AbilityOne – a federal program that works very well

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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.

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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.

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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.

Second Chances

It’s not unusual to hear someone speak of America as a land of second chances. In this country, most people tend to be reasonably forgiving and willing to give a person another chance – most of the time and within limits, at least.

Neither is it unusual for me to hear people at Goodwill talk about how we or someone in our organization gave them a second chance. I frequently hear this from students in our Excel Centers. Our students are older youth and adults who, for any of a variety of reasons, had dropped out of school. While many of them later wanted to complete the work required for a diploma, the options available to them just didn’t fit their life circumstances.

Since we opened the first Excel Center, the demand for space in these unique high schools has been phenomenal. From 300 students in one location just three years ago, we now have nearly 3,000 students in nine central Indiana locations. All of our students have enrolled voluntarily, and most are grateful to have another chance to complete what they didn’t finish the first time around. Better yet, their opportunities don’t end when they receive their diploma. If they have the desire and are willing to put forth the necessary effort, Goodwill will continue to work with them until they attain a post-secondary credential, become employed, and remain in the workforce for at least a year.

There’s another group at Goodwill that is benefiting from a second chance. Over 300 of our employees have criminal records, and many of them have had a very hard time finding an employer who would give them an opportunity to start life anew. Does it always work out? Of course not. But most of the time, it does. The benefits – to the individuals who have been given a second chance and to our society at large – are huge.

Throughout its history, Goodwill has employed a lot of people few others seemed willing to hire – whether because of a disability, a criminal history, a low education level, or some other barrier. In many cases, rather than a second chance, Goodwill has given them a first chance to become productive, contributing citizens.

There are limits, of course. While we are happy to work with those who put forth their best effort and try to do a good job, those who make it difficult or impossible for us to trust them will seldom find another opportunity in our organization. Neither will those who demonstrate a pattern of treating others poorly.

On the other hand, employees who demonstrate good work habits and a good attitude, consistently treat others with respect, have a genuine desire to improve their education and skill levels, and are willing to put forth the necessary effort to do so may qualify for assistance from Goodwill that can lead to better career opportunities with us or with another employer. The options available through Goodwill or other entities with which we have strong relationships are greater than ever.

One of Goodwill’s historic values is that we provide opportunities, not charity, and foster development, not dependency. That value is just as strong today as it was when Goodwill was founded in the early years of the 20th century – whether it’s a first, second, or maybe even a third chance.

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.

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.

Adapting to Technological Changes

The fastest growing part of our organization is our ecommerce unit. By enabling us to sell many items for substantially more than they would sell for in a Goodwill store, our ecommerce operations enable us to be better stewards of the goods people give us. The growth of our ecommerce operations has also created a lot of jobs, as we currently have nearly 100 employees at clickgoodwill.com – over twice as many as we had at the beginning of this year.

Down through the years, technological changes have eliminated some jobs and created new ones. At Goodwill, for example, when I started my career we repaired radios and television sets. Doing so wasn't too difficult in those days. The sets used vacuum tubes (younger readers, look it up on Wikipedia), and we had a tube tester. Check the tubes, replace the bad ones, and many of the sets would work just fine. Vacuum tubes were eventually replaced by solid state electronics, and this effectively put an end to our repairing radios and TVs.

During those same years, we also repaired toasters and other small appliances. Over time, though, technological improvements in the manufacturing processes and increased sophistication of the products, coupled with rising labor costs, made many new small appliances less expensive than the cost of repairing broken ones. Fortunately, in more recent years, technological improvements have also helped create recycling and secondary markets for many products that can no longer be repaired economically.

Another example: From 1974 till 1992, we manufactured high quality oak file boxes for 3×5 and 5×8 cards for the federal government. For quite a few years we had 18 employees – most of them people with disabilities – who produced an average of 50,000 boxes a year. But over time, as the use of personal computers rose, the use of file cards fell and, consequently, the government didn’t need as many of the boxes. Eventually, the volume declined to the point where we exited that business.

Our involvement in online retailing began very slowly about twelve years ago after Goodwill in Orange County, CA created shopgoodwill.com. The Orange County Goodwill continues to maintain that 7-day auction site, which is designed to enable any Goodwill organization to post items on it. About five years ago, we began to increase our use of shopgoodwill.com, and we also began posting some books on several book-selling Web sites. We subsequently added CDs, DVDs, video games, and jewelry to the array of items we could effectively sell online. Better software and packaging equipment have improved our efficiencies to a remarkable degree, and we believe there is enormous additional growth potential in that part of our organization.

Of course, as is the case at most relatively large organizations, new technologies have created other entirely new departments at Goodwill. Known in many companies as IT (Information Technology), in our organization it’s TS (Technology Solutions). Composed of bright, talented people, TS keeps us connected, helps develop and optimize uses of technology to improve our effectiveness, and helps us be good stewards of our resources. As the organization continues to evolve, so too do the services of the Technology Solutions department.

While we’ve come a long way, we can be sure that technological changes will continue to create new challenges and opportunities for us. We can also be sure that if we do not adapt well enough to those changes, we will be left behind – less effective, perhaps irrelevant, and in a worst-case scenario maybe even extinct.