Excerpt from a high school graduation speech

In 2011, I was privileged to speak to graduating students of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. Following is the main content of that speech:

I’m going to tell you two stories. They’re related, and each of them will illustrate a point. I’ll then close my remarks by making a request of you graduates.

Here’s the first story. After they won the state Class A championship, Indy Met’s basketball team was invited to Washington D.C. They visited a lot of the places tourists usually visit – the U.S. Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, part of the Smithsonian. They also visited Ben’s Chili Bowl and learned of its history and the history of that part of the city. Bens Chili Bowl

Ben’s is a little restaurant near the intersection of 12th & U streets. It was started by Ben and Virginia Ali in 1958 – an exciting time on U Street, which was then known as “Black Broadway.” A lot of famous people frequented the area and many of them ate at Ben’s from time to time: people like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Martin Luther King Jr, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby. Times were good.

Ben's Chili Bowl in 1958 from their website, http://benschilibowl.com/

Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 from their website, http://benschilibowl.com/

Then came 1968 and the assassination of Dr. King. Riots broke out in many cities, and U Street was in the middle of the riots in our nation’s capital. Businesses closed down or were burned down. That part of Washington was a war zone, and it looked like it. I know. I moved to Washington in the fall of 1968 and drove through that area – once. That area – in fact, much of Washington – was no longer safe. I found that out the hard way when, a few months after moving there, I was held up at gunpoint about a mile from where Ben’s is located.

1974

1974

Obviously, I survived. And so did Ben’s. It stayed open. But then in the 1970s that part of Washington was taken over by drug dealers and the entire area suffered. Still – Ben’s survived. Business began to improve, but then in the 1980s construction began on the Green Line of the D.C. subway system, the Metro. That part of U Street became a big hole – the construction went on for five years. Still – Ben’s survived.

1987

1987

Gradually, the area came back. Business improved, and Ben’s became increasingly well known. Barack Obama ate lunch there a few days before his inauguration. Ben died in 2009, but two of his sons continue to operate the business, which has expanded and is thriving.

Many times it would have been easy for Ben to quit or move to another part of town. But he what he started has become a Washington institution. And that leads me to the second story.

There’s another institution in Washington D.C. that started four years after Ben started his restaurant. It’s called the Community Club, and it operates in the basement of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington. Volunteers come there every Thursday evening to tutor young people. During its first 40 years, the Community Club had only two directors. They, too, were volunteers who made long term commitments to try to make a difference in people’s lives, and thousands of young people benefited.

 

I attended that church, and shortly after I moved to Washington I started volunteering in the Community Club, where I tutored two boys one-on-one for over a year. They seemed to benefit, but so did I. In fact, it changed the course of my life. I got so much personal satisfaction from that experience I started searching for a place where I could use my educational background, get a similar kind of satisfaction, and get paid at least enough to live on. That search led me to Goodwill Industries and started me on a career that lasted more than 40 years, during which I helped start a school – Indianapolis Metropolitan High School – that educates a lot of students very much like those I tutored in Washington D.C. in the late 1960s.

 

Here’s my point. The greatest accomplishments and life’s greatest rewards come from making and keeping long term commitments. It might be a commitment to go further with your education or to start and grow a business; it might be a commitment to a job or a career or some cause you deeply believe in. Or it might be a commitment to another person – a spouse, for example, or a kid you mentor or tutor. Nothing really worthwhile in life comes quickly or is easy, and no job is fun all the time. But if you make the commitment and stick with it – like Ben Ali did – through the inevitable ups and downs, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish and how full your life can be.

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So here’s my request of you graduates. As you enter adulthood, and if you really appreciate the people who have helped you get to this point in your life, make it a point – and a priority – to do something good for someone else. It might be a kid you tutor or mentor or an elderly person who needs some help. Regardless, do something good for someone else – not just once, but over an extended period of time – at least a year – and don’t expect anything in return. You’ll make someone else’s life a bit better, you’ll get a lot of satisfaction from the experience, and you just never know where it might lead you in life.

Some thoughts upon retiring from a long career

The “farewell” tour I’ve made during the months leading up to my retirement has been one of the highlights of my entire career. Listening to the stories and hearing the comments of hundreds of employees and students, I’ve never felt better about the organization – our people, our culture, and what we are doing.

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There’s no doubt that the impact Goodwill is having is far greater than ever. The way we are linking services internally and with other organizations in a holistic, multi-generational approach is, I’m confident, going to have lasting impact and help begin to reduce some major social problems. And yet, there’s so much more that needs to be done.

My career has been a constant learning and growing process, but the learning really began accelerating in 2004 when we became directly involved in public education by opening the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.

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Since then, Goodwill has evolved at a rapid rate that has further accelerated the learning throughout the organization. And while we don’t claim to have all the answers, based on our experiences as well as what we’ve learned from others during the past decade, I’m convinced that if we are ever going to substantially reduce a lot of the social problems that are plaguing U.S. society today, we must:

  • Continue working vigorously to raise education attainment levels, and we must ensure that at every step along the way we’re preparing students well for what comes next.
  • Greatly increase the number of affordable, accessible, high quality early childhood development opportunities for children in low income households. Because of the way the brain develops, the years 0-3 are even more important than ages 3-5. The earlier we start, the better.

In addition, to break a cycle of poverty, we need to take a long-term, holistic, multi-generational approach that leverages the resources and capabilities of multiple organizations within and across the sectors in focused ways designed to prevent problems, help kids develop, strengthen families, and make much more effective use of existing resources.

Goodwill in central Indiana is taking such an approach with a growing number of families and organizations, and that approach is attracting a growing amount of national attention. But while others can learn from our experiences, we must also continue to learn from others.

And while Goodwill’s board of directors and new CEO, Kent Kramer, will determine the organization’s direction going forward, there’s a strong base of knowledge and experience to build on and a lot of resources that can be deployed to further increase impact.

I don’t know what the organization we’ve built will look like ten years from now, but I know it will be different. Goodwill must continue trying new ways to grow its businesses and accomplish its mission; it must continue to learn; and it must continue to adapt as the world around it changes. Yet while I can’t predict what the organization will look like a decade from now, I do hope to be around watching from the sidelines, and I fully expect to be amazed!

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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

Optimizing

I describe Goodwill’s overall objective in general terms as “Maximizing mission-related impact while maintaining a financial position that enhances long term viability.” Of course, such a definition requires that we be able to define mission-related impact. And, despite the use of the word maximizing, the overall challenge is really one of optimizing.

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Many of our management challenges involve finding optimal solutions. For example, how much of our revenue should we spend on General and Administrative expenses (In the not-for-profit world, this is typically referred to as “overhead.”)? Some people believe not-for-profits should minimize G&A. In the long run, that is a recipe for ensuring less than optimal performance, as it results in inadequate value-added support of the high mission impact parts of the organization. Spend too much, though, and there could be legitimate questions about whether the organization is being a good steward of its resources. In this, as is in so many situations, one size does not fit all. Two very important factors in arriving at an optimal percentage are the size and complexity of the organization. In our large, very complex organization, somewhere around 10% of revenue seems to be close to optimal. While to some it might seem counterintuitive, a well-run smaller organization would likely have to spend a larger percentage of its revenue on G&A, as those expenses should not increase at the same rate as revenue.

Another example: One of Goodwill’s historic roles is to provide work for people whose options are limited by disability, criminal history, low education level, or other significant barrier. This is a very important part of our mission and one way we can add unique value in a community. Obviously, then, we want to provide as many jobs as possible for individuals who don’t have many options. However, because retail is the financial backbone of our entire organization, we must have a sufficient number of people with skills that enable us to be competitive and efficient. If we do not have enough people with barriers who have the necessary skills, we must hire others who can fill the gap. In recent years, filling approximately 2/3 of the jobs in donated goods/retail operations with people who have employment barriers has generally seemed to result in an optimal mix.

There’s another optimizing challenge embedded in that example, though, and that is the mix of full-time vs. part-time employees. We have quite a number of employees who for any of a variety of reasons are not able to work full time. However, if we have too few full-time employees, productivity can drop, and that will affect financial performance.

External factors can also have a powerful influence on optimization challenges. For example, the Affordable Care Act has resulted in a large increase in the number of employees who have signed up for coverage under our health plan. While we’re glad more of our employees now have health insurance, this has greatly increased our operating expenses – so much so that we might find it necessary to reprioritize and determine a new optimal mix of operations and services and/or full-time vs. part-time employees that will enable us to continue maximizing mission-related impact while maintaining a financial position that’s good for long term viability.

Nothing is static. Conditions are constantly changing, and we must constantly adapt or suffer the consequences. Optimization issues are always before us, and we’re always striving to find the best balance point – at least until something else changes.

The Millennials

A lot has been written about the generation known as Millennials – some positive, some less so. Of course, ascribing a particular set of characteristics to an entire generation of people is a bit absurd, given the enormous variability one can find in any large segment of the population at any point in time.

Nevertheless, what I see in many of today’s young people – i.e., many of the Millennials – is very encouraging. They give me hope.

We have a lot of people in their 20s and 30s working for us. They work in many parts of our organization – quite a few of them in our schools. They are typically bright, energetic, eager to learn, and excited about life. I enjoy talking with them.

I’ve also had several opportunities in recent months to speak on university campuses and interact with some incredibly bright, talented students. Most of those I’ve been fortunate to meet are interested in more than just getting into a career that will enable them to earn a good living. They’re also interested in helping make the world a better place. They want to make a difference.

I’m not just referring to liberal arts or social science majors either. Many of the students I’ve been meeting are majoring in business, engineering, or computer science. And some of the opportunities they are having on a number of university campuses today are helping them learn creative cross-disciplinary approaches designed to better prepare them to develop innovative approaches to help reduce some of the persistent social problems in our country and around the world.

One such program is being offered at my alma mater, Georgia Tech. It’s called Grand Challenges. Established in 2012, Grand Challenges each year accepts 110 entering freshmen and is open to students of any major. They live in the same dormitory for a year and learn how to work in multi-disciplinary teams, developing problem-solving skills to find possible solutions to real world problems. Students learn how to give and receive feedback, how to listen, argue, analyze, and persuade.

During the second semester, each team of students identifies a problem they want to tackle. Projects have dealt with a wide variety of food and water, energy, and health issues. One team last year worked on a project to benefit Goodwill of North Georgia. At the end of the semester, they can “pitch” their proposal for funding to continue working on their concept into their upperclassmen years.

A lot of my interest in Grand Challenges stems from what we’ve learned at Goodwill in central Indiana in recent years about how so many of our major social problems are interrelated. And yet, in our society we still tend to try to treat those problems in isolation one from another. Is it any wonder we’re not seeing better results? In our organization, though, we are now taking and further developing some truly holistic, often whole family approaches that we believe offer real potential for helping reduce generational poverty and some of the social problems that are associated with it.

So, for me, it’s encouraging to see universities offering opportunities for students to learn practical, multi-disciplinary approaches to solving societal problems. That, plus the contact I am privileged to have with a lot of young people who are similarly inclined, makes me optimistic about the future.

In my opinion, this generation of young people is going to have major positive impact in this country and many other places around the world. I look forward to seeing what they’re going to accomplish.