Crowdsourcing a nonprofit / social enterprise idea

One of the ideas I’ve been rolling around….

Realistic? Not so much? Good idea? Bad idea? Looking for suggestions, reflections, feedback.
An idea for a not-for-profit, social enterprise or cooperative…

I read that successful businesses often begin with the recognition of a specific problem, or an unmet need.  The successful business identifies and develops a solution.

This idea is developed from the intersection of two different problems.

1 – Not long ago, an article in the Georgia Strait revealed that organizations that run clothing donation boxes, and thrift stories, generally throw out an astonishing 85% of donated clothing.  I have sometimes donated items that I can’t be bothered to fix.  But I learned that if a button is missing or a seam needs mending, it goes in the garbage pile.   That struck me as such a lost opportunity – it seemed to me that there would be a number of people who could re-purpose fabric if it were available for free, that people could likely come up with some pretty clever ideas if it were made available. Or at the very least, that all the buttons could be cut off of that massive amount of clothing, and at least those could be made available and re-used.     Surely there must be some use for the massive amount that must go to landfills, if it is 85% of all clothing donations at every organization.

2 – I have worked with refugees as a host-program volunteer for years,  and done graduate research with immigrants on integration/social cohesion issues.  One of the issues that I have heard a number of times from newcomers has to do with needing more opportunities to interact with Canadians.    ESL classes are usually a few hours a day for new immigrants, and often they find it very difficult to meet Canadians, to have enough opportunities to practice their English, and to avoid isolation.

It’s possible that the first problem should be addressed as an independent enterprise, but I also think it is worth considering whether the two might link together.


Potential obstacles I foresee, and potential solutions to address them:

a – It’s easier for organizations to throw out the 85% of clothing donations deemed valueless, than to save them.  Most organizations are very tight for storage space, and it’s difficult enough organizing the 15% of donations they have decided to keep.  So, there would need to be some incentives to convince all the organizations to change their systems, re-train staff, and store the rejected clothing.    One potential incentive could be financial – to develop a model where organizations receive a minimal amount of money per pound of clothing.  Also, if organizations are currently paying fees for over-quota garbage pickup, our project could save them these expenses.

b – Organizations lack storage space for the 85% discards.
Two potential solutions to this – Our project could do regular pick-up’s to minimize storage time at each organization.

c – Potential costs to our project to dispose of whatever is deemed to be unusable.  Whether stained fabrics, broken zippers etc., what % of the 85% would be found completely worthless, and what would be the cost in resources, labour, transport and cash to dispose of those items?
I would propose that some aspects of the project be modelled on the Vancouver organization FreeGeek.  Volunteers strip down every item to its bare bones – individual items which are them split up, factory-like, into labelled boxes (‘mendable, has value’, ‘buttons’, ‘working zippers’).  If an item is stained     or has discoloured fabric, the fabric is cut so that the parts that are in good condition are kept.
If discarded amounts were over the garbage quota for free municipal pickup, the municipality would be sought as a partner, to waive those costs.
‘Easy fix’ clothing items, which only needed to have buttons replaced or to have hems re-sewn, would be sold in an on-site store staffed by volunteers (also similar to FreeGeek).  Newly-created items (clothing, quilts, fabric art) could also be sold on site, and perhaps also online.

d – Project aspects would need to be created to make communication with others critical.   If #2 is to partner with #1, above, then isolated work would be counter-productive.  Project development phase should include expanding the opportunities for language practice and interaction.

e – Managing volunteers; ensuring value to volunteers.
Volunteers would have scheduled shifts, similar to FreeGeek, with each shifting having a leader.  Once leaders come to know volunteers, ideally they will be able to provide reference letters, which will meet another problem that immigrants report:  every job they apply for says that they need to have Canadian experience, yet they cannot get that experience without getting a first position.

f – Expertise, ethics, and advisors
A team of advisors would be involved, to meet project needs with skillsets such as:
– immigrant services organization employee(s) and /or previous immigrants
– experienced social enterprise / cooperative / not-for-profit expert(s)
– Settlement BC / labour-immigration expert(s)
– human resources / employee law and/or volunteer expert (s)
– immigration consultant
– a sustainability advisor, particularly with ideas about how to re-use or find a home for what items the project could not use
– someone with experience with FreeGeek
– someone who works in a cross-discipline role in academia, to bring in new research results that could be useful, and/or best practices ideas from other places, and a range of disciplines

g – This project isn’t helping immigrants to gain marketable, in-demand skills.
This wouldn’t really be the goal of the project, this would be

Sewing machine donations would be sought from the general public and from the big-name sewing machine companies.

In-kind donations would also be sought:
– first aid training (lots of cutting and slicing tools would likely be needed on site)
– thread, scissors, bobbins, sewing patterns…
– partnerships with fashion schools – fashion students mentor our project’s members, teaching basic sewing skills initially (thereafter members would teach members), then instructing on beginner design
– partnerships with other community groups to share knowledge, eg. volunteers to teach quilting classes, & fabric art
– dictionaries, from as many languages as possible to English

Underlying long-term goals:

– collaborative
– knowledge-sharing
– women and men
– capacity-building
– those involved in the project working directly with immigrants would need previous work or volunteer experience, including training, with immigrant service organizations or other experience working with people who speak very little English.
– social enterprise – if the project can become for-profit, all volunteer positions should become paid
– develop evening programs at the location, including volunteers teaching creative writing classes, volunteers teaching art classes, collaborations in global music.  Because of this goal, the location would need to be an area where a woman on her own could feel fairly safe on her own at night
– funding for one-stop-shop immigration positions, to assist immigrants who often have intense needs for information which is very difficult to come by in the Canadian/BC system.  A part of the space with resources and real-human-being assistance with what are often cross-sector logistical questions to do with being  newcomers — a citizen’s office, as part of the space

Oct 11 update:  Came across a ‘textile recycling’ association … so great this exists… now trying to dig some info re: how much of the 85% unusued clothing donations are making it to their members.  What % has that 85% been reduced to in one city, in the city of Vancouver?

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