The Magnificence of the Ordinary

(Note: This piece was first posted in December 2013).

While solutions to major social problems must be macro in scale, in the final analysis we must see results in the lives of individual people. As Peter Drucker reminded us, the purpose of any not-for-profit organization is to change lives.

As we offer opportunities to help others improve their lives, the changes can often be in ways that on the surface might seem unremarkable.  As we look deeper, though, we discover that often they are really much more.  Here are some brief sketches of a few people I’ve been fortunate to know during my career.

Cheryl dropped out of high school. She came to Goodwill, learned keyboard skills, got a GED, got a driver’s license, and got a job. A few years later she got married, then had a son.  She’s now been married for over 30 years, and their son has graduated from college.  Cheryl has worked nearly all her adult life.

Sounds pretty ordinary until you learn that Cheryl was born with no arms.  When you know this, you begin to realize that there is nothing ordinary about Cheryl’s life and that, in fact, what she has done with her life is truly magnificent.

Bobby worked at Goodwill. When he was 36 years old one of our staff helped him learn how to write his name and tell time.  For weeks, every time he would see me he would ask me if I knew what time it was. Then he would tell me. For most people, learning how to write your name and tell time are pretty ordinary accomplishments. For Bobby, though, they were magnificent achievements.

Steve was severely limited by cerebral palsy. He used a motorized wheelchair and communicated by using a keyboard with a voice synthesizer. He worked for several years on a contract Goodwill has to do janitorial work in a large federal building in Indianapolis. With a broom attached to his wheelchair, Steve swept 1-1/2 miles of corridors every day. He absolutely loved his job and his co-workers.

One day, Steve was in his motorized wheelchair crossing a street. While he was in a marked crosswalk, a car hit him, killing him instantly.

Many people would not have considered a person doing such an ordinary – and to some, a menial – task to be a success. But Steve exceeded everyone’s expectations – except possibly his own – and worked at a level many would never have thought possible. And he was happy doing it. For Steve, what to most people might have seemed so ordinary was truly magnificent.

When I started working for Goodwill, a member of our board of directors told me he thought Goodwill was amazing. The way he saw it, we took goods people no longer wanted and people no one else wanted to hire and combined them to create self-sustaining employment for a lot of people who otherwise would have been sitting at home surviving on public assistance. To him, ordinary household goods and ordinary people combined to produce something extraordinary and magnificent.

As we get caught up in the busyness of day-to-day work and life, it can be easy to take for granted a lot of what we as an organization and many of our people do so well day in and day out. Fortunately, though, when I see examples such as those I’ve mentioned and many others, I am reminded that much of what we tend to think of as pretty ordinary is much more than that. In fact, much of it is truly magnificent.

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.

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.

On Talent and Culture

I frequently talk about the tremendous array of dedicated, talented people who are part of Goodwill’s team. They can be found at multiple levels in all parts of our organization, and they are the people who make things happen day in and day out. Goodwill’s accomplishments are really the sum of their accomplishments.

From time to time I am reminded of how fortunate – even blessed – we are to have so many terrific people. For example, this year we are opening four new Excel Centers – diploma-granting high schools for older youth and adults. Our talent sourcing staff posted 68 positions we needed to fill, and the response was amazing. We received approximately 3600 applications that our staff reviewed. They asked 728 of those applicants for additional information, then conducted nearly 400 telephone interviews. From those, approximately 100 were interviewed in person by a panel of staff, and 68 persons were hired. It is particularly reassuring to me that so many fine people want to be part of the work we are doing.

Another recent reminder came from visitors from a Goodwill organization in another state. They spent two days touring our operations and talking with our staff about their work. During those two days they repeatedly told me how impressed they were with the caliber of our people – at every level and in every place they visited. The fact that visitors who have seen many Goodwills and who themselves operate a very fine organization would make so many glowing comments about our staff meant a great deal to me.
What’s the key? We don’t really have any “secret sauce.” Perhaps it’s a different key for different people, and perhaps it’s the sum of several elements that might include:

  • A mission and a variety of services that are easy to become passionate about. There’s generally a pretty strong feeling that what we are doing is important and is helping others improve their lives.
  • A culture that insists on treating everyone in a respectful manner. This means in every direction – up, down, sideways, with those who are inside the organization and with those who aren’t.
  • A genuine desire to provide people with the resources they need so they can do their jobs well and to provide learning and growth opportunities for our people.
  • A strong effort to provide safe working conditions that are bright, clean, and pleasant places to be. Of course, a pleasant place to work is in large part a function of having people who are pleasant to be around – most of the time, at least.
  • A genuine desire to improve – to become more effective at accomplishing our mission, to achieve better results, and to be better stewards of all our resources.

We don’t always succeed at all of this. We’re human and we make mistakes. But the positives far outweigh the negatives, and the culture in our organization today is many times better than it was early in my career when we were much smaller. I’m very aware that with over 3,000 employees spread across approximately 80 locations, the potential for that culture to deteriorate is always present. But when I see the kind of work that goes into selecting new staff – for example, the kind of work demonstrated in filling those 68 new positions in the Excel Centers – and I see the caliber and ability of those who have recently joined our organization as well as those who have been with us for much longer – I know we’re in good hands and I’m confident the future is bright.

The gap between public perception and reality

I once heard a newspaper publisher make a speech in which he bemoaned the fact that people didn’t really understand the newspaper business. I thought about this a bit and came to the conclusion that any of us could probably say something similar about the businesses we are in. Even if we once thought we understood someone else’s business, organizations that survive over long periods of time aren’t standing still. They’re changing in ways that are often not visible to the general public. Public perception often lags reality, and the faster the rate of change within an organization, the greater the gap between what the organization actually is and public perception of it.

Over the past decade, Goodwill in central Indiana has evolved at such a rapid rate that even people who have been relatively close to the organization are not aware of some of what we are now doing, the approaches we are taking to our work, or the impact we are having in the larger community.

For starters, most people have no idea we are as large as we are. With 3,000 employees – two-thirds with a disability, criminal history, low education level, or other barrier – we are still doing what the founder of Goodwill set out to do more than 110 years ago – provide work for people with few options. We’re just doing it for a lot more people.

We have also become significantly involved in public education – especially of older youth and adults. This fall we will operate 10 schools with a total of more than 3,000 students. Nine of those schools are Excel Centers – a unique concept we created three years ago that enables adults to complete requirements for a high school diploma and begin working toward a post-secondary credential that will enhance their earnings potential.

More recently, we have begun operating Nurse-Family Partnership, a highly effective home visitation program that helps first-time mothers in low income households improve pregnancy outcomes, child health and development, and the economic self-sufficiency of the family. Our nurses are currently working with over 350 expectant moms and new moms to whom 220 babies have been born. It’s a 30-month program with lifelong benefits.

Equally exciting is the extent to which we are now able to link individuals and families with education, employment, health and family services in a holistic approach to help people move out of poverty. We don’t provide all of the services ourselves. Rather, we work with many other organizations whose capabilities and resources complement Goodwill’s. As this approach has grown in recent years, our organization has begun resembling a network of networks – an approach that makes better use of overall community resources and is much more effective than the more common fragmented approach.

The financial base for what we do is provided by our donated goods/retail operations, which also employ two-thirds of our 3,000 employees. Thus, we are dependent on hundreds of thousands of residents who donate goods and shop in our stores.

All of this is a lot more than meets the eye of the general public. Lack of knowledge or – worse yet – misleading information or misinformation that can arise from taking small pieces of what we do out of context can be damaging. One of our challenges is to find ways to improve public knowledge of Goodwill’s wide array of services and the impact of those services in the lives of people and the communities in which we operate. The better we can do that, the better we will be able to reduce the gap between perception and reality.