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The Right Set of Tools to Manage Growth

In early February, representatives from across the country met in Atlanta for the third annual ToolBank USA summit, where the national organization celebrated its success, aligned priorities and methods, and welcomed its community and corporate partners. There, CEO Mark Brodbeck announced a strategic, organization-wide pivot from expansion to optimization, a telling sign of the remarkable growth that’s led them to this point—from a garage in Atlanta full of tools to a nationally in-demand nonprofit franchise.

It seems hard to believe that just over five years ago the Atlanta Community ToolBank (ACTB) was the only organization in the country dedicated to lending tools, at a minimum handling fee, to nonprofit organizations and other initiatives that strive to keep communities healthy, safe and clean. But talking with ACTB’s Executive Director Patty Russart about the real need for tools in communities across the country, the organization’s growth sounds less surprising than it does inevitable.

“For us, loaning out tools is not an earned income program,” said Russart. “That would defeat the purpose of what we’re trying to do.” 

A unique solution catches on

The ACTB was born out of Community ReDevelopment, Inc., a small group of inner-city volunteers doing repairs for low-income senior homeowners. Their hard work and sincere commitment to “warm, safe, and dry” homes produced an outpouring of appreciation and tool donations, which the organization began sharing informally with other service groups. The popularity of the tool library led them to start an official Tool Lending Program and, in 1996, rename itself the Atlanta Community ToolBank. Realigning its mission behind the lending program, ACTB began optimizing its operation. (One of the first steps was a distinctive branding scheme that made their materials not just easily identifiable but highly visible in the community: painting the handles of each tool a particular shade of “ToolBank Blue” before it ever leaves the warehouse.)

From its formation, the model and vision of ACTB were unique. Dedicated to “ending tool scarcity for volunteers,” the organization is better stocked (by volumes) and better organized (by cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned elbow grease) than any similar tool lending programs, which tend to be imbedded in another nonprofit or library. Once the larger charitable community caught on to ACTB’s low-cost, high-volume solution for tool scarcity, national demand for the service quickly started making itself known.

Helping spread the word were national companies with active Corporate Social Responsibility programs like The Home Depot, Allstate, and Turner, who partner with ACTB to use their tools in charitable events and initiatives. When their corporate colleagues in cities outside of Atlanta asked where to get tools for their own community initiatives, the answer mystified them—they didn’t have anything like ACTB. The result is the establishment of the national organization, ToolBank USA, with chapters operating in Baltimore, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Houston, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and Richmond, Va., with Chicago’s set to launch in 2015, and a newly-commissioned mobile emergency unit ready to deploy just about wherever it’s needed.

Smart growth, mission-focused

Though the organization has developed steadily over two decades, the last five years have seen extraordinary growth, and not just on the national level (in 2013 alone, ToolBank USA oversaw the opening of four new chapters).

“In five years, we went from loaning out $600,000 in tools to, last year, loaning $1.3 million worth,” said Russart. “It’s a huge number!”

The real need for tools in communities across the country, makes ACTB's growth sounds less surprising than it does inevitable.

Russart echoes the priorities of the national organization when she says that ACTB is “carefully monitoring growth to make sure we don’t get out of control.” That growth has included acquiring a larger facility (from 11,000 square feet to 27,000), which they moved into in July of 2013, and plans to add another full-time staff member.

“It’s great [that] people are learning about and using us!” said Russart. “But it’s a lot. It’s actually becoming physically impossible with just us three full-timers.”

The next step involves building resources and support for the new facility: “It took a couple years to figure out how it was going to look, and how we were going to pay for it,” said Russart. “The big success was getting it bought, the next part is finishing the campaign to complete the payoff of the mortgage and complete the needed renovations of the building.”

ACTB is also looking for resources to open permanent satellite locations in areas outside of Atlanta, which they’ve previously done on a temporary basis through their four-year partnership with the Gwinnett Coalition.

One place they won’t turn to for revenue is lending fees. “For us, loaning out tools is not an earned income program,” said Russart. “That would defeat the purpose of what we’re trying to do.” Though ACTB does charge a small handling fee, it’s been tested over the years to make sure it’s only enough to ensure volunteers bring the tools back.  

“Because the mission dictates that we serve the charitable sector, and because the charitable sector has limited resources,” said Russart. “We always have to come back to that: keeping fees low.”

From the outside looking in, high demand and rapid growth seem like an ideal problem to have; they certainly beat struggling to keep the lights on. The challenges of smart growth, however, apply to organizations at any stage: sincere dedication to a mission that serves a real community need will attract the kind of partnerships a nonprofit needs to thrive.

Marc Schultz is contributing editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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