Materials Matter and no doubt other social enterprises, we are driven by success stories. It’s the success stories that we work for, because each one is a building block in our larger mission. The fact that each success is the culmination of months, sometimes years of plodding work, makes them that much more satisfying.

When our Board of Directors voted in early 2007 to expand our services to include more nonprofit agencies, one of the intentions was to begin doing more to supply materials to builders of emergency shelter and transitional housing. By autumn, we started a mutual courtship with HomeAid, a national nonprofit leader in building and rehabbing shelter and transitional housing for the homeless. With an impressive track-record of working with local agencies to build shelter for over 80,000 individuals and headquarters close by in Orange County, CA, HomeAid seemed like a natural fit.

We were soon paired with HomeAid San Diego to conduct a sort of pilot program. We met in January and reviewed their upcoming projects and, looking at the constraints of planning time, selected an upcoming project to help with. Led by the Interfaith Community Services in Escondido, the Veteran’s Project involved rehabbing apartment units to serve as transitional housing for homeless veterans. Many of the units would need to be outfitted for handicap accessibility, and the budget was tight. We agreed to aggressively pursue material donations for them, believing five months was plenty of time.

By early May, we were scrambling. Many of the manufacturers and distributors we partner with that typically have excess to donate had been tightening their belts, making their companies more efficient as a strategy for weathering the economic downturn. But we posted up the project plans on the wall and kept heart, making call after call to track down donations. It was the company RSI that finally came through for us in a big way, contributing medicine cabinets, light bars, vanity tops, and storage cabinets. We were also able to get a hold of handicap accessible shower stalls, which retails for thousands of dollars, and donations of faucets, garbage disposals, paint and supplies, and electrical supplies. All in all we pulled together $30,000 in materials and two weeks ago, we sent a truckload of materials and supplies down.

Our staff had already moved on to “the next”: other projects, other needs. And then our truck driver returned from the delivery with tears in his eyes. The staff of the Interfaith Community Services had gathered around to watch the unloading of materials at the site. Each unloading of another palette brought another round of applause. For a man who spends most of his days in warehouses driving forklifts, it was a touching reminder of why he worked for Materials Matter, and as he passed the success story along we all felt that thing you are supposed to feel doing this work: that swelling in your chest. That warm feeling brought on by generosity. That faith in people, and that faith in fighting to help the most vulnerable.

In the week that followed, our office received some humbling thank you letters. The Veteran’s Project is now in its final stages of completion. Hundreds of homeless veterans will receive housing assistance there, many of whom returned recently from Afghanistan and Iraq having lost their homes and their families and just need a place to get their feet back on the ground. It’s easy to forget why we struggle to run a nonprofit organization, and why we work so hard to run a social enterprise to make that nonprofit successful. Thanks to the Veteran’s Project in Oceanside, we now have the soul-fuel to continue on.

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.”