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.
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.