Published in Nonprofits
The StoreHouse co-founders Nora Ruder (left) and Jessica Johns.  The StoreHouse co-founders Nora Ruder (left) and Jessica Johns. COURTESY PHOTO

The StoreHouse tackles inefficient donation process to benefit nonprofits, schools

BY Sunday, April 24, 2022 06:31pm

Distributing excess product to groups in need can be a cumbersome process for large companies, and a Grand Rapids-area organization aims to solve that problem by acting as an intermediary between corporations and nonprofits in need.

The StoreHouse was created six years ago to ensure donated goods go to the right place. For example, a large retailer may look to donate 100 pairs of size 8 children’s shoes and use an employee to research nonprofits that work with children to find a suitable organization. However, upon accepting such a donation, a nonprofit may only be able to distribute a small portion of such a specific item. 

“We have heard that scenario over and over,” said Jessica Johns, co-founder of The StoreHouse. “It’s just all of these unintended consequences from an ineffective donation system. So what we’re saying is: We’re creating a systematic approach to receive and redistribute goods in a way that can have an exponential impact.” 

The StoreHouse effectively eliminates the need for donors to research destinations to send their goods, Johns said. The organization is connected to hundreds of nonprofits and schools, meaning one donation can benefit a broader area and find the right entities in need, she said.

The StoreHouse started after Johns’ small hygiene bank at her church grew quickly, prompting her to research scalable resources for reduced costs. From there, she found nearly all Kent County nonprofits were competing for similar resources, she said. 

Six years after starting the church bank that collected personal hygiene products, Johns and her fellow co-founder, Nora Ruder, in 2016 opened The StoreHouse, a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Plainfield Township providing new products to local nonprofits and low-income schools. 

The warehouse carries a variety of items, including appliances, furniture, outdoor storage and recreation goods and cleaning supplies, to name a few. 

The StoreHouse started by partnering with World Vision International, a global humanitarian aid organization connected to a variety of donors that distributes large-scale items to its affiliates, Johns said. After opening six years ago, The StoreHouse now works with three procurement organizations. Donors include big box stores like Walmart, Costco, Lowes and several more, she said. 

Almost all of the warehouse’s products are new and include overstock, seasonal models or unused returns, Johns said. Less than 5 percent of the warehouse’s items are used, she said.

 ‘Focused and pinpointed’

Before working with The StoreHouse, gathering supplies for projects and events was financially draining and time consuming for LINC UP, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit community development organization. Participating in The StoreHouse to secure more affordable supplies means more funding for other projects, said Willie Patterson, LINC UP’s director of engagement.

Additionally, LINC UP draws participants to its events with incentives that, prior to becoming a member of The StoreHouse, often meant gift card giveaways. With The StoreHouse’s help, the organization can now offer needed supplies like hats and scarves, he said.

LINC UP also benefits from The StoreHouse’s mission to tackle ineffective donations by taking donated items and storing them to be used in the future, Patterson said. 

“The StoreHouse allows us to be more focused and pinpointed on what we’re looking for to supply the needs of what we’re doing in the community,” Patterson said. 

The StoreHouse helps LINC UP fulfill community needs, which helps the nonprofit build community relationships and trust, Patterson added. 

Through The StoreHouse, Holland-based nonprofit Hope Pkgs Inc. has found backpacks, diaper bags, toiletries and more for its first-night necessity bags for foster children, said Hope Pkgs founder Lisa Hoeve. 

Hope Pkgs has been a member of The StoreHouse since 2017. In addition to supplies for first-night bags, Hope Pkgs has found office furniture and furniture for foster families at The StoreHouse’s warehouse, Hoeve said. 

“They’re a huge part of the thousands of kids that we’ve assisted,” Hoeve said.

 How it works

Nonprofits apply for a membership at The StoreHouse, and organizations focusing on housing, education and workforce development get the most access, Johns said. Schools where 70 percent of students get free or reduced lunch also qualify to shop at The StoreHouse, Johns said. While The StoreHouse mostly serves local entities, it also has branched out to about 40 Detroit schools.

Products that aren’t directly related to member nonprofits are available to other nonprofit organizations, though members pay a small fee per case of products, Johns said. At times, the warehouse receives items — such as pet supplies — that don’t benefit schools or priority nonprofits, Johns said. When this happens, nonprofits in need are given access to need-specific items.

The StoreHouse is working to develop relationships with its members to anticipate needs and inform which type of products the warehouse accepts, Johns said. To do so, the nonprofit has hired a member manager and is developing a technology platform for members. 

“We took in $15 million of products this year, but we turned down (roughly) $40 million because we didn’t know where there were needs,” Johns said, adding that The StoreHouse looks to develop relationships in which nonprofits help forecast their future needs for the coming weeks or months. 

The StoreHouse doesn’t accept donations that aren’t useful for its members, focusing instead on the potential and specific benefits of its product stock, rather than quantity, Johns said.

Meanwhile, The StoreHouse is running out of space at its Plainfield Township location and is pursuing additional square footage, though its current budget lacks the funding to secure additional property, Johns said.

Businesses have supported the organization through a variety of contributions beyond money, and The StoreHouse is open to accepting more, she added.

“It’s hard for me to fundraise to do something like communications or marketing or technology, but a company that already does that as their skill, that’s an easier (way to) give back for them, too,” Johns said. “They may say, ‘Well, we can’t donate $20,000 or $5,000, but we can donate 10 hours of employee time per month.’” 

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