Featured Changemaker — Travis Laws
At 5by5, we have the honor of calling WIN Warehouse one of our longest-tenured clients. As you may know, we call our clients “change makers” and the amazing people at WIN certainly live up to that title.
WIN Warehouse takes excess inventory from donor organizations and gets it into the hands of nonprofits that can use it for a fraction of what they would have paid in retail pricing. In most cases, nonprofits save 90% on essential equipment they need to make an impact.
To get a deeper look inside WIN and what makes them so special, we sat down to talk with company president Travis Laws about where the idea came from, how it has grown and where it is heading in the future.
Your father, Clinton Laws, started WIN in 1991. What do you remember about those first conversations with him about his vision?
I was in college at the time, my father had worked in Western Union originally, it was the only job he’d ever had. Well, he took an early retirement because he had this idea for WIN. He’d seen some other organizations taking advantage of this new tax code that allows for enhanced deductions when you donate goods to a charity. He’d worked with a few of them, and even done some fundraising. It was working really well, and he saw an opportunity to try and bring the concept to St. Louis.
The problem is, most charities can’t receive donations by the truckload. They just aren’t equipped for it. So we came in as an intermediary that could do handle large orders so that the local churches, schools, and nonprofits could actually use them.
Can you give us a quick explanation of the enhanced tax credit you mentioned that WIN donors can take advantage of?
Absolutely. Under normal circumstances, if you have a product you can’t sell and you donate it or throw it away, you get to deduct the cost you paid for the item as a loss. If you bought it for $10, you can deduct $10 from your taxable income. Well, in some cases, donating goods was more of a hassle than just dumping or destroying them and so a lot of items were just getting thrown away. Someone looked around and smartly decided this wasn’t ideal, and so they created tax code 170e.
With this tax code, if you donate goods under a certain set of circumstances (which WIN fulfills), you deduct not only the cost you paid for it but also one-half of the markup, up to 200% of the item’s cost. It sounds complicated, but the bottom line is that in a perfect scenario, our donors get double the tax credit they would have gotten otherwise.
It’s effective, too. If you’re writing off a product and getting a full enhanced deduction you’re getting about 40 cents on the dollar. That’s opposed to 20 cents of a typical write-off or liquidating it, which by comparison, usually only nets 6-8 cents on the dollar.
In 2019, WIN went through a massive renovation and even won Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Inc.’s 23rd annual Most Enhanced Awards for Excellence in Historic Rehabilitation. What prompted such a massive expansion and what have been some of the biggest benefits of having that new space?
WIN started with 2000 square feet in a rented office space that is in the basement of where we are today. We slowly expanded as more space became available and then in 2010 we went from renting a quarter to owning the whole thing. To be honest, it was in rough shape. The architect who worked with is would joke and say we “ate our vegetables” because we were working in a pretty bare space while we made the necessary structural improvements like sprinklers, columns, and a new roof.
Once it was ready, we were able to reimagine the whole space with a fresh eye. We brought in a local design team called to help us take full advantage of all this new space we had.
The biggest advantage was the room we had for face-to-face interaction with our members. We have office space, conference rooms, a kitchen, and breakout spaces. We’re really looking forward to getting back to having a more collaborative environment as things reopen.
Speaking of, are there any lessons that you learned through dealing with a pandemic you’re going to carry forward even after the world has “gotten back to normal”?
We were fortunate in that COVID became our biggest opportunity to date. We act as a reverse logistics organization for many of our donors. A lot of them do dropshipping, so when a product gets returned to them they don’t have anywhere to actually put it. A lot of people don’t realize that when they return things, they very rarely get put back on a shelf somewhere for resale.
Many of our donors got really busy during the pandemic because there was about 5 years of projected growth in e-commerce in 2020 alone. Add in the fact that items that are bought online are 3x as likely to be returned as goods bought physically and you can see why everyone was just flooded with returns.
So, we’ve leaned into the reverse logistics role. We’ve got a goal of eventually becoming a return center, where our donors automatically use us for handling all their returns. We’d love to be a place where donors can say “We know we’re going to donate this to WIN, so let’s just put them on the return label.” It saves them money, keeps more trucks off the road, and is just overall a more efficient process.
What does the process look like If a company wants to donate their excess inventory to WIN?
We try to meet our donors where they are by talking to them and finding out what needs and pain points they have. When I started 20 years ago, it was almost always someone’s forecast gone wrong. Now, sometimes it’s the results of a merger. When one company acquires another, they may want their employees, locations, and customers, but not necessarily their products — and so those have to go somewhere. Other times inventory becomes obsolete. Whenever a new model of something comes out, the old ones have to be moved to make room for them.
There’s a lot of reasons businesses might donate to us and we try to make it as easy as possible. For example, we don’t line-item veto things. We either take the whole shipment or not at all.
And when those organizations donate, those goods go directly to nonprofits that can use them to make an impact. What’s been some of your favorite moments you’ve seen from your member organizations?
It sounds crazy, but we just served a guinea pig rescue organization. There were some rescued guinea pigs out in LA that weren’t handling the heat well. We get in a lot of portable coolers, which are these big fan and mister combos. You’ve probably seen them on the sidelines of sporting events to help keep athletes cool. Well, we got an order for a bunch of them because it turns out they are also pretty efficient at keeping rescued guinea pigs cool as well.
On a more serious note, the best moments that really resonate with the staff here are when we can work directly with one of our member’s clients. We’ve got several members that deal with people reentering the world from prison. These folks get out and they are out looking for a job, but they often don’t have the equipment they need. A lot of them know construction, but they might need a pair of steel-toed boots, safety glasses, work gloves, or something like that before they are able to participate safely in a new job. Our organizations love working with us because they can serve 7-8 people for the cost of what it would normally take to equip one person. That’s why we use the tagline “Save More, Serve More.”
Our staff really enjoys working with these organizations because we get to step into the lives of people who maybe had lost a little hope, and see them transform when they realize there are people who want to help. We get to see people at a place in their lives where things are improving. And to be a part of that, even just helping them out with something as small as footwear, is the reason we get up in the morning.
If you would like to talk to Travis about arranging a donation to WIN, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you work with a nonprofit and would like to see about becoming a member, you can learn more at winwarehouse.org
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