Ten years ago, St. Matthew’s House founders realized that if we were to achieve our mission of transforming lives, we had to first be open to transformation ourselves. Inspired by a Bible study in the book of Matthew (and specifically Matthew 25: 35-36, 40), a group of parishioners in Naples, Florida formed a task force and started a soup kitchen in the late 1980s.
Today, St. Matthew’s House is a homeless shelter, feeding ministry, and drug rehabilitation operation with facilities across southwest Florida. To make the leap from a tiny soup kitchen to a $14-million nonprofit that meets the needs of one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, we had to identify businesses that were both scalable and had low barriers to entry. Having made the strategic decision to not accept government funding, embracing the market economy was critical to our success.
Meeting the Practical and Spiritual Needs of the Community
A new opportunity for St. Matthew’s House and those we serve came in the form of an unexpected phone call from an unhappy consumer. That phone call led to the launch of our most successful new business. The unhappy consumer was looking for someone to pick up her unwanted household items. The caller complained that everyone in town either wanted to charge her as if she was moving or required a weeks-long delay to pick up the goods.
At the time of the phone call, we operated just one thrift store. We did not have the logistical resources to resolve the issue to the satisfaction of the caller, but this woman identified a market need that later proved profitable for both our organization and our residents.
Thus was born the concept of “fast, free pick-up.” Emblazoned on our fleet of trucks with the St. Matthew’s House logo, we have earned a reputation of being the “go-to” business for people wanting to get rid of clothes, appliances, and furniture in a timely manner.
Today, we operate six thrift stores in southwest Florida with a smooth-running supply-chain constantly adding to our inventory. Many homeowners in our area are senior citizens, and it’s common that their children or a spouse will be in charge of the estate and have the enormous emotional difficulty of letting go of personal items. Understanding this about our customers makes all the difference to our business. With our guiding verses from Matthew as our motivation, we bring a compassion to the job that makes our efforts far more than an ordinary business transaction.
One example from recent years is an elderly woman who had lost her husband. After holding on to his possessions for years, the woman called St. Matthew’s House to pick up clothes that had been gathering dust in the closet. When our pick-up crew arrived, however, the widow wasn’t quite ready to see her husband’s personal items carted off. The St. Matthew’s House team was sensitive to her grief and explained how her husband’s shirt would have a second life benefiting someone in need.
The pick-up crew then took time to pray with the widow and soon she was going around the house pointing out additional items to donate. The St. Matthew’s House team knew that the importance of these items to their owner went far beyond their monetary value—the team members themselves had arrived at St. Matthew’s House destitute as either recovering addicts or people in need of our emergency and transitional housing facilities.
Today our thrift stores are the main revenue generator for St. Matthew’s House. The keys to success are our residents who become employees and discover the rewards of working again. We find our residents make enthusiastic employees as they simultaneously heal and work toward transforming their lives.
Leveraging God-Given Resources
Similar to the critical asset we found in our resident work force, we realized that our commercial kitchen could be used to meet another market need.
To boost the morale of our residents who had been accustomed to scrounging for food, we wanted to provide the best shelter meals available anywhere. To do that, we hired an experienced chef. We made a strong appeal to donors about this hire by presenting ways to make our goal of providing great food a profit-generator, too.
We discovered that caterers in our community were satisfying the need for $50-or-higher per-plate banquets and often turned away lower price-point customers. Armed with this market data, we launched “SMH Catering,” which is now our second-highest revenue generator and serves the catering needs of area organizations that have a more limited budget.
The catering operation has also been leveraged in areas we never initially imagined. In partnership with Starbucks, we recently launched “Café M-25” in our main thrift store, where our residents are trained to become baristas. The café concept has since expanded to include a partnership with Naples Nissan; the auto-dealers’ customers can enjoy great food and coffee while car-shopping or waiting on vehicle repairs. We find the in-store café concept both meets a need and increases our brand awareness, just as the moving billboard trucks do for the thrift stores.
More than Profit; Business that Fosters New Beginnings
Of course, the real benefit of our business models goes beyond financial considerations by transforming the lives of those we serve. Our homeless shelter residents and recovering substance abusers see a greater purpose in work, often helping them confront deeply-rooted problems that caused poverty, homelessness, and addictions.
Matthew 25:14-30, known as the “Parable of the Talents,” teaches us about biblical success in our work and that we ultimately work for God. While St. Matthew’s House embraces the value of teaching someone to fish, we also strive to remember the One who created the fish.
St. Matthew’s House succeeds because we help those who are destitute to succeed. Residents get to start anew with job training and employment opportunities that fit the needs of our Southwest Florida market and that fit their abilities—our valuable human (redeemed) resources.
Editor’s Note: Inspired? Check out IFWE’s booklet, Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty for more examples of providing help to others in ways that are consistent with biblical and economic principles. Available in paperback or free digital download.