DC-based freelance writer Andrew Zaleski has written for Wired, The Washington Post Magazine, Backchannel, The Atlantic, Politico Magazine, The Guardian, and many other publications.
A simple idea has exponential benefits for cities and communities.
Ask Leslie Rink, the director of the volunteer center for the United Way of Central Carolinas, how she used to get her hands on tools for volunteer projects, and she’ll easily rattle off a list of difficulties: sacrificing her own collection of tools, which might be forgotten or misplaced; making endless trips to and from hardware stores to make expensive purchases; wasting time just figuring out how to get all the tools needed to do one job.
Then the ToolBank opened in Charlotte.
"I said, 'Where have you been all my life?' It’s made my job simpler," Rink says.
Picture a massive shed stocked with shovels, rakes, power tools, wheelbarrows, ladders, water hoses, work gloves—even a tiller and a generator. Since opening last year, Charlotte’s ToolBank has equipped more than 11,000 volunteers at 500 different projects, lending tools with a combined retail value of $243,000 for only $7,200. It now provides 134 nonprofit agencies with tools.
The Charlotte location is just one of several ToolBanks nationwide. The original, Atlanta Community ToolBank, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Baltimore’s ToolBank opened at the end of May, and another is scheduled to open in Cincinnati later this summer. Local nonprofits can rent tools for just three percent of the cost of the tool, multiplied by the number of weeks it’s needed. A shovel that normally costs $30 to buy? A paltry $1.80 cents to rent it for two weeks from the ToolBank.
The rentals fees are just "enough to get people to bring the tools back,” says Patty Russart, who has served as executive director of Atlanta’s ToolBank for nearly four years.
But the ToolBank means more than the convenience of having a warehouse brimming with inexpensive power tools. According to Angela Munson, the executive director in Charlotte, ToolBanks do two significant things: increase nonprofits’ capacity to serve by allowing them to spend less money on expensive equipment while at the same time transforming volunteerism by turning fewer people who want to help away. "By having access to our tools, projects get done faster, and you can put everybody to work at the same time," she says.
In early June, a Day of Caring in Charlotte drew some 2,000 volunteers who worked with the United Way and dozens of other nonprofits on 125 separate projects. In Atlanta, the local ToolBank has equipped weekend projects that involved nearly 12,000 volunteers, according to Russart.
"You can’t do anything that large scale without having a ToolBank," says Rink.
Perhaps the bigger triumph for ToolBanks is the money they save cities. In Charlotte, nonprofits that offer to do painting and landscaping work for public schools regularly head to the ToolBank to rent equipment. In Atlanta, neighborhood planning units looking to spruce up city blocks turn to the ToolBank to cut down on equipment costs. Last year, after Atlanta initiated its Love Your Block program to provide mini-grants to people who submitted community clean-up projects, the ToolBank formed a partnership with city government and the Home Depot Foundation whereby the foundation provided tools to the groups at no fee.
"The city couldn’t do that with their limited funding," says Russart.
Not to mention the benefits for volunteers, who aren’t waiting around for their turn with the sole wheelbarrow or tiller. "Volunteers hate being asked to bring their own stuff," Munson says. And allocating adequate resources to volunteers can be a crucial component to keeping them coming back in the future, according to the Urban Institute.
The ToolBanks’ biggest advantage, according to Rink? "You create bigger and better opportunities for companies to give back to the community," she says. "You can’t beat it."