DEVENS — When Dona Neely saw how much perfectly good office supplies were being wasted while working with a manufacturing facility, a light bulb turned on in her head. She thought if the supplies could be funneled to organizations that really needed them, like schools and nonprofits, then she might just be on to something.
“While working with area manufacturing facilities to help them strengthen the sustainability of their operation, I saw a significant amount of reusable items going into the trash on a daily basis because they could not be used internally. I wanted to preserve the value of these materials, prevent excess waste, and divert the materials to new use opportunities,” Neely said.
Now, 17 years later, The Great Exchange provides discounts of 80% on most goods for a variety of community, public, and nonprofit groups, with help from corporate partners.
Specifically, Neely said that the nonprofit finds surplus operational supplies, classroom and creative supplies, small fixtures, and furniture from business donations and diverts them to nonprofits, schools, churches, municipalities, libraries, community groups, and small businesses at highly discounted costs.
Dona Neely started the program that became The Great Exchange in 2007, with twenty businesses and nonprofits trading sixteen materials at a swap meet, including “clean packing materials and manufacturing by-products that had creative use potential, such as caps and plastic parts,” she said.
Since then, their inventory has “significantly expanded from filling a cubicle to taking up close to 7,000 square feet, with over 850 different types of items.”
The diverse items available for purchase now include office supplies, kitchen items, packing and shipping materials, classroom resources, creative materials, giftware, office furniture and fixtures, and more. All items are new or like new and are discounted 40-80% off retail value.
Their open hours have expanded, from being open one day a quarter to once a month to three days a week with a fourth day recently added. They’ve also grown from providing items to only Devens-based organizations to serving hundreds of entities from Massachusetts and surrounding states.
“It has been an exciting journey of continuous growth!” she said. “I have been so fortunate to be in a position where I could continuously expand our offerings and provide more value.”
Inventory is not available to the general public or to private individuals.
Sales are business-to-business only because the priority of The Great Exchange is to help businesses, organizations, and other similar entities “save money on their operating supplies so they can invest more of the funds in the important programs, services, and jobs that they provide to their communities,” Neely said. She added that the investment creates stronger communities, promotes sustainable business practices, and considers “economic, environmental and social needs to ensure long-term viability.”
In addition to serving nonprofits, The Great Exchange is a nonprofit itself. While they do operate from the revenue received by selling their inventory, they also receive grants and donations that are necessary to their operation from other nonprofits including the Devens Enterprise Commission and MassDevelopment, and additional sponsorships.
Most of the organization’s operating expenses are the salaries of three employees, the maintenance of a cargo van, insurance, and other routine expenses.
The Great Exchange is also a program that sprung from another nonprofit, the Devens Eco-Efficiency Center, which Neely had been instrumental in forming. She said the initial program she helped launch was the first voluntary corporate stewardship program in the country.
Devens has been transitioning for decades, according to Neely, “to an internationally-recognized, eco-industrial park” that is committed to “giving equal priority to economic, social and environmental needs.”
She said businesses in Devens have always been “encouraged to take steps to minimize their environmental impacts.”
“[The Devens Enterprise Commission] is responsible for ensuring the commitment to sustainable development practices… [and] has always been very supportive of our programs that help to conserve resources and prevent waste,” she said.
“Our natural resources are finite and now more than ever it is critical that we all take more care to minimize our impacts on the environment for the benefit of future generations. We need to consume less, reduce waste and fully appreciate the value of resources by keeping them in circulation,” said Neely, who is the executive director of The Great Exchange in addition to the founder.
Neely said people would be surprised by the breadth of items available at the facility, like a unique collection of manufacturing by-products, consisting of all kinds of plastic, foam, fabric and wood parts of various shapes and sizes, that are fun to use in creative activities and STEM exercises.
“We strive to provide the best possible savings” to clients, Neely said.
Most items are discounted at up to 80% the manufacturer’s recommended price, with several factors taken into consideration including condition, appeal, and quantity available. Unique items not found in stores and some supplies are sold by weight.
Although donors are welcome to bring items directly to the Great Exchange, they can pick up spare inventory as far as two hours away. Donations of surplus items can provide tax benefits for companies giving items for The Great Exchange to add to their inventory.
“Material and financial support from businesses are crucial to our continued success,” Neely said.
The Great Exchange is extremely grateful for volunteers to help gather, process, clean, and display the inventory on any weekday during opening hours. New helpers are always welcomed and are encouraged to visit the facility to gain a better understanding of its operation and can express interest by calling or emailing Neely.
Neely loves her purpose in life at The Great Exchange and couldn’t imagine doing something else.
“Every day I get to do something that helps to make the world a better place — this is extremely gratifying, rewarding, and motivating. I know my team members feel the same way. I am so pleased and proud that the program continues to grow, so we can provide value to more customers, donors, sponsors, and the planet,” she said.
The Great Exchange is located at 33 Andrews Parkway in Devens. It is open on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and the first Saturday of each month from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
For pictures of inventory and more information on purchasing, donating, or volunteering go to tgedevens.com and follow them on Facebook, @TheGreatExchangeDevens. Contact Dona Neely at email@example.com or (508) 878-1728.