“A chance, not a charity,” was how Edgar Helms, the founder of Goodwill Industries International, described the organization he founded in 1902. Over the ensuing hundred-plus years, the organization has stayed true to Helms’ core values: self-reliance, self-help, and self-respect for the jobless and needy.
Born in 1863, Helms was a distinguished graduate of Cornell and a divinity student at Boston University. His first ministerial assignment took him to a struggling mission in the South End of Boston, where he was shocked to discover the poverty of much of his congregation. Largely immigrant, unlettered, with few skills and generally considered unemployable, his flock lived in one of the worst slums in the United States.
Helms, like many of his contemporaries, had been profoundly influenced by the Social Gospel movement, which dedicated itself to solving societal ills as a means toward salvation. Inspired by the movement’s insistence on strenuous self-improvement, Helms rejected mere handouts for the poor, favoring instead what today would be called job training. With burlap sacks slung over their shoulders, Helms and his wife made the rounds of Boston’s affluent neighborhoods collecting worn-out, used, and unwanted items. Helms would then employ his congregants at $4 per day (sometimes in vouchers for goods when money was tight) to repair and resell the items at low cost. He thus created a market of affordable goods—and the jobs to help people afford them.
Central to Helms’ mission was the transformative power of work. “You can’t help a man by doubting him,” he told an interviewer. “When he tells us he wants to work, we assume that he does. When you give a man a job, you are not dealing with a pauper. He is not an applicant for charity. He wants to give something for what he receives, so we do not need to make ‘investigation’ the first item of our program.”
Helms’ idea took off, and he quickly began to expand in the United States and internationally. While Methodist seed money fueled its earliest expansion, it quickly became a secular nonprofit in order to maximize its reach. But it has never lost its roots as an enterprise that seeks to build self-reliance. “We believe work is the mechanism by which people gain financial and personal independence,” says Jim Gibbons, the CEO of Goodwill Industries, International, the global giant that perpetuates Helms’ founding credo.
A giant it is: Goodwill Industries is a $4.5 billion enterprise, with stores in the U.S., Canada, and 13 foreign countries. Its 2,800 stores have more than 100,000 “team members,” and upwards of 85 percent of its sales go back into the community in the form of salaries, job training programs, and other work-focused assistance. Only 2 percent of its budget comes from traditional private donations; two-thirds comes from sales of donated goods, while the rest comes from federal, state, and local grants to administer job training, counseling, and placement programs.
A graduate of Harvard Business School—indeed, the first blind Harvard MBA—and a former telecom executive, Gibbons has the background to match the typical multinational CEO. But his role is somewhat different, since Goodwill Industries, befitting the organization’s entrepreneurial ethos, is decentralized, with each local Goodwill answering to a local board that sets operational goals. “I can’t sit in [Goodwill’s headquarters in suburban] D.C. and figure out what they need in Akron,” says Gibbons. “My job is to find the good ideas and help other Goodwills steal them, for lack of a better word.”
To Gibbons, the century-old organization is “more relevant than ever.” In a down economy, with widespread unemployment, Goodwill is experiencing substantial growth, with plans for continued international expansion in countries (like Brazil) with a growing middle class to donate goods and a persistent impoverished class that needs them and the jobs they provide.
The “social enterprise”—don’t call it a charity—has worked to keep pace with the rising need by educating consumers on the power of a donation through a number of online tools. For example, the “donation calculator” at donategoodwill.com, spells out exactly how a donation can help the needy. Think of it as an Internet-age equivalent of Edgar Helms hauling around burlap sacks, looking to give needy people a chance, but never a charity.
Justin Torres was a contributing editor to Philanthropy until 2018.