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.

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What goes around comes around – a brief historical perspective

In the late 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, the small Goodwill organization in Indianapolis was offering the following services:

  • A kindergarten
  • A pre-natal clinic
  • A dental clinic for school children
  • In conjunction with the Marion County Medical Society and Methodist Hospital, a home-based health care program
  • Classes for female heads of households. Topics included childcare, food preparation and purchasing, and how to run a household when a spouse is in prison
  • A library with books that mothers could read to their children

And yes, the organization also provided jobs in Goodwill stores. While the available resources and number of people served were small, the approach Goodwill took in those days was – using current terminology – holistic and dealt with the whole family.

When the U.S. became involved in World War II, Goodwill’s primary emphasis shifted to employing people – particularly people with disabilities – who previously had few, if any employment opportunities. Following the war, an emphasis on vocational rehabilitation was added. For the next forty years, Goodwill’s primary mission could be paraphrased as helping people – primarily, but not exclusively people with disabilities – prepare for, find, and keep jobs.

By the early 1990s, major societal changes – some of which began gaining momentum in the 1960s – prompted Goodwill to become involved in several initiatives designed to address growing social problems. Eventually, we launched efforts to try to improve education outcomes for young people who had struggled or failed in other settings. Those experiences, in turn, made us increasingly aware of the need to work with students and their families in a much more holistic manner.

Simultaneously, we began seeing a great deal of dismaying data that vividly illustrated the long term negative trends of a number of significant social indicators, despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations. We also began searching for programs that have demonstrated long term positive impact reducing social problems.

As a result of all of this, we have begun implementing Nurse-Family Partnership in Marion County. In addition to the basic, nurse-led services offered under this highly regarded, evidence-based national program, each mom or mom-to-be will be linked with a Goodwill Guide who can assist her in accessing education services (e.g. through Goodwill’s Excel Centers) and/or employment opportunities (e.g. in Goodwill’s retail system). The Guide will also advise the mom on financial matters, housing and transportation, child care, and health care. It is a holistic, whole family approach that we believe can help reduce generational poverty.

With and for parents who so desire, we intend to take a similar holistic approach with the children of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School students and graduates, Excel Center students and graduates, Goodwill employees with barriers, and families of all of these individuals. To the extent possible and desired by the parents, we intend to maintain these relationships for a long period of time – ideally, until the children are grown.

As this approach develops, it may increasingly resemble Goodwill’s approach in the late 1930s – only with much greater scale, current information and technology, and, hopefully, long lasting impact – in the lives of people and in the larger community.

Employing people with limited options

Employing people with limited options – Nothing we do is more important

At Goodwill, the collection and sale of used goods has always been a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The organization grew out of an effort to provide an earned income stream for unemployed people – most of them recent immigrants – in the south end of Boston at the beginning of the 20th century. Jobs were scarce, and there was no government safety net. The founder of Goodwill, Edgar Helms, went to the wealthy areas of Boston and asked people to give him the goods they no longer wanted. He put people to work repairing the goods, sold the goods to the public, and used the money to pay wages to the workers.

Today, at Goodwill Industries in central Indiana, we have nearly 2,500 employees, over 1,400 of whom work in our retail system. That system includes 50 retail stores, three warehouse and distribution centers, recycling and secondary market operations, and a rapidly growing e-commerce unit. Largely because of the growth of that system in recent years, we have 1,000 more employees in our organization than we did five years ago.

More significantly, 68% of our employees have limited work options because of disability, criminal history, or lack of a high school diploma. And it’s particularly important to note that for 50% of our employees we are the primary source of income in their households. That places an enormous responsibility on those of us in senior positions to run the organization well enough that we will be able to continue providing a livelihood for all of those people who are counting on us. And we take that responsibility very seriously.

Our retail system is also the financial backbone of the entire organization, and in that system our business and mission objectives are tightly woven together. In addition, cash from retail operations helps support other Goodwill services that do not generate enough revenue to sustain themselves.

While Goodwill adds value in the community in several ways, nothing we do is more important than providing jobs for people with limited options. Certainly, the importance of that role is magnified during periods of relatively high unemployment. We also have a responsibility to provide as many opportunities as possible for those individuals to improve their education and/or enhance their skills so they might eventually qualify for higher paying jobs with us or with another employer.

Of course, our ability to employ people over long periods of time is dependent on our ability to operate businesses well over a long period of time. If those businesses are growing, we can often employ more people. Fortunately, we’ve been able to do that for quite a few decades.

It’s particularly noteworthy that the part of our organization that employs the largest number of people has been with us from the start. It’s survived wars, the Great Depression, several recessions, and many other changes in the economy, demographics, technology, competition, laws and regulations, as well as occasional natural disasters. But the future of that business is not guaranteed. We must take nothing for granted.

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.