The Magnificence of the Ordinary

(Note: This piece was first posted in December 2013).

While solutions to major social problems must be macro in scale, in the final analysis we must see results in the lives of individual people. As Peter Drucker reminded us, the purpose of any not-for-profit organization is to change lives.

As we offer opportunities to help others improve their lives, the changes can often be in ways that on the surface might seem unremarkable.  As we look deeper, though, we discover that often they are really much more.  Here are some brief sketches of a few people I’ve been fortunate to know during my career.

Cheryl dropped out of high school. She came to Goodwill, learned keyboard skills, got a GED, got a driver’s license, and got a job. A few years later she got married, then had a son.  She’s now been married for over 30 years, and their son has graduated from college.  Cheryl has worked nearly all her adult life.

Sounds pretty ordinary until you learn that Cheryl was born with no arms.  When you know this, you begin to realize that there is nothing ordinary about Cheryl’s life and that, in fact, what she has done with her life is truly magnificent.

Bobby worked at Goodwill. When he was 36 years old one of our staff helped him learn how to write his name and tell time.  For weeks, every time he would see me he would ask me if I knew what time it was. Then he would tell me. For most people, learning how to write your name and tell time are pretty ordinary accomplishments. For Bobby, though, they were magnificent achievements.

Steve was severely limited by cerebral palsy. He used a motorized wheelchair and communicated by using a keyboard with a voice synthesizer. He worked for several years on a contract Goodwill has to do janitorial work in a large federal building in Indianapolis. With a broom attached to his wheelchair, Steve swept 1-1/2 miles of corridors every day. He absolutely loved his job and his co-workers.

One day, Steve was in his motorized wheelchair crossing a street. While he was in a marked crosswalk, a car hit him, killing him instantly.

Many people would not have considered a person doing such an ordinary – and to some, a menial – task to be a success. But Steve exceeded everyone’s expectations – except possibly his own – and worked at a level many would never have thought possible. And he was happy doing it. For Steve, what to most people might have seemed so ordinary was truly magnificent.

When I started working for Goodwill, a member of our board of directors told me he thought Goodwill was amazing. The way he saw it, we took goods people no longer wanted and people no one else wanted to hire and combined them to create self-sustaining employment for a lot of people who otherwise would have been sitting at home surviving on public assistance. To him, ordinary household goods and ordinary people combined to produce something extraordinary and magnificent.

As we get caught up in the busyness of day-to-day work and life, it can be easy to take for granted a lot of what we as an organization and many of our people do so well day in and day out. Fortunately, though, when I see examples such as those I’ve mentioned and many others, I am reminded that much of what we tend to think of as pretty ordinary is much more than that. In fact, much of it is truly magnificent.

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.

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.

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.