AbilityOne – a federal program that works very well

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Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana has long participated in a program now known as AbilityOne, which uses federal procurement as a means of providing jobs for people with significant disabilities. The need is enormous. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in May 2014 only 25.8% of working age people with disabilities were employed, compared with 71.7% of working age people without disabilities.

Nationally, over 44,000 individuals with significant disabilities are employed under AbilityOne at an average wage of $11.94/hr. Goodwill Industries in central Indiana operates 11 AbilityOne contracts that employ a total of 223 people. Over 80% of the direct labor hours on those contracts are performed by people with disabilities. They clean 2.5 million sq. ft. of space a day, provide grounds keeping, shelf stocking, and mail room services. The lowest starting wage is over $11/hr., plus a benefit package worth over $3.00/hr. The jobs are stable, and the working environment is clean and safe.

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One of our AbilityOne contracts is in the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, a magnificent building in downtown Indianapolis. Our 18 employees there clean over 333,000 sq. ft. of office space and provide general landscaping and maintenance of the grounds. All of our employees at that site have a significant disability or other major barrier to employment. Three of them have been with us since we obtained the contract in 1996.

Our contract is with the General Services Administration (GSA), which manages the building. A third party not-for-profit organization now known as SourceAmerica helps link organizations such as ours with participating federal agencies.

We must meet all of the requirements that any other firm doing the same work would have to meet, and our people consistently do terrific work. In fact, GSA and SourceAmerica recently presented our team with a Partners in Service Excellence Award for outstanding work over a long period of time. In addition to consistently performing their work at a very high level, our team has not had a work-related accident in 15 years. Simply put, they are outstanding.

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In my view, this is an example of a program that could be used much more extensively to provide work at good wages and benefits for people who are frequently among the last to be hired and the first to be laid off by many companies. These contracts work well for the workers, the federal government, and for society.

Some critics of this program feel the federal government could get the work done at less cost. That is debatable. What is very clear to us, though, is that when all factors are included, using this program to employ people who might otherwise not be working is far less expensive than would be the combined cost of providing entitlements and other income supports to those individuals while also paying another contractor to provide the services that could have been performed under an AbilityOne contract.

Add the intangible value of this program to the employees and members of their families, and the total benefits to society are enormous.

Posted in Employment | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

On Lifelong Learning

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Jim McClelland shares a laugh with a graduate of the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.

When I was 17, I thought I knew a lot. Throughout my adult life, though, the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized how little I know. I figure if that process continues long enough I will eventually reach the logical conclusion that I know absolutely nothing. (I realize that just confirms what some of you have always thought….)

Nevertheless, I don’t think we can overemphasize the importance of being a lifelong learner. This is particularly true for anyone who works or wants to work, as changes occur at such a rapid rate we have to keep learning just to stay current in whatever field we’re in or, in many cases, be employable at all.

I’ve had the same title at Goodwill for forty years, but the work I do today is vastly different from what it was even a few years ago. In part, the changes in what I do and how I go about my work are reflections of how we have adapted to enormous changes that have taken place over the years in demographics, technology, the economy, competition, laws and regulations, and American culture. Goodwill has also changed in response to what we’ve learned from our own experiences, from the experiences of others, and from research. And we’ve changed as a result of the different perspectives, insights, knowledge, and skills of people who have become part of our organization and caused us to question old assumptions, ask different questions, and consider new approaches.

From a personal standpoint, I have learned an enormous amount over the years from being in a position to work with people at nearly every level of society and in all parts of a community. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a lot of people at national and international levels, try to understand their experiences and perspectives, and learn from them. The variety is tremendously appealing to me, and having those experiences has caused me to be skeptical of anyone who claims to have all the answers.

I also read a lot. I read to stay current with what’s going on in the world and in my community. I read in hopes of learning something that will help me do a better job or be a better person. I read for insights and to learn about topics I’m interested in. And sometimes I read simply for pleasure and no other purpose.

My regular reading includes publications with different perspectives, as I do not want to confine myself to being exposed only to the thoughts and opinions of those who have one particular point of view. Gary Hamel’s book, Leading the Revolution, (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) reinforced my desire to try to understand and learn from people with different experiences and perspectives. My notes on that book include:

  • Most people in an industry are blind in the same way. They’re all paying attention to the same things and not paying attention to the same things.
  • Insights come from new conversations. All too often, strategy conversations in large companies have the same ten people talking to the same ten people for the fifth year in a row. They can finish each other’s sentences. You’re not going to learn anything new in this setting.
  • There is so much individuals cannot imagine simply because they are prisoners of their own dogma.
  • The more you pay attention to information that supports your world view, the less you learn.
  • You can’t use an old map to find a new land.

While Hamel was writing primarily for leaders in business and industry, perhaps his admonitions could also be helpful in other aspects of a society that has become dismayingly polarized over many issues.

Posted in Evolving | Tagged , , , ,

Two Stories

We have a lot of stories at Goodwill. Here are two recent examples – very different from each other, but each a great illustration of some of what gives our work at Goodwill so much meaning.

The Sanders Triplets

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Amber, Ashley, and Angel Sanders are identical triplets. They were raised by their grandmother because their mom had severe addiction problems, and their father wasn’t around. On two separate occasions, they were placed in foster care. During those early years, they struggled, but they didn’t give up.

They enrolled in and thrived at Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, the first charter school Goodwill opened. Graduating with honors in 2009, they received scholarships that covered all of their expenses at Indiana University, where they maintained GPAs above 3.0 and in 2013 graduated with bachelor’s degrees.

At IU, Amber and Ashley majored in East Asian Languages and Cultures. Ashley’s language focus was Korean, Amber’s was Japanese. Angel, who did part of her undergraduate work in Korea, had a double major in International Studies and Slavic Languages and Literature with a focus on Russian.

In their own words, they have “surpassed the stereotype of African-American women who have graduated from neither high school nor college.”

The Sanders sisters have been accepted by Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. Their goal is to earn masters degrees, immerse themselves in an Asian culture, and become fluent in one or more Asian languages. They then hope to work in the United States or abroad for government or a multinational corporation, become connectors, and help bridge borders around the world.

I have no doubt Amber, Angel, and Ashley will achieve their goals.

Verdell

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In 2012, Verdell came to Goodwill through a work release program after serving 17 years in prison. Initially employed as a janitor in one of our outlet stores, she let it be known that while in prison she had learned to clean floors and loved cleaning floors. She was then moved to Goodwill’s contract site at the VA Hospital, where she had the opportunity to clean floors every day. She did so well she was promoted to a team leader position.

In November 2013, while attending a Goodwill safety meeting at the VA Hospital, Goodwill COO Kent Kramer, who was aware Verdell had been homeless, asked about her housing situation. She told Kent she had an apartment, and then Kent asked her if she had ever thought about owning a home. Verdell thought she could never afford that, whereupon Kent connected her with Habitat for Humanity.

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Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity have developed a very good relationship over the last several years, and Verdell was given the opportunity to start the process to become owner of a new HFH home. She got support from staff at both Habitat and Goodwill, put in a lot of “sweat equity,” and on June 14, 2014 was given the keys to her new home. As she said at the dedication ceremony, she had gone “from homeless to homeowner.”

These two stories illustrate a variety of ways Goodwill provides opportunities for people. Some of those we work with (e.g. the Sanders sisters) need assistance because of circumstances over which they have had no control. Others (e.g. Verdell) need help because of bad choices they have made. Regardless, when we provide the opportunities, it’s still up to the individuals to make the most of those opportunities. Most – including Amber, Angel, Ashley, and Verdell – do.

Posted in Business and Mission | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Goodwill’s evolution – an organic process

For years, I’ve considered the most unique aspect of Goodwill to be the way and the extent to which we blend business and a social mission. More recently, though, perhaps equally unique is the extent to which we are leveraging our resources and capabilities with those of others to create new opportunities that benefit people and communities. I’ll explain.

A lot of social problems have become worse over the last forty years despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations. Part of the problem lies in the “silo” structure of the public sector and the fragmented nature of the not-for-profit sector. In many cases, organizations are doing very good work addressing pieces of a larger problem, but seldom have we been connecting the pieces well. As a result, we have not been solving the big problems.

A lot of our work at Goodwill is now focused on connecting pieces. Some of those exist within our own organization and some involve other organizations that have complementary capabilities. We see numerous examples of this, as Goodwill retail employees and Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) moms enroll in an Excel Center or begin working toward a certification through a class taught by Ivy Tech or Vincennes University.

More examples: We have Eskenazi Health referring expectant mothers to NFP and also hiring graduates of The Excel Centers. We see Indianapolis Day Nursery Association offering employment to NFP moms, helping them work toward certifications, and providing high quality care for their children. And we see graduates of Goodwill-operated schools becoming employed with help from TalentSource, Goodwill’s job preparation and placement service.

The extent to which Goodwill is evolving into an array of networks that link services across organizational boundaries in a holistic, often whole family manner is unique. This approach brings high quality services together to make more effective use of existing community resources and result in greater lasting impact. With sufficient scale, this approach can play a role in reducing generational poverty.

The way we are evolving into this array of networks is not the result of a brilliant grand plan. Rather, it’s an organic process that is ongoing, and it’s largely a product of three primary factors:

  • A lot of smart, talented people who bring to their work not just their knowledge and skills, but also a strong commitment to what we are about – in other words, they bring their heads and their hearts.
  • A culture characterized, in part, by a constant desire to find ways to improve and further increase our long term impact in the lives of people and the communities where we operate. It’s also a culture in which people generally work well with each other.
  • Strong relationships with a lot of people in a lot of other fine organizations across all the sectors.

It’s also important to note that everything we do is built on a solid financial foundation that depends largely on the oldest part of Goodwill – our retail system, which provides jobs for 1300 people whose options are limited by disability or other significant barrier and that is, in turn, dependent on donations of used goods from and purchases by hundreds of thousands of central Indiana residents.

This organic evolutionary process results in a Goodwill that is constantly changing. We try things, we learn, we adapt as the world around us changes, and we evolve as an organization. It’s the approach we take to continue increasing long term impact and help reverse some of the negative trends we’ve seen in our society over the last forty years.

Posted in Business and Mission | Tagged , , ,

On the Importance of High Expectations

In recent weeks, I’ve become acquainted with three Excel Center students who have received or will soon receive their high school diplomas. All three of these young adults have disabilities, were in “special education” during their childhoods, and failed to graduate from the large public high schools they attended. One of the three had tried in three different large high schools, but the results were always the same.

Yet, at the three different Excel Centers these students attended, all of them succeeded. They earned the credits they needed for a Core 40 diploma and passed the End-of-Course Assessments required by the State of Indiana. In addition, two of them have already earned post-secondary credentials that increase their employability and earning potential.

What made the difference?

As I’ve asked several members of our staff that question, two themes emerge. First, there are a lot of people who simply don’t expect much from a student labeled “special education.” Many times, such students aren’t challenged, and it’s often difficult for a large high school to provide the kind of individual attention that can sometimes help a student rise above generally low expectations and begin to realize his or her potential.

The second theme is that the small size and structure of The Excel Center; the team approach taken by the teachers, life coaches, and other staff; and the individual help that is readily available in each Excel Center are just what many “special ed” students need to make the most of their potential.

In addition, we believe our students can succeed, and we expect them to do so. Over the years, we’ve seen many examples of young people and adults who rose above the low expectations of others to accomplish what many might not have thought possible. One of the early graduates of the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School Goodwill started ten years ago is a good example. A “special education” student, his parents didn’t think he’d ever earn a high school diploma. He proved them wrong, went on to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, and is now employed by that college.

More recently, I saw a letter written by a 2014 graduate of Indy Met. In it, she describes how she had been ready to drop out of the large high school she previously attended. Her parents even expected her to do so. But, at Indy Met the teachers had more faith in her than she had in herself. As she stated, “Without Indy Met’s amazingly supportive staff, I would have given up a long time ago.” As it is, she’s enrolled in college and will begin taking classes this summer.

Far too many of the people we see every day have seldom had anyone who believed they had much potential. And if no one else has confidence in you, it can be very hard for you to have confidence in yourself. Failure can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In our work, we must be able to see the potential in every person and do everything we can to help them realize that potential. We won’t always succeed. But with the right kind of help over a sustained period of time, a lot of people will rise above their circumstances and accomplish far more than many others ever thought possible – and often, even more than they thought themselves capable of.

Posted in Education, Growth | Tagged , , ,

The Seasons

A snowy winter

As I am writing this, it’s snowing – again. But it’s March – finally. And if it’s March, surely spring can’t be far off – can it?

As we approach (I think) the end of the most relentless winter – not to mention one of the snowiest and coldest – I’ve ever experienced, we’ve been reminded – with frustrating frequency – of how badly elements over which we have absolutely no control can affect our organization. Harsh winter weather adversely affects the volume of donated goods we receive and has a negative, sometimes devastating effect on our retail sales. Yet, while revenues drop, expenses rise – for snow removal, salt, higher heating bills, and the costs of higher absenteeism.

While we have no control over the weather, we do have to respond to it. We have to adapt. This year we have had to postpone or eliminate some of what we had planned to do in 2014. Some vacant positions will go unfilled, some capital expenditures will be deferred, and cost controls we’ve imposed will probably remain in place for the rest of the year. But that’s not necessarily bad. It’s a good time to do examine a lot of what we do, do some selective pruning, and become even better stewards of our resources.

It’s also worth noting that weather effects are short term, and despite the early year financial challenges, our mission is not threatened and we will continue to be a strong organization. If nothing else, this winter has reminded us that one of the reasons it’s important to have a strong balance sheet is so we can weather (pun intended) the periodic downturns and occasional external shocks that all organizations invariably experience from time to time.

Even with the constraints we’ve had to impose, we will still accomplish a lot this year. We have nine retail store projects we expect to complete in 2014 and a tenth that will be underway by the end of the year. This will mean more jobs – especially for people whose options are limited by disability or other barrier. More stores also mean more convenient places for donors to drop off goods and for bargain hunters who love to shop at Goodwill.

Our nine Excel Centers remain at capacity, and we will graduate nearly 500 students this year. Most will also earn a post-secondary credential that increases their employability.

Nurse-Family Partnership will continue to grow, as will the extent to which we are able to realize synergies across our various operations and services. For example, more of our NFP moms and Goodwill employees are enrolled in Excel Centers or are receiving job preparation and placement services from TalentSource.

There’s always been a seasonal pattern to Goodwill’s donated goods/retail operations. In the Midwest, donations of goods tend to be highest from spring through early fall, with a spike the last week of the year. Retail sales tend to be strongest when winter turns to spring and when fall weather arrives, with a spike just before Halloween (a relatively recent phenomenon).

But there is no season to the work we do to increase positive impact in the lives of people and the communities in which we operate. Employment of people with limited options is year-round, as are the Excel Centers, Nurse-Family Partnership, and other services Goodwill offers. And our emphasis on continuous improvement means exactly that – continuous.

So – despite the challenges of a winter we’ll never forget, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic and glad to be part of the work Goodwill does. And if we get a bit crazy when spring weather finally does arrive, at least we know everyone in this part of the country will understand – and probably join in.

Posted in sustainability | Tagged , , ,

The War on Poverty

In January 1964, President Johnson declared war on poverty. During the days leading up to and immediately following the 50-year observation of that declaration, many have commented on the progress, lack of progress, or outright failure of that “war.”

In the January 7, 2014 Wall Street Journal, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation noted that in the U.S., living standards among the poor are much improved over those of 50 years ago. He also pointed out that the “collapse of marriage in low income communities has played a substantial role in the declining capacity for self support.”

In the January 5, 2014 New York Times, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution also emphasized that “Children in single-parent families are more likely to be poor, fail in school, have mental health issues and be idle as young adults, all of which reduce self-sufficiency.” Haskins concluded his piece by stating that “we don’t need another war on poverty as much as we need to improve the programs we already have and create the conditions for more personal responsibility regarding education, work, marriage, and child bearing.”

In the same issue of the New York Times, Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute emphasized that “expanding opportunity for poor kids will require that we ‘incentivize’ the right behaviors, attitudes, and values, through economic carrots and sticks. Culture, not just economics, must be a front in the war on immobility.”

And in the January 9 New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff emphasized the importance of early interventions including parent coaching to get pregnant women to drink and smoke less and to encourage at-risk moms to talk to their children more. Among the successful programs he mentioned is Nurse-Family Partnership, which Goodwill is implementing in Indianapolis.

Kristoff also emphasized the importance of programs that encourage jobs for the most at-risk groups, and both he and Rector mentioned the earned income tax credit as a benefit to the working poor and for society. On a related note, Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw wrote in the January 5 New York Times that in efforts to help those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder, the most effective solution would be to increase the skills of those low-wage workers.

While there is general agreement that more needs to be done to reduce poverty, there is certainly no consensus on what should be added, increased, modified, or eliminated. Bringing this closer to home, though, reading these and numerous other commentaries has reinforced my belief that the directions we have taken at Goodwill are on target. The older youth and adults who enroll in our Excel Centers represent “low hanging fruit” in efforts to raise education attainment levels. In addition, our emphasis on continuing to support our graduates until they earn post-secondary credentials and become established in the workforce is likely to play a major role not only in helping our graduates become economically self-sufficient, but also in ensuring a quick economic return to society for its investment in our schools.

Nurse-Family Partnership is part of a long-term solution to generational poverty that also has a strongly positive economic return to society. In addition to improving pregnancy outcomes, NFP helps parents learn how to provide competent care that will enhance the health and development of their children. NFP also helps parents improve their economic self-sufficiency by developing plans for their future, continuing their education, and finding work.

Everything we do at Goodwill ultimately plays a part in helping individuals and families increase their economic self-sufficiency. Cumulatively, these efforts can – at least in our small corner of the world – begin to reduce generational poverty and the various social problems that accompany it.

Posted in Early Childhood Development, Poverty | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment