Interview with Jim Gibbons

Goodwill's CEO discusses social enterprise and the power of work.

I n an office park outside the Washington Beltway in Maryland, there’s a nondescript building marked “Member Services ­Center.” It’s the headquarters—or, better put, anti-headquarters—of Goodwill Industries. Goodwill is one of America’s most effective trainers and employers of disabled, formerly addicted, and special-needs adults, and with more than 3,100 stores, hundreds of workforce programs, and over $5 billion of revenue every year, it is a sprawling enterprise. ­Goodwill, though, is not a centralized institution; it’s a network—an association of 164 independent Goodwill members, each with its own board, business practices, and income streams.

This nonprofit ecosystem is loosely guided by Jim Gibbons. The Indiana native graduated from Purdue University despite losing the last of his vision during college, became the first blind person to graduate from Harvard’s MBA program, oversaw a subsidiary of AT&T, and ran National Industries for the Blind before becoming Goodwill president in 2008.


Philanthropy sat with Gibbons to learn more about his organization’s mission, its decentralized structure, the barriers to work and self-support among workers with challenges, and how he manages and teaches resilience.

Philanthropy: Some of us may recognize Goodwill only as a thrift store. What are we missing?

Gibbons: Retailing used goods is our social enterprise. Our mission revolves around work and employment and services that help individuals overcome barriers so they can experience the power of work. Goodwill branches run programs that support people as they seek independence.

Last week I gave a speech to a group of nurses, and the president of the association came up to me and said, “I love Goodwill. Everything I have on right now is from Goodwill. But mostly I love the mission that revolves around employment.” She got the whole equation, so I didn’t need to say anything!

We do our own training and employment. There are also 75 Goodwills in partnerships with 144 community colleges to help individuals get specialized work credentials. People have children and daycare challenges and financial management needs that create barriers to working, and we help with those too.

Our 3,100 stores give us an inspirational brand. We were the only nonprofit to keep company with for-profits like Apple and Disney in a recent Forbes report. And our social enterprise is not only a business—it is a mission-delivery vehicle. We’re able to create direct work opportunities for people who would otherwise be jobless and socially isolated.

Philanthropy: When you talk about the power of work, what do you mean?

Gibbons: Work is part of every person’s identity. It’s how we gain not only economic independence, but personal independence. It’s really the core of a healthy community and a successful society.

When a Methodist minister founded Goodwill in 1902, he had this idea to collect used goods and give them to the poor, mostly immigrants in the Boston area. But when he put all these used goods together in a room, many of them in poor condition, it created an undignified environment.

He realized there’s another way to do this. He started hiring immigrants to repair and sell products, and the first Goodwill store was born. He went from town to town, from Methodist church to Methodist church to build it, and now it’s a group of 164 regional Goodwill entities across the United States and Canada. Each is an autonomous organization with its own board of directors drawn from that community.

Together, we now provide job assistance to almost two million people annually in traditional face-to-face services, and tens of millions of people through ­virtual-learning platforms. We’re placing over 312,000 people a year into employment. And we rely on our self-­sustaining enterprise to fund all of this.

Philanthropy: Who are the people that Goodwill serves?

Gibbons: We directly employ nearly 30,000 people with disabilities, and serve many more through job training programs. We do a lot of work with ex-offenders. Many Goodwills across the country go into prisons before release to start the adjustment process, to help people get prepared and make sure they can land on their feet and become contributing members to society.

We have projects for seniors, and for young people who are entering the workforce. We work with veterans who have challenges. We even run some charter schools.

Philanthropy: What are some of the big barriers to employment you deal with?

Gibbons: A lot of our work is focused on how to navigate through life. It’s ­teaching individuals the soft skills that are so important to success. These are people who often never had high expectations placed on them. We help them learn what everyday workplace standards are—everything from how to get along in teams to “Hey, man, show up on time!”

We tell people how to overcome transportation issues. Many Goodwills do a lot of financial education. A guy who spent time in prison may have a child, and if he can’t manage his financials and misses his child support, he goes back to jail. A lot of wasted investment if you don’t put that whole package together.

When you look at someone as an entire person, not just a job applicant, you solve different problems. As a social enterprise, that’s what we try to do. And of course we also help hard-to-employ people learn technical skills that employers value, like computer skills.

Philanthropy: Why is this mission important to you personally?

Gibbons: When I was in college, I struggled to get jobs. I began to lose my vision in third grade, and by the age of 19 or 20 I was completely blind. I always got pretty strong grades, and I earned an engineering degree because my dad and my brothers were engineers and I was good with math and science. Yet after my freshman year I couldn’t find a summer job.

After my sophomore year, I got a job as a janitor, and that experience had an impact on me. I learned that every job matters. People counted on me to do my job well so that they could do their job well, and that was big. It was very important for me to prove that I could show up and contribute.

After my junior year, I still couldn’t find an engineering-related job. I was creative and got a job where I didn’t get paid, which is more popular nowadays, but in my day it was unusual. I got some experience and some academic credits.

So then I’m a senior and I’ve got a couple of work experiences, and I’ve got decent grades. The HR people on campus seem to like me, and I interview with 50 companies—and I get 50 rejection letters. I finally got opportunities with AT&T and IBM, so when I graduated, I had a job, but it was frustrating. 

As I grew, I realized this experience was significant in my life. Rejection is painful and scary but it’s important. I love the concept of resilience. Resilient people have a sense of purpose, a sense of connecting and relationships, and believe they have some control over their lives. When I received rejection letter number 49 I felt no sense of certainty or control. That’s why it was so important for me to push through and connect back to the power of work; pressing forward gave me back control.

I’ve been very fortunate to have steady work since. Seven out of ten people with disabilities in this country aren’t working today.

When I got approached by National Industries for the Blind I didn’t know the word social enterprise. I thought when I got old maybe I’d get on the board of an organization for the blind, but then I learned this was a business business. I thought, “Wow, I can use business skills to have a direct impact on the lives of people who are blind?” I served there for ten years.

I love business. I think business is the driver for employment, period.

Philanthropy: How do you teach someone resilience?

Gibbons: I encourage people to reach back to that toughest time in their life, and remember how they got through it. That knowledge is what will reinforce them for the next tough time. If you get through a tough time and you bury it and act like it didn’t happen, I think you’ve lost something. But if you recognize what allowed you to power through, that builds grit.

I think Goodwill is a pretty gritty organization. We always say we’re a workhorse, not a show horse organization. We are a rubber-meets-the-road kind of place.

Philanthropy: Why is it a focus at ­Goodwill right now to elevate the skills of already employed workers?

Gibbons: There are predictions that in 20 years, half of the jobs we do today won’t be there. There will be fewer traditional, entry-level opportunities, which means our workforce has to upskill and earn the capacities and credentials necessary for mid-market jobs. More critical thinking and becoming a continual learner will be important.

Philanthropy: You’ve been working with the Lumina Foundation on this.

Gibbons: Goodwills were already ­starting to work with community colleges on this. Now we have an initiative with more structured models for partnership. Lumina is helping us turn vocational credentialing into real-world employment.

Philanthropy: And you’ve been working with Walmart?

Gibbons: We’re fortunate to work with a lot of organizations and funders who want to take advantage of the Goodwill network. It’s a sandbox to pilot, expand, and sustain new strategies.

With Walmart we’ve done a variety of things. One is working with floor employees to move them up to manager jobs. We have about 500 people in this program. In retail, people tend to move around a lot. This program explores ways of investing in your current workforce to keep good employees.

At the same time, we’re an organization where if somebody who works for us is able to get a bigger job somewhere else, we’re ringing the bell. We like that. That’s success for us.

Philanthropy: I notice this headquarters is called the “Member Services Center.” What does that say about your organizational structure?

Gibbons: It’s a philosophy. We’re a membership organization with a common brand. Each member has to subscribe to a common mission and a set of membership standards. Outside of that, they are autonomous, and their boards of directors are their governing body, not Goodwill headquarters.

That structure allows each member to morph to its community needs. We are not top-down. My job is to work with the leaders throughout the network to expand their best ideas, and harness our collective energy for maximum impact. My job is not to dictate and direct.

It’s a hard leadership job, but I hear from top-down leaders all the time who are trying to figure out to initiate more cross-organizational leadership of the sort that exists in the Goodwill network.

Philanthropy: Can you tell me about the Goodwill job creation fund?

Gibbons: In partnership with the Kresge, Casey, and Ford foundations, we launched a $10 million fund that loans out money so branches can build new stores, donation centers, or warehouses. We’ve so far loaned money to enhance 39 separate facilities resulting in over 550 new jobs and more wages for existing employees.

The loans are at a very competitive rate, and there has not been even one late payment. It’s social-impact investing that has had wonderful results.

We’re in the baby-steps stage right now and are reaching out to new funders. This is a good opportunity for philanthropists with donor-advised funds who want to have immediate impact, with follow-on opportunities in the future because the loan will be repaid and can be regranted to some new cause.

We started real narrow, where we had the greatest confidence we could satisfy impact investors. As we go forward, we could expand the loans to new social entrepreneurial programs, which Goodwills are launching all the time. Different ways of investing could be offered, depending on the impact investor’s expectations of social and economic return.

Philanthropy: What qualities do ­Goodwill managers need to succeed?

Gibbons: Our leaders have to be able to lead with both their head and their hearts. They have to have the discipline to succeed in a very competitive marketplace. More than $5 billion of earned revenue across 164 Goodwills, most of it from retail, is a pretty important thing to worry about. Our primary competition is for-profit, and we’re going to have a higher cost structure because we’re bringing in a workforce with barriers to employment, and adding various mission activities that raise our cost structure. So our leaders have to be talented and focused on making that social enterprise work.