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Featured Philanthropy: Building Sustainable Families

When it comes to those who are struggling in our community, there are always a few people who stick out in our minds. We’ve all met someone who works extremely hard, but can’t quite make it financially. Whether it’s a friend, or a family member, these people are doing all they can to survive, but are barely scraping by, oftentimes falling in-between the cracks of government services. Empowering this community to reach self-sustainability is no easy task. 

Each week, Birch Community Services (BCS) partners with 500+ working, struggling families to do just this; by forming relationships based on dignity, accountability and responsibility, BCS spurs growth. Established 25 years ago, BCS was born out of the generous, hard-working, Portland-based couple, Barry and Suzanne Birch’s commitment to remaining debt free.

Over the years, they formulated a dignity-based model to partner with working, struggling families to redistribute excess product (food, clothing, household items, etc.) and instill financial literacy. Birch Community Services’ mission is to provide a community where people can be responsible and accountable for meeting their basic needs, and to equip them with tools to overcome financial difficulty. 

BCS values the fact that everyone has something to offer, and true community necessitates participation of individuals toward the betterment of the greater good. Therefore, each family contributes a service fee of $70 a month and provides 2 hours of volunteer time. These families come ‘shop’ weekly at BCS for groceries, clothing and household items, monthly receiving items valued at about $900. Named Oregon’s Recycler of the Year 2017, BCS redistributed almost 10 million pounds of donated items from 250+ companies that otherwise would have been thrown away. By utilizing these items, BCS creates a platform for struggling families to develop margin in their budget, develop savings, and pay off debt.  

As a key part of its program, BCS equips families with the tools they need to overcome financial difficulty. Upon joining the program, and on an annual basis, each family meets with our Program Manager to discuss the why behind the numbers. From this point, each family receives personalized counseling and recommendations for the year, based on the margin created from savings in their budget. This is the heart of BCS and is the driving force behind impact in the lives of families. 

One of the best parts about BCS is the human face to processes. There is no income limit, time limit or geographic limit for the program. Some people are with BCS for a few months, some 10 years, depending on their situation. Data shows that the longer people are with BCS, the more they save, the more they pay off debt, and the more they learn financial tools to help them grow. Relationships like these take time and hard work, but by understanding and attacking the why behind spending, BCS is able to witness real, lasting change in the lives and spending behaviors of families. 

In 2011, word spread about BCS’ successful, innovative model through NBC Nightly News. People across the country were inspired to replicate BCS in their hometowns. By holding a seminar for the past 6 years, BCS has been able to condense and perfect our information and processes into a format suitable for those interested in reproducing the template. As BCS celebrates 25 years of service in Portland, we also celebrate the replication of our model in 6 other locations. These sites either adopt the whole model or pieces of the model to improve impact in their own communities. As we look forward to another 25 years of success, many questions are being asked about how to expand into even more states and cities. Discussions are in place to make sure that others may smoothly implement this effective system to empower more working, struggling families across the country. 

Replicating BCS’ model can be intimidating, and for good reason. This chiseled system took over 25 years to form, restructure, narrow down and perfect. With that said, a lot of the groundwork has been done, and in line with our mission, we endeavor to replicate this successful model in as many places as possible. Each town, city and state is different than Portland, OR, but as long as the tenets of dignity, accountability, responsibility and growth are manifested and implemented through our basic policies (service fee, volunteering, financial literacy), this model will be the guiding force behind lasting impact in thousands of communities. 

Interested in joining this effort either in Portland or around the nation? Please reach out to us at or (503) 251 5431. 

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