Some thoughts upon retiring from a long career

The “farewell” tour I’ve made during the months leading up to my retirement has been one of the highlights of my entire career. Listening to the stories and hearing the comments of hundreds of employees and students, I’ve never felt better about the organization – our people, our culture, and what we are doing.

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There’s no doubt that the impact Goodwill is having is far greater than ever. The way we are linking services internally and with other organizations in a holistic, multi-generational approach is, I’m confident, going to have lasting impact and help begin to reduce some major social problems. And yet, there’s so much more that needs to be done.

My career has been a constant learning and growing process, but the learning really began accelerating in 2004 when we became directly involved in public education by opening the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.

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Since then, Goodwill has evolved at a rapid rate that has further accelerated the learning throughout the organization. And while we don’t claim to have all the answers, based on our experiences as well as what we’ve learned from others during the past decade, I’m convinced that if we are ever going to substantially reduce a lot of the social problems that are plaguing U.S. society today, we must:

  • Continue working vigorously to raise education attainment levels, and we must ensure that at every step along the way we’re preparing students well for what comes next.
  • Greatly increase the number of affordable, accessible, high quality early childhood development opportunities for children in low income households. Because of the way the brain develops, the years 0-3 are even more important than ages 3-5. The earlier we start, the better.

In addition, to break a cycle of poverty, we need to take a long-term, holistic, multi-generational approach that leverages the resources and capabilities of multiple organizations within and across the sectors in focused ways designed to prevent problems, help kids develop, strengthen families, and make much more effective use of existing resources.

Goodwill in central Indiana is taking such an approach with a growing number of families and organizations, and that approach is attracting a growing amount of national attention. But while others can learn from our experiences, we must also continue to learn from others.

And while Goodwill’s board of directors and new CEO, Kent Kramer, will determine the organization’s direction going forward, there’s a strong base of knowledge and experience to build on and a lot of resources that can be deployed to further increase impact.

I don’t know what the organization we’ve built will look like ten years from now, but I know it will be different. Goodwill must continue trying new ways to grow its businesses and accomplish its mission; it must continue to learn; and it must continue to adapt as the world around it changes. Yet while I can’t predict what the organization will look like a decade from now, I do hope to be around watching from the sidelines, and I fully expect to be amazed!

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Our Corporate Social Responsibility as an Employer

The organization I lead now has over 3,200 employees, two-thirds of whom have limited options because of a disability, criminal history, low education level, or other significant barrier. And while there are a lot of part time employees among those 3,200, nearly half of them are the primary source of income in their households. That places an enormous responsibility on those of us in leadership positions to run the organization really well so we can continue to provide a livelihood for all those people who are counting on us. And we don’t take that responsibility lightly.

What we do matters. If we’re not paying attention to what’s going on around us and we allow ourselves to be blindsided, it matters. If we become myopic, complacent, or arrogant; if we fail to take care of our customers; if we fail to recognize what our competition is doing or fail to see new competitors or new forms of competition that are emerging, it matters. If we don’t successfully adapt to changes in our environment – changes in technology, demographics, the legal or regulatory landscape, or the larger economy, it matters. Even worse, if we cut corners, act unethically or illegally, take actions that might benefit us in the short run, but that will eventually result in long term damage, it matters tremendously. How we go about our work matters just as much as the work itself. And all of these things matter to a lot of people who are likely to lose their jobs if those of us running the organization aren’t doing our jobs as well as we possibly can. And if we let that happen, we should and probably will lose our jobs, too.

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On the other hand, if we are paying attention to what’s going on around us; if we’re recognizing opportunities, trying new ways to grow our businesses and accomplish our mission; if we are operating according to high ethical standards; if we’re continuing to learn and adapt; if we’re being good stewards of our resources; and if we’re treating everyone with respect and providing the kind of workplace and culture that enables our people to grow, we’re likely to see our organization grow, evolve, and employ more people. Fortunately, that’s been our recent experience, as we’ve added over 1,000 jobs in central Indiana and increased our revenue by 55% in the last five years.

Of course, our experiences haven’t always been that positive, and no employer can guarantee that any job will last forever. Changes in our external environment are occurring at an incredible rate and require near constant adaptation. Along the way, some jobs disappear while others are created. Some people learn and adapt to changing circumstances and requirements, others don’t.

Our approach is to do the best job we can to grow the organization in a financially responsible manner while simultaneously increasing our mission-related impact. In addition, while recognizing that each of us is primarily responsible for continuing to learn all our lives, as an employer, we are often in a position to help our people learn and grow, improve their education, and earn credentials that enhance their future employment prospects. Then, if circumstances beyond the control of an individual result in the loss of a job, at least the person affected is likely to be better prepared for his/her next step than might have been the case otherwise.

In my opinion, when a company is operating in a manner that enhances the prospects it will be able to continue providing a livelihood for its employees, and when that company is doing all it can to help its employees learn and grow, it is exercising what might be considered its most important corporate social responsibility.

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.

The gap between public perception and reality

I once heard a newspaper publisher make a speech in which he bemoaned the fact that people didn’t really understand the newspaper business. I thought about this a bit and came to the conclusion that any of us could probably say something similar about the businesses we are in. Even if we once thought we understood someone else’s business, organizations that survive over long periods of time aren’t standing still. They’re changing in ways that are often not visible to the general public. Public perception often lags reality, and the faster the rate of change within an organization, the greater the gap between what the organization actually is and public perception of it.

Over the past decade, Goodwill in central Indiana has evolved at such a rapid rate that even people who have been relatively close to the organization are not aware of some of what we are now doing, the approaches we are taking to our work, or the impact we are having in the larger community.

For starters, most people have no idea we are as large as we are. With 3,000 employees – two-thirds with a disability, criminal history, low education level, or other barrier – we are still doing what the founder of Goodwill set out to do more than 110 years ago – provide work for people with few options. We’re just doing it for a lot more people.

We have also become significantly involved in public education – especially of older youth and adults. This fall we will operate 10 schools with a total of more than 3,000 students. Nine of those schools are Excel Centers – a unique concept we created three years ago that enables adults to complete requirements for a high school diploma and begin working toward a post-secondary credential that will enhance their earnings potential.

More recently, we have begun operating Nurse-Family Partnership, a highly effective home visitation program that helps first-time mothers in low income households improve pregnancy outcomes, child health and development, and the economic self-sufficiency of the family. Our nurses are currently working with over 350 expectant moms and new moms to whom 220 babies have been born. It’s a 30-month program with lifelong benefits.

Equally exciting is the extent to which we are now able to link individuals and families with education, employment, health and family services in a holistic approach to help people move out of poverty. We don’t provide all of the services ourselves. Rather, we work with many other organizations whose capabilities and resources complement Goodwill’s. As this approach has grown in recent years, our organization has begun resembling a network of networks – an approach that makes better use of overall community resources and is much more effective than the more common fragmented approach.

The financial base for what we do is provided by our donated goods/retail operations, which also employ two-thirds of our 3,000 employees. Thus, we are dependent on hundreds of thousands of residents who donate goods and shop in our stores.

All of this is a lot more than meets the eye of the general public. Lack of knowledge or – worse yet – misleading information or misinformation that can arise from taking small pieces of what we do out of context can be damaging. One of our challenges is to find ways to improve public knowledge of Goodwill’s wide array of services and the impact of those services in the lives of people and the communities in which we operate. The better we can do that, the better we will be able to reduce the gap between perception and reality.

Networks – a way to reduce social problems

Poverty, low education levels, crime rates, teen pregnancy, and a host of health issues are all interrelated. They tend to reinforce and compound each other. Yet, as a society, we don’t treat them as if they’re related.

The public sector consists of a lot of large silos – among them are health, education, social services, workforce development, law enforcement, housing, transportation – that don’t often communicate well, if at all, with each other. There are even silos within the silos that don’t communicate well with each other. Meanwhile, the not-for-profit sector is incredibly fragmented, consisting of hundreds of thousands of mostly small organizations that do good work, but that are typically focused on one problem or one target population or one often tiny geographic area. They have great difficulty aggregating capital or talent to replicate what works and achieve scale.

Neither sector is structured to deal effectively with complex social problems. Perhaps this is a major reason why so many social indicators have worsened over the last forty years, despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations.

It is unrealistic to think we can remake either sector. And experience indicates that if add another layer of bureaucracy in an attempt to better coordinate the activities of various silos, we will most likely accomplish nothing significant other than to further increase costs.

So what can we do?

A lot of what exists is good. But we can do a much better job of aligning and leveraging the resources and capabilities of various entities in focused ways to improve overall impact and make much more effective use of the total resources. We can do this by creating networks that bring together organizations with common interests and complementary resources to work with each other to accomplish a goal with clear, measurable objectives.

There must be a strong organization at the center of the network; the roles of each participant must be clearly defined; and the participants must trust each other. If all of these ingredients are present, a lot can be accomplished. Here is one example from our own experience.

Recently, our organization has begun operating Nurse-Family Partnership in Indianapolis. This is a highly effective nurse-led home visiting program for first-time parents in low income households that begins during pregnancy and continues until the child turns two. Implementation in other states has proven to have immense long term impact. In our community, Goodwill is the implementing organization. Funding comes from a federal grant and is administered through a contract with the Indiana State Department of Health. Referrals come from an array of sources including hospital systems, other health-related organizations, schools and social services organizations. A community advisory board includes nursing experts in prenatal and early childhood, physicians, hospitals, and social services representatives. An independent continuous quality improvement system established under the direction of the State Department of Health measures and tracks performance.

In addition, Goodwill is connecting parents who are enrolled in the program with education and employment opportunities. Goodwill also provides assistance in solving problems related to housing, transportation, and child care.

Our approach enables families to access education, employment, health-related services, training in good parenting skills, and other services through a long term relationship that we believe can substantially improve the lives of the Nurse-Family Partnership parents and their children and help break a cycle of generational poverty. It is a holistic, whole family approach that leverages existing resources to help accomplish something that otherwise probably would not be accomplished as well, if at all.

This is one example in one community. But it illustrates an approach that could be taken by many organizations in many communities to help improve overall impact and the productivity and effectiveness of both the public and the not-for-profit sectors.