AbilityOne – a federal program that works very well


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.


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.


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.

The Excel Centers

The Excel Center, Decatur Rd. location

In 2010, we designed and launched a high school for older youth and adults who had dropped out of school. We did this in response to a request by the Mayor of Indianapolis to see if we could find a way to help adults who lacked a high school diploma to earn one. There are a lot more people in that situation than I had imagined – over 15% of the adult population of the United States, including over 100,000 in Indianapolis – and because existing adult education programs left a lot to be desired, those individuals have had very limited options.

We designed the school to fit the life circumstances of the prospective students. The Excel Center is open year-round, and schedules can be arranged to accommodate students’ work or family obligations. Supports are available to help keep students on track and to address factors that might hinder education attainment. There’s a free child care center for the children of our students while they are in class, and many of our students are able to take post-secondary courses for dual credit and begin working toward a post-secondary credential that will increase their employability and earning potential.

We opened the first Excel Center in September 2010. Although we did no advertising, by the following spring there were over 2,000 prospective students on the waiting list. Nothing we have ever done has resonated so quickly with so many people.

The Excel Center, Meadows location

In September 2011 we added two more sites, and in August we will open two more to bring total enrollment to approximately 1,400 students. We are also packaging the model and developing a licensing option so that qualified organizations in other communities and states can open Excel Centers and become part of an Excel Center Network that will enable thousands more adults to raise their education attainment levels.

All of the schools in the network will have access to a portal with curriculum materials and other educational resources, a data system that will permit “deep dives” to see what’s working best and enhance efforts to improve student success. A communications platform will enable lateral communication among staff across the network as they seek to improve their effectiveness. The model will not be static. Rather, everyone in the network will be in a position to help improve it.

Fifty-five percent of our students are 24 years of age or younger. We also have many parents who are in their 30s and 40s. We have even had a few students who were in their 60s. Many of the parents have told us they are doing this so their kids won’t have an excuse not to finish school. Some of our students and their school-age children even do their homework together around the kitchen table.

We know our graduates will benefit from earning their high school diploma and obtaining a post-secondary credential, as they will then qualify for better jobs than they’ve typically had. But we believe their children will benefit even more, as they have seen their parents going to school, doing homework, and in many cases having a renewed sense of purpose and excitement in life.

There are many reasons why students in our Excel Centers didn’t finish high school when they were younger. Some admit they just made a mistake. As we’ve seen, though, there are a lot of adults eager for another chance to improve their circumstances and those of their children.

Improving Over Time

As I am writing this, Indianapolis – my home for nearly 40 years – is still basking in the overwhelming success of hosting Super Bowl XLVI. Those who led the multi-year effort did a magnificent job planning and executing a week-long series of events that exceeded almost everyone’s expectations. In fact, I suspect the only people who weren’t surprised may have been those who led the immense effort. They expected it to be great, and it was.

When there’s a major goal that captures the imagination of and mobilizes a lot of people, good things can happen. In the early 1960s, President Kennedy issued a challenge for the U.S. to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade. It happened. In a very different type of situation last year that some people liked and others didn’t, we saw uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya that had a defined goal of overthrowing long-standing regimes. They succeeded, but now they are faced with the very different challenge of building a different kind of society.

Building a society, changing a culture, solving a major social problem are open-ended challenges that have no defined end. It’s harder to mobilize people around open-ended challenges and sustain their interest and involvement over time than it is for a task with a defined end goal within a time frame of a few years or less.

I’ve now led the same organization for the better part of four decades. Occasionally, someone will ask me what I’m most proud of in my career. My answer is always the same. It’s not any one development or accomplishment. Rather, it’s how far we’ve come over time. It’s not all about growth, although we have certainly grown a lot. More importantly, the organization functions at a much higher level than it did earlier in my career. We are much more effective and have much greater positive impact in the lives of people and in the communities in which we operate than was the case even a decade ago. I’m also more convinced than ever that the greatest accomplishments and life’s greatest rewards come from making and keeping long term commitments.

Organizational development and evolution over time are never linear. We have our ups and downs, our successes and our failures. It’s a never ending process that – at least in our case – involves a lot of small, incremental improvements and occasional major new developments. From time to time, we also have to stop doing things that have outlived their usefulness or that we have found are simply not a good fit. Of course, there are plenty of projects within the organization that have a defined beginning and end, and there are plenty of milestones along the way that are worth celebrating.

Some of the challenges we face in our society today have developed over a period of several decades. There is much debate over causes and solutions. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that there are no quick fixes. The time it will take to substantially reduce some of our societal problems will be measured in decades rather than years. To sustain the required effort and commitment long enough, we need to focus on a well-defined set of short, medium, and long term metrics, concentrate resources on improving those metrics, shift resources when necessary, and celebrate successes. Problems such as many of those we now face have resulted from a downward spiral over a long period of time. With enough concerted effort over a long enough period of time, we can create an upward spiral that will build on successes and eventually perhaps even sustain itself.

Newton’s Laws and Goodwill

In high school and college physics, I became well acquainted with Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion. After nearly four decades as a CEO, I’ve concluded that the concepts underlying at least two of those three laws apply to organizations – actually, to institutions of all kinds – as well as to the physical world.

For example, Newton’s First Law of Motion – the Law of Inertia – is often paraphrased as “A body at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an external force.” How can that apply to organizations? It’s been my observation that the more an organization is removed from day-to-day competition (a powerful external force), the slower it is to adapt as its external environment changes.

When you are subject to competition on a day-to-day basis, there’s more of a sense of urgency, more of a drive to improve. You know that if you don’t improve, someone is going to take your customers (or in the case of a school, your students) away from you. For organizations that lack strong competition, the faster the rate of change on the outside, the more they tend to lag. They might survive, but they are likely to become increasingly ineffective.

This is not generally as much of a problem in the for-profit world as it can be in the public and not-for-profit sectors. In the for-profit world, if you don’t successfully adapt to external changes – including new or stronger competition – in most cases you will become extinct.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion – or a reasonable facsimile thereof – also applies to institutions. This law is often stated, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A Corollary might go something like this: “For every excess there will be a proportionate reaction and correction. The greater the excess, the greater the pain associated with the correction.”

Think about that in light of the financial problems currently plaguing the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. For example, excessive spending (and related borrowing) by individuals, organizations, or governments will eventually prompt a correction. Sometimes the correction will come only after years of excess. But eventually it will come. And with the correction will come pain proportionate to the degree of excess.

Of course, excessive conservatism can also be a problem. Companies that do not spend enough to properly maintain their physical assets, develop and retain their human capital, and improve their productivity are jeopardizing their future. They can also jeopardize their future when they fail to invest in opportunities for which they are well-suited, thus leaving the door open for more aggressive, well-managed competitors to increase their strength.

Governments – cities, states, nations – that fail to adequately maintain their infrastructures will eventually have a huge price to pay – and you can count on a strong reaction from their citizens when the bill and the pain associated with it come due.

While we take nothing for granted, at Goodwill we’ve thus far been able to avoid the kinds of excesses that can jeopardize an organization’s future. Goodwill is also fortunate to have functioned in a competitive marketplace since its founding. From the beginning, we have operated a commercial enterprise that sells goods to the public as a primary means of accomplishing our mission. This has been a driving force in creating and sustaining the culture of our organization and is a major reason we’ve grown and evolved the way we have.

Keys to our recent growth and development

During the last five years Goodwill in central Indiana has experienced growth that has been far greater than I would have believed possible.  From 2005 – 2010, a period that included the most severe recession since the 1930s, we added 1,000 employees and now employ nearly 2,400 people.  I would not have imagined such growth.

Neither did I imagine in 2005 that within five years we would have opened a high school that generated so much interest there would be 1,300 prospective students on the waiting list.  And I did not imagine that the fastest growing part of our organization in 2010 would be our ecommerce operations.

While my failure to imagine these developments is certainly profound evidence of how lousy I am at predicting the future, all of these examples have been a result of four factors:

  • A significant increase in our pool of highly talented staff who not only have tremendous skills, but also a deep commitment to Goodwill’s mission and values.  I believe that at some point in the last five years we achieved a critical mass of talent in depth as well as breadth, and those talented people are widely dispersed throughout our organization.  We also had some capital to work with.  When you have good human capital, add financial capital, and align those resources toward a worthwhile goal, good things can happen.  (For those who are directly involved, this can also be a lot of fun.)
  • The development and strengthening of relationships with many who, as individuals or through their organizations, have similar interests and complementary resources.  By working together to leverage those resources in well-defined ways toward a common goal, we can sometimes create new or better approaches to solving social problems.
  • Continuous learning – from others as well as from our own experiences.
  • A strong financial position, without which we would most likely be more risk averse and without which we would not be able to invest in new opportunities that have potential to further enhance the accomplishment of our mission.

Summarized, we have experiences, learn, and make connections.  Those experiences and connections often lead to new ideas and ways of combining strengths or using them in different ways.  And as this process continues to repeat itself, the organization continues to evolve to higher levels with greater impact in the lives of people and in the larger community.