At Birch Community Services we redistributed 9.5 million pounds of food and clothing last year to working, struggling families who we also held accountable to achieve their self-stated goals. The goal of our program is to help people achieve their goals. We teach financial classes where participants learn about budgeting and saving. On average, families who graduate from our program reduce their monthly debt and increase their emergency savings. Accountability is a key component in the success we’ve experienced in addressing the roots of poverty.
BCS’ financial literacy program served over 620 families in FY 2017. Participant families come to the BCS warehouse in NE Portland to pick up food, clothing, and other essential items that have been determined surplus by over 250 local manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, farms, dairies, bakeries and businesses. With the money they save on these crucial staples, BCS families are able to pursue goals that move them away from the bankruptcies, evictions and foreclosures that threaten them, and on to financial stability. These families also avail themselves of workshops and classes offered regularly at the warehouse that increase skills in a range of subjects designed to facilitate self-sufficiency. BCS empowers participants through accountability and setting of goals, fostering their capacity to give back through volunteerism in an environment of community. Typical outcomes for families of BCS’ program include decreasing / eliminating consumer debt, catching up with mortgage or car payments, meeting medical bills, paying toward student loans, or helping pay for vocational training or tuition for college (which, research shows, is the most effective way out of poverty). BCS also served 65 other agencies in the Portland area in FY 2017, which pick up food they then re-distribute to the vulnerable populations they serve, including homeless, at-risk youth, and families without transport to pick up items from BCS themselves. Some of these agencies serve clientele as far away as the Oregon coast and the Cascades mountain town of Welches.
Four characteristics that set BCS apart:
1. A theory of change based on accountability and the power of human dignity: At its core, BCS’ unique model of service delivery is founded on a belief that true charity comes from empowering each individual to restore his or her capacity to be self-sufficient, and that the most effective way to accomplish this process is within the context of a community in which participants work together to attain their goals.
2. Efficient redistribution of market surplus: What local producers of food and other staples consider as “excess inventory” is also the means for working, struggling families to meet their basic needs; BCS is the vital connection diverting those products that would otherwise be added to landfills, to the pantries and closets of people who can use them.
3. An operational structure that is sustainable because it is mostly internally supported: Since many operational functions are carried out and funded by program participants, the BCS model is able to sustain itself with a much smaller proportion of external cash revenue (in the form of individual donations and grants) than most nonprofit organizations. The organization is staffed by a dedicated group of 5 full time and 7 part time employees—a fraction of the number of paid personnel at other nonprofits of BCS’ size and impact.
4. Consistent, strong, and unified leadership: BCS’ founders continue to serve in key executive/ operative roles, and some members of the current board of directors have been serving since the board was founded over 25 years ago.