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The View from an “Old” Social Enterprise: An Interview with Jim Gibbons

By Nell Edgington

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Jim Gibbons, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International. Goodwill is such an interesting case because the organization has been practicing social entrepreneurship since long before it became cool, which I’ve talked about before. Goodwill started in 1902 in Boston and in 2010 provided jobs and job training to 2.4 million people with a budget of $4 billion. Gibbons earned his B.S. in industrial engineering from Purdue University, and a M.B.A. from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, where he was the first blind person to graduate with a master’s in business administration.

You also can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: Goodwill has employed a social enterprise model for over a century, long before social entrepreneurship was a buzzword. What made Goodwill so forward-thinking?

Jim: Goodwill is often referred to as “the original social enterprise” particularly by leading social entrepreneurs in the field such as Jim Fruchterman. Goodwill’s roots are deeply established in the belief of the human potential of dignity and self-sufficiency, and in an early learning that the people we serve want a “hand up, not a hand out.” Our founder, Reverend Edgar J. Helms, engrained in our culture his strongly held belief that we must challenge the status quo and be “dissatisfied until every person with a disability or disadvantage has an opportunity to develop to their fullest potential.” This drives the entrepreneurial spirit that exists at every independent, community-based Goodwill agency, allowing them to continually adapt and reinvent themselves in order to meet the needs of local communities.

Nell: How do you think an “old-fashioned” nonprofit like Goodwill fits into this growing social innovation movement? How do you make sure Goodwill is part of that movement and doesn’t get left behind?

Jim: The Goodwill brand is a household name and fortunately still leads efforts in social entrepreneurism, community collaborations and innovation. By staying ahead of the curve, we don’t fall behind. Goodwills are relentless in their desire to understand and meet the needs of the diverse local communities in which they operate. Goodwills challenge themselves to remain relevant and meaningful to the three million people we collectively serve each year. Goodwills across the United States and Canada have found the sweet spot of uniting enterprise with caring, ensuring that our social enterprise model is optimized in a way that empowers people and builds communities that work.

Nell: Goodwill has many more competitors these days than it did 10 years ago, particularly from for-profit competitors. How do you manage the competitive landscape and is it having a negative effect on your model?

Jim: As a market leader in this space, Goodwill always keeps its eye on external forces. We use our social enterprise model to advance millions of people who might not otherwise have the tools or help to succeed in life. We admire legitimate and credible nonprofits that leverage similar models to achieve their mission. While we do not condone the practices of those who market themselves to the public as something they are not, we welcome fair and honest competition, as we have earned the trust and support of more than 66 million customers as well as the people we serve every day. Goodwill earns the trust of shoppers by providing excellent value for their hard earned money. In addition, we earn the trust of donors through the assurance that we maximize the value of their donations in order to return the most benefit to the people we serve in local communities. At Goodwill, your donations generate opportunities for people to achieve economic stability, and build strong families and vibrant communities by offering job training, employment placement services and other community-based programs, such as financial education and youth mentoring. In addition, 84 percent of Goodwill’s revenues go directly into these programs, so members of the public can be sure that their donation(s) will have a direct impact on the people in your community. Last year, Goodwill’s retail enterprise revenues grew more than 12.5 percent, indicating that the public, even with increased for-profit competition, still values and trusts Goodwill.

In addition, we plan to remain a market leader through responsible community leadership. Across the United States and in Canada, we are working with municipalities and local governments to ensure that misleading donation bins are clearly marked so that the public is aware of whether or not their donations go to help someone in need, or if they simply add to a company’s profits. We also teach donors to check out a charity’s legitimacy and revenue information about overhead and administrative costs by contacting their attorney general or secretary of state’s office, a charity rating agency such as Charity Navigator or GuideStar, or online resources such as GreatNonprofits or Philanthropedia.

Nell: What do you do at Goodwill to continually innovate and reinvent the model? How is it possible to continue to innovate at a 100+ year old organization?

Jim: It’s not only possible to innovate, it’s necessary if we want to remain a leader in our market. At Goodwill, we don’t think of innovation as the creation of the next iPhone, but rather as the next idea that allows us to serve the communities we’re a part of in the most meaningful and impactful way. For example, at the Goodwill Industries of South Florida (Miami), they innovate every day and put thousands of people with disabilities back to work. People with disabilities enrolled in their programs learn apparel manufacturing, flag manufacturing, document destruction, and janitorial services. The Goodwill offers a broad range of flexible business solutions to private and public companies, while helping their employees achieve their independence. And it doesn’t stop there. We are committed to customizing the assistance workers need to achieve their peak performance, and we encourage them to continue to advance in their careers.

In Winston-Salem, NC, and Eugene, OR, (Goodwill Industries of Lane and South Coast Counties), we deploy ’Prosperity Centers’ that optimize community resources and drive community collaboration for the benefit of the people. Prosperity Centers are dedicated to assisting people in the community to succeed financially. That doesn’t just mean helping workers find jobs; it means giving them all the tools they need to build financial security and independence once they have a job, including resume-writing assistance, skills assessment, career counseling, access to computer and high-speed internet, and help with interviewing skills and financial counseling. At each of these centers, financial professionals talk to participants about their financial goals, and help them come up with a personal plan to meet those goals, whether that’s regularly paying their bills on time, reducing personal debt, starting savings to go to school, or investing in a big purchase like a car or home. With like-minded agencies partnering together, they are able to harness their resources, eliminate redundancies, strengthen their impact, focus the delivery of their services to meet the needs of local communities, and have a meaningful impact on their citizens.

At the San Francisco Goodwill, we’ve deployed the “Back On Track” program. A partnership with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the Family Services Agency, “Back On Track” provides intensive case management to individuals who have been arrested for a non-violent, first-time drug sale felony. Goodwill provides job readiness workshops, case management, career advising, life skills workshops and job training and education placement. For every individual we train, we save the government an estimated $20,000 in jail/prison costs. This program has a less than 10 percent recidivism rate – compared to a 75 percent rate with other programs.

In Cincinnati, the Ohio Valley Goodwill Industries, paves an example for other service organizations that provide services to veterans. One hundred percent of the veterans they serve are homeless, and many have physical disabilities or mental health issues such as PTSD and TBI. Each veteran has a case manager who works with him or her to develop an individualized program plan. The Goodwill provides transitional housing for these veterans and strives to provide services to them in a holistic manner in order to achiever lasting success, a return to family, community and self-sufficient living. All of these innovative examples are shared across the Goodwill network, and modified and adapted to best meet the needs of local communities.

Nell: Goodwill is pretty active in the social media space and in fact you do a fair bit of Tweeting yourself (@jdgibbons). How have you integrated social media into your mission? What does it allow you to do?

Jim: Goodwill is a networked enterprise where the local Goodwills make up the heart and soul of the brand, and they participate in social media with aligned brand messages that communicate their local activities and impact. We’ve integrated social media into our global and national communication strategies in a powerful way because it’s an awesome tool for educating people about our brand. And we’re giving attention to having real conversations at the level that is important to our stakeholders and builds relationships with them.

Nell: You were recently appointed by President Obama to the White House Council for Community Solutions, which is a pretty interesting group working on bringing the public, private and nonprofit sectors together to solve problems. What is that group working on and what results are you seeing so far?

Jim: It’s exciting to work with a group of leaders from a variety of sectors to raise awareness on how collaborations solve problems in a profound way. Recently, the Council announced its commitment to expand job opportunities for youth through the White House Summer Jobs+ initiative. The initiative is a call-to-action for businesses, nonprofits and the government to provide opportunities for youth to obtain life skills, education, training, and social supports that are relevant for long-term employment, and to work together to provide pathways to employment for youth ages 16-24 (referred to as ‘opportunity youth’) who are low-income or face disadvantages to finding employment and related opportunities.

Goodwill will be supporting the Summer Jobs+ program by hiring 1,200 youth ages 16 to 24. Goodwills across the country will also provide more than 3,200 youth with life skills services, including communications, time management and teamwork; more than 2,300 youth will receive work skills services. In addition, 2,000 youth will be provided learn and earn opportunities, where they will gain the ability to acquire their first paid employment position, either through the form of paid internships or permanent positions that provide on-the-job training at Goodwill locations. Thousands of additional youth will also be provided with virtual career mentoring and exploration services.

The Summer Jobs+ initiative was created in response to research that shows that at least one in six young people ages 16-24 are disconnected from the two systems that offer the greatest hope for their future: school and work.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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