the evolution of Goodwill

Coming full circle

January 19, 2015 was the 152nd anniversary of the birth of Edgar Helms, the founder of Goodwill. At the beginning of the 20th Century, he came up with an idea that included asking people to donate clothing and household items they no longer wanted. Helms wasn’t the first person to do that. But instead of just giving those goods to poor people, he put unemployed people to work collecting and repairing some of the goods, selling them to the public, and using the money to pay wages to the workers. He created jobs – a way for unemployed people to earn money, and the collection and sale of used goods was the means to that end. That basic idea still works over 100 years later and represents the financial backbone of our entire organization as well as a source of a lot of jobs – over 2,000 in central Indiana alone – for people who in many cases don’t have a lot of options.

Helms believed that every human being has value, and he believed in giving people opportunities – a chance rather than charity – a hand up rather than a hand out. And those basic values are still just as important in Goodwill as they were over a hundred years ago.


We do things differently today, to be sure. Over the course of our history, we’ve continued to learn and to adapt to the incredible changes that have taken place in the economy, demographics, technology, laws and regulations, competition, and American culture. I believe Helms would be amazed at how large Goodwill has become across this country. And I believe he would be particularly pleased to see how Goodwill in central Indiana has evolved – especially over the past decade – because of the way we are emphasizing whole person, often whole family approaches. Such approaches haven’t been all that common among Goodwills over the past half century. But that’s the approach Helms took in the early decades of Goodwill’s history. That first Goodwill, located in Boston, included a day nursery, a kindergarten, a fresh air camp and farm for city kids, a music school, and a night school that taught trades. Of course, they also offered employment services and jobs.

The other early Goodwills followed that lead and included a similar emphasis on helping families. For example, in the late 1930s, the small Goodwill organization in Indianapolis, working with other organizations in the community, offered a kindergarten, a prenatal clinic, a dental clinic for school children, a home-based health care program, a variety of classes for female heads of households, and a library with books mothers could borrow to read to their children.


From my reading of the organization’s history, that approach began to change in the early 1940s as providing jobs became the primary or exclusive focus. For the next forty years, our principle role in the community could be paraphrased as helping people with various employment barriers prepare for, find, and keep jobs.

During the last decade, though, in response to some significant changes in our society and the inability of other approaches to solve a number of major social problems, we’re now moving back toward a much more whole person, often whole family approach much like that exhibited by Goodwills in the early part of the 20th Century. In a sense, we’re coming full circle.

Today, though, with current information and technology, along with other resources, we have the potential for much greater scale and lasting impact in the lives of people and the larger community.

From a personal standpoint, what we’re engaged in today is the most significant and exciting work in my 45-year career with Goodwill.

A Disconnect

Several years ago a friend of mine told me, “Jim, I live on the northside (a relatively affluent part of Indianapolis), I work on the northside, I go to church on the northside. I don’t know any poor people.” I told him to come down to Goodwill and I’d introduce him to some.

More recently, I saw another friend of mine who has been tutoring some of the students in Goodwill’s Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. He grew up in a low income part of the city and has been heavily involved in the community for a long time. When I asked him how the tutoring was going, he quietly said, “Jim, I thought I understood the issues (related to the mostly poor, mostly minority students in the school). But until I got to know some of these kids one-on-one, I didn’t have a clue.”

Both of those friends are good, kind, well-intentioned people. So, I’m sure, are most of the politicians from suburbs and small towns who from time to time make statements and introduce legislation that indicate a near-complete lack of understanding of the kind of generational poverty that plagues the poorest, most crime ridden parts of our cities. If nothing else, it would be helpful if they simply acknowledged that no one chooses to be born into those circumstances. Some of us were just luckier than others.

Somewhat related to this lack of knowledge and understanding, an article by Ken Stern titled “Why the Rich Don’t Give” in the April 2013 issue of The Atlantic notes that “One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentages of their income.” The author wonders if “the isolation of wealthy Americans from those in need is a cause of their relative stinginess” and states “It seems that insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.” I hasten to add that I do not draw a broad generalization about this, as I’ve known plenty of generous wealthy people (and a few stingy poor people, too).

However, even in an organization such as Goodwill that has been working with a high poverty population for decades, we sometimes don’t really understand some of the problems until we get to know the people relatively well. That was our experience after we entered the urban public education arena by opening the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School in 2004. Some of us quickly began to realize that we had only had a peripheral awareness of the kinds of problems many of those students faced outside of school. As we got to know them better, what we learned from the day-to-day contact over time has had a significant influence on some of the directions our organization has since taken.

In my work, I consider myself fortunate to have opportunities to get to know and work with people at just about every level of society. That contact and a lot of experiences over a long period of time have resulted in a firm conviction that, for those of us who are relatively well off, getting to know individuals in circumstances very different from our own will enable us not only to gain a more accurate awareness of the issues they face, but also to be in a better position to develop or support lasting solutions to some of the problems.

If nothing else, knowing such individuals reasonably well tends to make us less judgmental and at times intensely aware that we don’t know everything or have all the answers.

Adapting to Technological Changes

The fastest growing part of our organization is our ecommerce unit. By enabling us to sell many items for substantially more than they would sell for in a Goodwill store, our ecommerce operations enable us to be better stewards of the goods people give us. The growth of our ecommerce operations has also created a lot of jobs, as we currently have nearly 100 employees at – over twice as many as we had at the beginning of this year.

Down through the years, technological changes have eliminated some jobs and created new ones. At Goodwill, for example, when I started my career we repaired radios and television sets. Doing so wasn't too difficult in those days. The sets used vacuum tubes (younger readers, look it up on Wikipedia), and we had a tube tester. Check the tubes, replace the bad ones, and many of the sets would work just fine. Vacuum tubes were eventually replaced by solid state electronics, and this effectively put an end to our repairing radios and TVs.

During those same years, we also repaired toasters and other small appliances. Over time, though, technological improvements in the manufacturing processes and increased sophistication of the products, coupled with rising labor costs, made many new small appliances less expensive than the cost of repairing broken ones. Fortunately, in more recent years, technological improvements have also helped create recycling and secondary markets for many products that can no longer be repaired economically.

Another example: From 1974 till 1992, we manufactured high quality oak file boxes for 3×5 and 5×8 cards for the federal government. For quite a few years we had 18 employees – most of them people with disabilities – who produced an average of 50,000 boxes a year. But over time, as the use of personal computers rose, the use of file cards fell and, consequently, the government didn’t need as many of the boxes. Eventually, the volume declined to the point where we exited that business.

Our involvement in online retailing began very slowly about twelve years ago after Goodwill in Orange County, CA created The Orange County Goodwill continues to maintain that 7-day auction site, which is designed to enable any Goodwill organization to post items on it. About five years ago, we began to increase our use of, and we also began posting some books on several book-selling Web sites. We subsequently added CDs, DVDs, video games, and jewelry to the array of items we could effectively sell online. Better software and packaging equipment have improved our efficiencies to a remarkable degree, and we believe there is enormous additional growth potential in that part of our organization.

Of course, as is the case at most relatively large organizations, new technologies have created other entirely new departments at Goodwill. Known in many companies as IT (Information Technology), in our organization it’s TS (Technology Solutions). Composed of bright, talented people, TS keeps us connected, helps develop and optimize uses of technology to improve our effectiveness, and helps us be good stewards of our resources. As the organization continues to evolve, so too do the services of the Technology Solutions department.

While we’ve come a long way, we can be sure that technological changes will continue to create new challenges and opportunities for us. We can also be sure that if we do not adapt well enough to those changes, we will be left behind – less effective, perhaps irrelevant, and in a worst-case scenario maybe even extinct.


My career with Goodwill has now spanned forty years.  It’s been a wonderful fit for me and an incredible learning and growing experience.  Over the years we’ve tried an enormous number of different ways of growing our businesses and accomplishing our mission.  Some of those initiatives have worked great; some have been reasonably successful – at least for awhile; and some have been dismal failures.  But we’ve learned from all of them.

The emphasis on business and mission is important.  The way and the extent to which we emphasize both is, I think, Goodwill’s most unique characteristic.  We operate businesses in a competitive marketplace and generate most of our revenue from the sale of products and services.  But we do so as a means to an end.  Rather than try to maximize profits or shareholder value as would be the case if we were a for-profit company, our overall objective is to maximize mission-related impact while maintaining a financial position that’s good for the organization’s long term viability.

While Goodwill has been in central Indiana since 1930, it is in many respects a very young organization that is constantly evolving.  During the last twenty years the pace of the evolutionary changes and our growth in revenue and number of employees have accelerated.  To be sure, we have our share of problems, frustrations, and even failures.  Yet, most people who know us would describe Goodwill as a very successful organization.

And yet – if I look at our organization in the context of changes in the country as a whole over the last forty years, I’m dismayed.  During those decades, despite massive increases in public spending and an incredible proliferation of not-for-profit organizations,  a lot of major social indicators have become worse.    Three examples:

  • The amount of money – in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars – spent on federal anti-poverty programs has gone up nearly 500% since 1968. Yet, the poverty rate is higher than it was in the early 1970s.
  • Per pupil spending – again, in constant dollars -on public K-12 education has more than doubled since 1969. Yet, high school graduation rates and other indicators of education attainment have fallen.
  • We are incarcerating people at three times the rate we were in 1980 and four times the rate we were in 1970.

Clearly, as a society, we need some different approaches to some of these problems.

In this blog I will write about how and why Goodwill has evolved the way it has.  I’ll describe some of our experiences (good and bad) and offer some thoughts on what makes some organizations successful and others less so.  I’ll also offer some observations and perspectives based on our experiences that might be worth considering in a search for long term solutions to some of our perplexing social problems.  I hope you will find these postings interesting and perhaps even useful.  I also invite and hope to learn from your comments.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.