As any real estate pro can attest, it’s hard to convince sellers to declutter. Beth Smoot has found that the reason behind their resistance isn’t a simple drive to accumulate.
With help from friend and home stager Jackie Craig, Smoot has tried to show sellers she works with in the Raleigh, N.C., area thattheir furniture and other household items could be deeply valued by people they’d never met. “There’s an emotional desire to hang onto things,” Smoot said. “People value them, and they want someone else to value them, too.”
At their church and through volunteer work, Smoot and Craig heard about victims of domestic violence, people emerging from prison, andthose recovering from substance abuse who were starting out in a new home with few if any furnishings. The two tried to jump in whenever they could, but their efforts were haphazard. “The word would go out, and there would be this fire drill,” Smoot recalls. “We thought, ‘There should be some way to connect these two groups.’”
Smoot started researching. She found that while Raleigh, N.C., has its fair share of food pantries and clothing drives, there was simply no equivalent for home goods. Sure, people could take their chances at Salvation Army or Goodwill stores, but they were competing against antique and bargain shoppers.
So in 2010, the two women founded The Green Chair Project, a place to collect high-quality housewares donated by people all over Raleigh. The charity has a unique business model: It gets referrals fromnonprofit partner agencies that have clients in need of home furnishings. The clients come in with a certain number of “points,” and furniture is priced out by how many points the items “cost.” The client can choose the items they want and need, paying with pointsas they go. In just a few short years, The Green Chair Project has been able to serve more than 1,900 people and keep 577 tons of household goods out of landfills.
But it’s not just the business side that’s distinctive: The space is just what you might expect from a duo ensconced in real estate and home staging. Tracie Brown, a Red Cross workforce engagement officer, says the charity is the only one like it in the 53 counties in its eastern North Carolina region. The Red Cross is a partnering agency with The Green Chair Project.
“The quality of all the items at The Green Chair Project is amazing,” Brown says. “It’s like going into a showroom. It is a warm and welcoming environment.”
Some nonprofits work with their clients to help them save up for the small fee that goes to keep The Green Chair Project up and running, while other agencies cover all or part of the cost. Regardless of where the money comes from, Brown says the system allows participants to feel a true sense of ownership.”It really creates hope for them to be able to pick out items and pay for them, not have it given to them. … That relieves a lot of the issues of taking charity,” Brown says. “The onus is really put on the families to take charge of their recovery.”
Brown also credits the charity for creating specific guidelines for partner agencies, such as helping them qualify participants, prepare for the visit, and aid with other tasks. Smoot, who is also a lawyer, set up the legal and procedural foundations that would allow the project to both grow and be replicated by other groups.”The Green Chair Project is the perfect example of a disaster services partnership. … Beth and Jackie have set up a business model for an organization than can be replicated in any community,” Brown says.
Smoot says she sees her work as “a way to support the other agencies without competing with them.” People are often eager to donate furniture to their favorite charities, but small organizations usually lack the necessary storage and distribution systems.
“They were glad to have that burden lifted,” Smoot says. “Agencies are in the business of job training, housing, and those types of services. They’re not in the furniture business.”
The art of partnership is also expressed in The Green Chair Project’s volunteers. A former food stylist compiles complementary dining sets from various donors. A quilter matches up comforters, sheets, and shams. A graphic designer creates fliers, while their “guy with a truck” sets up an entire waste management system for donations that are better off recycled. “One of the most exciting things has been [figuring out how to] let others really use their gifts,” Smoot says. Whenever volunteers ask what they can do to help, Smoot’s response is: “What do you like to do? What are you good at?”
The partnership analogy even extends to Smoot’s real estate business. Her business partner, Peggy Duke, wanted to help the charity but realized the best way to do so was to relieve some of Smoot’s business responsibilities at work. “She said, ‘The way that I’m helping the Green Chair is I’m helping you,’” Smoot recalls. “She was a lifesaver.”
Smoot’s advice for others who want to follow her path is to learn when to accept help. It can be tough, she says, when there’s a project that you see as your baby. But in the end, it will only be better because of the partnership. “There’s a lot of power in two people coming together,” Smoot says. “One plus one equals three.”