Changing the World One Gift at a Time: An Interview with Deron Beal of the Freecycle Network

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Yesterday we launched our interview series with the 21 projects that attended the NetSquared Conference (N2Y2) by talking with Dan Newman of MAPLight.org. Today's interview is with Deron Beal, the Executive Director and founder of the Freecycle Network, a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving and getting stuff for free in their own towns.

At the end of the NetSquared Conference, each attendee voted for the project(s) that they thought would have the most impact. Freecycle was the third-place prize winner.

You can listen to the original interview and a live recording of Freecycle's 5-minute pitch at the NetSquared Conference on the NetSquared Podcast.

Deron Beal: My name is Deron Beal. I'm the Founder and Executive Director of the Freecycle Network. We've been around for about four years now. Freecycle Network is a website, Freecycle.org, but may be better said, it's a web community. It enables people to find others in their local community to give things to that they would otherwise end up throwing away or taking to the landfill.

We like to call it a "cyber curbside," and the goal is to make it easier to give something away than to throw it away. So instead of having to carry an old item -- a bed, a chair or something -- out to the curb for brush and bulky pickup from the city, you can send an email out to your local group and pick one of the 10 or so people who will respond, and they come and pick it up for you. So you don't even have to carry it out to the curb.

Our hope is that by making it easier to give something away than to throw it away, that a lot more people will do it. And in doing so, of course, we move forward our nonprofit conservation mission of keeping good stuff out of landfills.

Britt Bravo: Where did the idea for the Freecycle Network come from?

DB: Well, I was working with a recycling nonprofit at the time, and we would give guys jobs out of shelters and help them move into apartments and whatnot. The jobs they do are recycling downtown for businesses, "valet recycling," it's kind of a neat program. I think it's applicable in other cities too where there's not enough room for a city barrel or something, so you'd go into the shops and the offices and pick up the recycling inside.

So we had this wonderful program going, and all these business owners and storefront managers began offering and giving us things that weren't recyclable, like old computers or store racks and things. I'd always say yes, and we'd take it and throw it in the back of the truck. We got so well-known for doing this that we began to look like Sanford and Son driving around downtown. You could almost hear the theme song in the background. [laughs]

But at any rate, we filled up an entire warehouse full of stuff. My boss at the time said, "You need to get rid of this stuff." I was driving around to other nonprofits as fast as I could, trying to give stuff away. But one won't take monitors, the other one won't take CPUs, they'll charge you. I figured there's got to be another way. So basically what we're doing is free recycling. What should I call it? [laughs] And it was a small step to say, "Well, let's call it Freecycle."

I was a member of my neighborhood association at the time, and that was a Yahoo group, so I said, "Why not just set up a Yahoo group? I'll call it Freecycle." So, bang, the idea was born. I sent out one email to 30 or 40 friends and a handful of local nonprofits announcing the start of this Yahoo group. Boy, it just took off from the get-go.

BB: Can you give an example or tell a success story of how Freecycle has created positive change?

DB: I will add that when I set it up, it was for purely, let's say, selfish tree-hugging motives. I wanted to keep stuff out of the landfills. But I think it's grown way beyond that, and it's become a real solid community-building tool. Every gift you give away, you don't mail it somewhere. Someone from your local community comes and picks it up, so they thank you effusively at your own doorstep. So it's bringing together people in their own communities.

Because of that, that's enabled a lot of neat globally local community stories to develop of success. A lot of people setting up nonprofits using Freecycle. One Native American tribe set up a nonprofit to collect prom dresses that they could then give back to Native American teenage girls who needed a prom dress. So just all sorts of random little things like that.

But also, when people are in need -- like after Hurricane Katrina, when people relocated to the different cities and stadiums -- local Freecycle members in all these areas were able to go in and work with the Red Cross to get people signed up who had just been relocated to whatever city it was. They could ask for exactly what they needed for their new apartment in that new city. So instead of getting a truckload of winter coats, they could just say, "Well, I need a bed, I need a chair," and the local communities everywhere were able to help them.

And there's tons of stories like that. There's one woman who -- I think it was in Austin, Texas -- she collected an entire container load full of things for an orphanage in Haiti, using Freecycle. It was an orphanage that was really in dire need of things. Then she got FedEx to pay to ship the whole thing over to Haiti.

The real beauty of it is -- all these stories that are out there -- there's no central warehouse. There's no central person saying, "This is what we want to do." It's the power of each person individually to make a gift to one other person in their local community. That's the beauty of it, and that's why our motto is "Changing the world one gift at a time."

BB: What is the next step for Freecycle? What are its goals and its challenges?

DB: Well, there's all kinds of goals and challenges. Picture a nonprofit organization with 3.6 million members, and a staff of one. That's probably enough information to let you know there are all kinds of challenges. [laughs]

We have over 10,000 volunteers. But probably the biggest challenge is just keeping that volunteer pool so that each local group has a couple of volunteers helping out. You know, you do it for six or eight months or something, and you get tired and move on, and you need to find somebody new to fill that role.

So we have probably eight different teams of people, either approving new groups or helping existing groups, or handling tech issues on the website. It's just this huge volunteer network of people helping. That's our biggest challenge: just keeping that going and growing.

The great news is that by empowering people as volunteers and individuals, we're keeping over 300 tons a day out of landfills. There's a study done in Iowa. So that's a really wonderful thing, and that's probably, in the meantime, a pretty low number. In the past year alone, we've kept four times as high as Mount Everest out of landfills. If you stacked that in garbage trucks, that's a big pile of stuff.

Our challenge right now is that we've grown so quickly, we've grown solely within Yahoo Groups, and we're looking to provide more services to our local members. We're redesigning the website with two things in mind. One, probably 90 percent of our members are in English-speaking countries. We're in over 75 countries total, but most of the membership -- because the website itself is in English -- is in English-speaking countries. So we're designing the website so that there are templates for each language, and the local volunteers in that country can then just translate the information into that language.

That's the one big thing that's going on right now, and the other is that we're designing additional search and alert tools so that you only need to get the emails that come in the category you're interested in, like kids' stuff, or teaching supplies or building supplies. Those are the two neat things that are in the works right now. Probably in the next three weeks we'll be launching phase one of that new site, so that'll be really exciting.

BB: What was the positive impact for Freecycle of going to the NetSquared conference?

DB: The most amazing start to the conference was that we met a day early with all the other nonprofit groups we were technically competing with. But the reality of the matter is that it just doesn't happen that you have an opportunity to get together with 25 or 30 other nonprofits who are also designing web communities, facing all the same challenges and all the same ambitions, and wanting to do something wonderful for the world. That just never happens.

So for the first time ever, I was able to get together with a bunch of people trying to figure out the same problems, people who were inspired with a mission. That just felt so immensely good. "You are not alone." That's the message I took with me, and it was just fantastic. It just started off wonderfully that way, and that kind of collaboration, the thread of collaboration, you could follow it through the whole conference. Seeing how people interact, help each other, provide information.

In addition to the funding support that we got through the award of winning third place -- which is awesome, the $10,000, that's going towards the new website design as we speak -- but also, we got some incredible contacts in the funding community. And Citizen Agency now is helping us, and these guys are just fantastic. They really know Web 2.0 and they're consulting for us totally free of charge, just because they want to help out. That's a direct result of their help to TechSoup and NetSquared, and their support of the NetSquared competition.

So that's probably one of the most important things that we were able to gain out of NetSquared, was these contacts with people who really know their stuff in Silicon Valley. Because I'm sitting out here in Tucson, Arizona where there are more cows than computers. [laughs]

BB: How can listeners help to move your work forward?

DB: Well, the best thing they can do is try out using Freecycle.org, giving and purging themselves of the extra things in their shed. It's funny, because we get a lot of people joining Freecycle who think, "Ooh, something for nothing, a free lunch." And then when they give their first item away, they realize the real fun, the real gift is in the giving itself. No one has to tell them it's better to give than to get. It's just more fun, so people do it.

That's the kind of message I take with me, that if we bipeds, if we weren't basically good and giving, Freecycle wouldn't exist. So you can watch all the crappy news that you want, but ultimately don't believe it. Because people do care, and people do give. That's something I just... At the end of the day, each day, I remind myself of the success that the Freecycle Network has experienced.

BB: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

DB: Global warming, the environmental impact of global warming. We all know that it's a real problem now. There's no controversy whatsoever. We also all know that recycling is a good thing. But I think what a lot of people don't realize is the critical element that reuse can play in reducing our carbon footprint.

It's kind of cool when you look at it, because let's say you give away a sofa for 100 pounds -- an old, ratty sofa that you were just going to throw away. Give it away, it weighs 100 pounds. You not only keep 100 pounds out of the landfill for that one sofa, but you keep 20 times that weight in raw materials from being used to make a new sofa. So you go out and buy a new 100 pound sofa, you've got the diesel that goes into transporting it, you've got the cotton, the wood, the coal to fire the power plant. All those materials.

So you keep an entire 2,000 pounds, or a ton, of raw materials from being used. That's a massive good karma boost for your individual carbon footprint. [laughs] So we're hoping that about a year from now, with the new website, that we'll actually be able to track the carbon footprint that's being reduced through reuse.

The EPA doesn't even have a model yet to measure carbon footprint reduction for reuse. They have it for recycling, so if you recycle aluminum, steel, glass, they have models. That doesn't even exist yet for reuse. You get 20 times the bang for your buck through reuse, so you're going to be hearing a lot more about reuse as we move forward, particularly now that we have a viable forum for free reuse, using the Freecycle Network. Good stuff coming down the pipeline.