Edgar Helms was a Cornell grad and ordained Methodist minister hunkered down in a South Boston outpost in 1902 fighting some of the city’s worst poverty. His building was collapsing, the nation was in a depression, and his church lacked funds. A staff member suggested they repair and sell the used clothes often received as donations. Helms realized clothes donations were easier to collect than monetary ones and that a market existed for cleaned and repaired clothes. But he was even more attracted by the fact that the process would provide what his congregation most needed: employment.
In 1905, Helms incorporated the first branch of what became Goodwill Industries. Helms differed from many poverty-fighters of his day. Some focused on single problems like drunkenness among the poor. Others bypassed direct service to poor persons in favor of lobbying government for reforms of housing, medical care, and wages. Helms insisted that what the poor most needed was work that would make them self-reliant and self-respecting. “You can’t help a man by doubting him. When he tells us he wants work, we assume that he does,” Helms explained, stressing that the poor need “a chance, not a charity.”
In 1915, Helms’s innovative program spread to Brooklyn. Then, in 1919, the Methodist church provided several hundred thousand dollars of seed money that helped Goodwill expand across America, Canada, and abroad. By the mid-1930s Goodwill Industries had 100 branches in the U.S., and others in foreign countries. During the Great Depression Goodwill narrowed its focus to employment of men and women with disabilities, a specialty it has preserved to this day.
The founder’s most important legacy may be the decentralized structure of his organization. The 165 local Goodwill branches can assist each other and request advice and aid from the world headquarters, but each is autonomous in policy and funding—a stark contrast to centralized nonprofits like the Red Cross and Catholic Charities. The central office’s budget is dwarfed by those of branches in cities like Milwaukee and Houston. Yet the movement is vast: nearly $5 billion in worldwide revenues; over 3,000 stores in the U.S., Canada, and 13 other countries; and workforce training provided to 26 million persons in a great variety of fields. The central office’s current CEO, Jim Gibbons, echoes Helms’s original principle: “We believe work is the mechanism by which people gain financial and personal independence.”
- Goodwill timeline, goodwill.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/First_100_Years_Timeline.pdf
- Philanthropy magazine profile, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/goodwill_industries
- Beatrice Plumb, The Goodwill Man: Edgar J. Helms (Denison & Co., 1965)