CEO's Corner: How Goodwill Forges On Amid the Jobless Recovery

Jim Gibbons
Jim Gibbons

'Tis the season to make charitable donations, and Jim Gibbons (pictured), CEO of Goodwill Industries International, hopes that his nonprofit will be on the receiving end as you make out your charity list and check it twice.

Gibbons says Goodwill, which has been around since 1902, is seeing more people than ever in need of its services amid an economic downturn that has left millions jobless. "The American family is really trying to stretch the dollar" to survive, he says.

DailyFinance chatted with Gibbons, who is blind, about how donations are holding up in a tough economy, Goodwill's job-training services and the benefits of bringing people with disabilities into the workforce. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

DailyFinance: How has Goodwill been affected by the economic downturn?

Gibbons: We have more and more people knocking on the Goodwill door for help, [and there's] a huge demand placed on the Goodwill network for job training and employment services.

The two big indicators, if you want to put it into categories, are services, which is what our organization is all about, why we exist. . .[and] the retail program, which really is a social enterprise that allows not only the employment platform for transitional employment, first-time opportunities and on-the-job training, but also funding other additional programs for our communities. The Goodwill donations and retail are doing pretty well in this economy. We're up a little over 10% in both donations and sales, and that is fueling the services and the employment generation for Goodwill.

Can you elaborate on some of the job-training services Goodwill provides?
Well, I think that the unique thing about the core model is all of the training that is provided on the local level is developed based on that community's opportunities. [One day] you can have extensive programs in construction, and [later the] training programs have moved on to health care. You have to morph to the needs of the community. We also have programs in retail and financial services. And for the 2 million people a year that we serve, we have a fundamental value that basic financial strengthening is important.

We have programs in the financial services center to support the banking industry. The banking industry is strong in our communities. We are working a lot with people who have skill sets that aren't necessary in their community anymore. Like the rest of this society, we're finding that people like an auto worker who was making really good money may not have any skill sets with Microsoft Office, Word, PowerPoint. Your 21st-century workforce has to be able to maneuver in a technological environment.

From your perspective, do you think that U.S. employers are doing enough to accommodate people with disabilities?
Only 32% of working-age adults with disabilities are employed. That statistic demonstrates that employers could be doing more.

The greatest employment obstacle facing people with disabilities is the misconception that they can't do the work adequately or that they need special considerations that come at a great expense. In fact, most employers report that it costs little or nothing to accommodate people with disabilities in the workplace. Additionally, these teammates have above-average records of job performance and dependability -- which improves productivity and lowers the cost of hiring and training.

If these reasons aren't enough, there may also be tax incentives to hiring people with disabilities, depending on where the business is operated. So the costs of accommodating employees with disabilities is more than made up for by the benefits they bring to the workplace. It's up to employers to take that first step and give workers with disabilities an opportunity.

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Back to the retail operations: Have you noticed a shift in the type of consumer entering Goodwill stores?
We are definitely seeing new faces in Goodwills across the country, and the economy definitely drives that. In recent history, I would characterize our shoppers and our donors as [having] pretty similar demographics. I would say it's the green shopper that's probably the newest face that we're seeing -- people that are really trying to do their part in society in terms of [reusing products].

We don't have strong data, but anecdotally, [the customers range from] the fashion diva to the person that just wants to be a little more nostalgic. But definitely across the socioeconomic spectrum: real people who work hard, who want to stretch the dollar, want to look good and want to have a positive shopping experience.

For the past decade, you've been offering an online shopping service that in many ways is similar to eBay. Can you tell us a little more about, [which is the largest auction site run by a nonprofit], grows at a run-rate of about 33% a year. Currently through our shopgoodwill program, we've done about $100 million worth of sales of unique, novel, nostalgic items. At any given time, there are 30,000 items on shopgoodwill. To make the holiday experience that much more meaningful, not only is it a good shopping experience, but shopgoodwill alone has allowed us to serve 33,000 people over its 10-year existence, on top of the other people that we serve in each local community. I think it's a good opportunity to be both practical and purposeful at the same time.

Of all of the nonprofits out there, why should someone choose to support Goodwill?
I think what everybody cares about when they write a check [for a charity] is that check being put to good use. And when you donate a closet of clothing, what we're finding is people care about convenience. We have more than 2,500 stores and another 2,000 donation centers around the country. So convenience definitely matters.

But people also care about the whys. Not only are we efficient in how we operate so that every dollar is optimized for that community, but I think Goodwill is an intersection point between caring and the community -- especially in an economy right now where job creation is of utmost importance. So the convenience and knowing that your contribution is being used responsibly are very important.