Some Implications of Becoming a Large Organization

Over the last decade, we’ve had enormous growth in our organization. We now have over 3,000 employees, nearly two-thirds with limited vocational options because of a disability or other barrier. We also have over 3,100 students in the ten schools we operate and 450 first-time moms and expectant moms enrolled in Nurse-Family Partnership. Our total revenues this year will be approximately $130 million. For a not-for-profit, we are a big organization.

Our size has many positive aspects. We have been able to attract a higher level of managerial and professional talent than was possible before, and this has enabled us to become substantially more productive and decrease the percentage of our revenue we spend on overhead.

Even more importantly, our heightened capabilities have also made it possible for us to greatly enhance the scope and quality of our mission-related services and develop new approaches that have substantially increased our long term impact in the lives of people and in the communities in which we operate. The work we are doing today is by far the best in our history.

But there’s also a downside.

The bigger and more visible we are, the bigger target we become. In addition to having a lot of employees, students, and people served in various other parts of our organization, we now have 2 million donation transactions and 5 million customer transactions a year. Bottom line: We have a lot of opportunities to make people like us or mad at us. And nearly all of them have access to social media.

We are also a complex organization that has been changing rapidly – especially over the last five years. Regardless of how much we’ve done to tell our story, most people have no idea of much of what we do. Perception always lags reality.

Moreover, while we have a lot of wonderful people doing terrific work, our organization is composed of 3,000 human beings, and not one of us is perfect. All institutions have flaws, and despite all the good work we do and all the improvements we have made, there is nothing we do that can’t be improved even more.

We always hope that those who talk or write about us – for example, through social or mass media – will treat us fairly. Our positives far outweigh our shortcomings, and we hope for perspective, a sense of context, and balance. If someone publicly calls attention to a flaw or a mistake someone in our organization has made, we hope they will give proportionate attention to the good things we do. We also know, though, that in this day and age such hopes are usually unrealistic. As negative emotions tend to be stronger than positive emotions, negative stories seem to attract a lot more attention – viewers, listeners, readers – than positive stories.

So what must we do? Obviously, we need to find more effective ways to increase awareness of our mission-related services and impact. But there’s more. With greater size comes greater responsibilities, and we must hold ourselves to an ever higher standard. While continuous improvement has been one of our Five Basic Principles for 20 years, we have to do more to improve every aspect of what we do. There is never any room for complacency. We must constantly work to raise our game.

And regardless of how others – individuals or media outlets – might treat us, we must continue to treat others as we would want to be treated. We must keep our focus on the work to be done, acknowledge and correct our mistakes when we make them, and continue to uphold our values and the basic principles by which we operate. And we will continue to become ever better stewards of all our resources as we work to help improve lives and strengthen communities. Because – even if others don’t recognize it – that is who we are.


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.

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.

Thoughts on Culture – Corporate and Societal

In an October 25, 2011 article titled, “The Global Innovation 1000: Why Culture is Key,” published by Booz & Company, the authors (Barry Jaruzelski, John Loehr, and Richard Holman) write, “Studies have shown again and again that there may be no more critical source of business success or failure than a company’s culture – it trumps strategy and leadership. That isn’t to say that strategy doesn’t matter, but rather that the particular strategy a company employs will succeed only if it is supported by the appropriate cultural attributes.”

From my observations and experience, a corporate culture is defined largely by five factors:

  • Who you hire and retain and the way and extent to which you develop people
  • What you measure
  • What you recognize and reward
  • How the leaders act
  • How you allocate resources

Not surprisingly, the bigger the organization, the harder it is and the more time it takes to change a culture. Of course, if the leader of a unit has too many limitations on his/her ability to hire and fire, change the reward system, or allocate resources, significant culture change within that unit can be nearly impossible.

I think about this from time to time in relation to the culture of our society. To what extent do similar factors apply? Certainly, the way we educate and train (i.e. develop) people is hugely important. The kind of performance and behaviors we reward or punish also heavily influence a society’s culture.

How a society chooses to allocate resources also has a bearing on culture. For example, using resources to help people develop and productively utilize their talents will tend to create and reinforce a very different kind of culture than if we use resources largely in ways that reinforce dependencies.

How leaders act can also be a major factor. Unfortunately, we live in an era when respect for institutions of all kinds is at perhaps an all time low. While at times there are good reasons for lack of respect for an organization, other organizations in the same field that have not acted improperly are often tarnished by association. Consequently, even those leaders of institutions who demonstrate admirable behavior and performance often have few followers outside the institutions they lead.

If we use a basic definition of a leader as one who has followers, it seems that a lot of celebrities have far more followers than do most leaders of business, governmental, religious, or not-for-profit organizations. Often, those celebrities and , seemingly, all of their actions – especially the less admirable ones – are widely publicized by various media. We can at least be grateful for those celebrities who consistently demonstrate attributes that are worth emulating.

For those of us in positions of influence in an organization, it’s obviously important that we do all we can to cultivate a culture that optimizes the potential for success of the organization and its people. Part of that involves reminding ourselves that, whether we like it or not, others are watching what we do and how we act in various situations. All of us need to do our best to conduct ourselves in ways that are worth emulating and that will enhance rather than detract from, not only the kind of organization we want, but also the kind of society we want for our children and grandchildren.


There are a lot of wonderful quotes on the subject of change. Some of my favorites are:

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”  –  J. Edwards Deming

Things will get better – despite our efforts to improve them.”  –  Will Rogers

Change is not a problem to be overcome. It is the essence of business success.”  –  From Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership by Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein

Change is debilitating when done to us, but exhilarating when done by us.” – Rosabeth Moss Kanter

People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.”  –  Richard Teerlink

No organization is so screwed up somebody doesn’t like it as it is.”  –  Anonymous

He stayed the same as before, but the same was no longer befitting.”  –  Cicero

Change is good. You go first.”  –  Dilbert

If you can’t learn to love change, at least learn to live with it without whining too much.”  –  Jim McClelland (I had to include one of my own)

There are three basic reasons for change in an organization:

  1. Sometimes we initiate change because we see an opportunity – including an opportunity to improve or innovate.
  2. Sometimes we initiate change because of something we think or fear might happen.
  3. Sometimes we are forced to change in response to something that has already happened.

We’ve had plenty of examples of all of these in our organization, as 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 been wildly successful, some have worked out reasonably well – at least for awhile, and some have been miserable failures. But we’ve learned from all of them. Over time, this approach has resulted in a culture in which change is normal and expected, though certainly not always loved and embraced.

In his book, Managing in a Time of Great Change, Peter Drucker wrote, “Society, community, and family all try to maintain stability and prevent, or at least slow down change. But the modern organization must be organized for innovation, or ‘creative destruction’. We should periodically ask of every process, product, procedure, and policy, ‘If we did not do this already, would we go into it now, knowing what we know now.’ If the answer is no, then we must do something – plan abandonment.”

The first time I had to shut down something I had started, it was difficult. Over time, though, as an increasing number of our initiatives have outlived their usefulness, we’ve become pretty good at it. Of course, we always try to minimize the impact of those changes on our people, and I’ve concluded that the more we can help our employees learn and grow, the better able they will be to adapt to the changes they will face – in our organization, with other employers, or in other aspects of their lives.

Continuous learning may, in fact, be one of the keys to effectively adapting in an era of rapid change. As Eric Hoffer wrote, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future, while the learned usually find themselves beautifully equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”