Back in college, Goodwill was the go to place for costumes for Halloween or retro-dress parties. (Also very cheap used furniture which was, no doubt, donated each May and repurchased each August.) More recently, Goodwill has been my go to when cleaning out closets and decluttering my house.
Every time I’ve driven by with a bag full of discarded toys or clothes that no one has been wearing for a while, I’ve been very politely thanked for supporting Goodwill’s mission…but I’d never been entirely sure just what that mission was all about. One of my neighbors, Bill Mallin, told me recently that he was the Chair of the Board of Directors for Goodwill of Western and Northern Connecticut, and when I asked to learn more, he put me in touch with Vicki Volpano, their President and Chief Executive Officer. I met her at their offices (I’d been to their donation center around the back many times) and was absolutely impressed by what I saw and what I learned there. Here’s what we talked about.
Name: Vicki Volpano (above)
Date: June 9, 2017
Occupation: President and Chief Executive Officer, Goodwill of Western and Northern Connecticut
Hometown: Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin
Current town: Shelton, Connecticut
Good to talk to you today! Thank you for taking the time to discuss your work, which I really do appreciate. Can you give me a brief summary of just what Goodwill is all about?
At the stores, donors help support the work we do through their generosity. The stores fund the charitable mission…we are funded on the generosity of donors and shoppers. In 1902, the first Goodwill was founded by a feisty and determined Methodist minster. He wanted to serve the working poor and the disabled in his neighborhood, but not solely through the church. It was a simple model: asking neighbors to share unneeded items for neighbors in need. He had people bring their unwanted good to the church, and he put people to work fixing damaged goods, which was the beginning of our vocational work. The stores also put people to work, and the proceeds went towards wages. Slogan from that time were “Not a handout, but a hand up,” or “not a charity, but a chance.”
We are really about putting people to work. Having clothing and goods languishing in closets and finding another secondary use through recycling and reusing, that’s great, but it’s an ancillary benefit. We are helping people with challenges and focusing on ability, not on disability. Some disabilities are evident, and some are not. Some people we serve have chronic mental illness, or brain injuries. Some people have very severe disabilities or multiple disabilities. But we are helping those individuals connect with work and maximizing their experience in the community.
Each of the Goodwill organizations is independent, local, and autonomous: local donors, local shoppers, community. There are 162 affiliates, all locally governed. Our local Board of Directors, chaired by Bill Mallin, is made up of volunteers, community leaders with the wisdom and experiences to steer the organization. Most decisions are made by local leadership based on local needs. There is a national office that handles things like trademarks, but for the most part we are local. There’s a saying that if you’ve seen one Goodwill…you’ve seen one Goodwill.
[Here Vickie showed me some film clips highlighting some of the clients that Goodwill has served in a variety of ways, through their career counseling and community employment services. The three people featured had overcome incredibly severe challenges—I was moved by their journeys and incredibly impressed by their successes. See them here.]
Is Goodwill still affiliated with the Methodist church? I recently sat next to a Methodist minister at a dinner party and asked him about Methodist theology, and we had a conversation about faith and good works, and so it makes a lot of sense that this project was started by a Methodist!
No, we’re no longer affiliated with the church. Edgar Helms was a charismatic leader. His connection with the church helped Goodwill to move all over the country…he would have a gathering and people would get their own Goodwills started in other places. Here, we began with an affiliation with the Bridgeport Christian Union.
So, all of the stuff that people donate…where does it go?
It all comes in, tennis shoes, bowling balls, clothing. It’s sorted by category, and reviewed for saleability. The majority of the goods are saleable in the stores. (Not quite all of it is donated—sometimes we purchase discounted items to sell, clearance items and returned retail goods. But most of it is donated by the community.)
Every time I’ve come by, I’ve been treated extremely courteously–the people staffing the donation center always offer to help carry things, and offer me a tax receipt and thank me.
Excellent! That’s what’s supposed to happen!
So, we put things out in rotations. Things usually sell in the first ten days. If not, for the fourth week we will sell things for half price. Unsold merchandise, either that didn’t sell in the stores, or that we didn’t deem salable (too many stains, too worn out, or so on) go into a secondary or recycling market. Nothing goes to waste unless it is truly trash.
Clothing, unsold clothing, is accumulated in large bales and it is sold to third world markets. So those things get sold and utilized in other countries if we don’t have a use for them here. Since we have a four-season market, the clothes can end up anywhere in the world. Shoes, belts, bags, they end up in markets around the world.
So, even if something has little to no economic value here, it does have a value, and a utility somewhere else…it is better for people to bring you things even if they are pretty beat up, than to just throw them away?
We often say “Give to Goodwill what you would give to a friend.” If something is mildewed, we really can’t use it. But almost anything can be used somewhere, even if it is stained or ripped. Someone somewhere might need or want it.
And if we get broken things, we recycle whenever possible. Unwanted electronics, for example. We give those to third party vendors who will take responsibility for them. They will drill through a hard drive on an old computer to destroy data and preserve privacy, and extract the usable metals on a large scale.
We are so thankful and so appreciative of donors and shoppers who help fulfill our mission that we want to be an answer, and be of service to them. We do not want to be picky, we want to be helpful. We will take just about anything, except for things like hazardous materials and old tires (there is a significant cost to us to have those things responsibly disposed of). We don’t turn away electronics because we want to be helpful to people who need to dispose of those things.
I know you don’t take baby gear…is it because of recalls and changing safety standards?
Yes, and we do get visits from the consumer protection safety commission.
What else don’t we take? Newspapers and magazines: people should just recycle those things. And we don’t want scrap metal. Or food!
What is the weirdest thing that you’ve seen donated?
Recently our Donation Supervisor came across a World World 2 German Luger that was donated in the Greenwich area. And believe it our not, we have on occasion been accidentally donated human ashes in a decorative urn.
Have you ever had some of those Antiques Roadshow things where someone bought something for ten dollars at a garage sale and it’s some kind of priceless antiquity from ancient China or something? Do you ever end up with something extremely valuable?
We did have a mint condition 1967 Mercedes Benz donated once, and we decided to use at one of our store grand openings. We parked it outside the store, and I believe we received upwards for $5,000 for it. We are also fortunate to occasionally have folks donate the entire contents of their home to us either due to a death in the family or moving situation.
That is why we have people who value the donated goods. Through their training and experience, they are able to responsibly figure out the market prices. Technology is wonderful for being able to value items. And reference books!
So are valuable items then sold at your retail stores?
Yes, they are priced appropriately and put in the store at market value. Designer clothes, fine jewelry. People kindly shared their goods, and they are being responsible to us, and we feel a responsibility to maximize the value of that donation to support the mission. And we do appreciate that support.
What are some interesting things you do that people don’t always know about?
On Monday, I am going to an elementary school for a big celebration. We held a donation contest in April, “Bag it up for Goodwill,” that challenged local elementary schools to donate the most items, in which 327 elementary schools donated over 190,000 different items. It was a contest and the school that won got a cash prize and a concert by Nick Fradiani (a Guilford native and American Idol winner).
Oh, a donation competition! How fun for the kids!
Yes, we are so fortunate—most of us in a position to give, we really do have everything we need and most of what we want. This is a way schools can become part of the work we do. It can even be part of the curriculum. A fifth grader recently wrote a paper about this donation drive and it was so thoughtful and well done.
I have a feeling that there used to be more of a stigma against thrift shops but that it has lessened over time with the interest in retro fashions and environmental concerns about consumerism. How has that worked in practice?
I think that is right…things have changed. And an appreciation of value knows no socioeconomic bounds.
As retail is changing and people are shopping more online, are you going to have to change your model?
We are opening new stores. At a time when retail is not expanding generally, we are having an expansion. There is definitely more of an openness to consignment and thrift shopping, it’s more acceptable and acknowledged than it used to be. Also, shopping at our stores, there’s a one-of-a-kind nature to it. The shopping experience is more like treasure hunting.
The TJX brands are doing well in retail, places like HomeGoods and TJ Maxx…what will be there today? We find that providing one-of-a-kind items at a value price works. Of course, we have shoppers on limited incomes. But there is also a growing number of shoppers who enjoy the experience…it’s fun.
But we are definitely always working to revamp. As we appreciate our donors so significantly, we really want to give them a pleasant place to shop. As we open new donation centers with newer prototypes, we are doing all single-level, no more stairs. We are making sure that they have a drive up experience and that the donation drive up is covered. We want to make the donation experience is user-friendly and do our part to be respectful of the importance of donating.
One store we had was in a strip mall, in the center. You had to drive back behind it to donate. It was much less convenient. The new store that replaced it has the donation drop off front and center, and you can drive in and out. And we want to make sure the internal ambiance is right. The stores should be clean, well lit, have good size aisles, and be well organized. We need to up our game and to meet or exceed the expectations of our customers.
So, you are really doing good work…helping people with vocational training, supportive housing, career counseling, providing low-cost goods. I don’t see any downside here. The only criticism I can think of (and I’m no economist) is that I have definitely read some articles that criticize donations of consumer goods and textiles to developing nations because they disrupt the local economies. Is that a valid concern about the work you do exporting donated goods?
If and as developing countries develop their own abilities to produce goods, the markets will adjust to that change. And until they do, the generosity here extends beyond recycling and reuse and provides goods at prices people can afford…we are meeting needs today. The goods from Goodwill donations aren’t enough to impact, say, the textile industry in India. But it is supplementing a need.
It has been a simple and elegant model, putting people to work so they can realize dignity, self-sufficiency, and independence. For people who cannot get competitive employment, we provide services to them, including supportive housing.
So what do people not know about Goodwill that they should?
I’ve been in it for so many years I’m not quite sure! But one thing that we need help with, it’s finding employers willing to give work opportunities to individuals with disabilities or other challenges. Finding jobs for people who need them, providing employment opportunities. That, along with seeking donations and support.
The why? Does the world need more retail? More thrift stores? Not really, but our stores are a means to mission fulfillment, and I think people don’t know that part of it.
On a more personal note, is there a book you think everyone should read?
I’ve been reading a collection of Peter Drucker’s writing. And Take Your Soul to Work by Erica Brown. And I’d recommend The 4 Disciplines of Execution.
How about a movie?
My favorite is To Kill a Mockingbird. Because of its messages about social justice and the aspects that relate to Goodwill. Acceptance of someone who has been deemed different is a theme of a lot of that movie. And I think it helped set me on the path of the work that I love.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I tend to be pretty much an open book!
If you could go back and time and do something over, what would it be?
I would have taken my new glasses off before swinging on a vine over a river as an eight-year-old.
What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?
I am from, and I grew up in Wisconsin, and was recruited to work here. My kids were grown, so I took my three-legged cat, Vinny, and drove across the country and came to work here. I don’t think of it as leaving somewhere, as much as going to something new. I had a good idea about the opportunity after meeting members of the Board.
I guess you liked it, since you’ve stayed…you’re still here!
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
I’ve been given a number of good pieces of advice, but here’s one from my father. It’s not original to him, but he reminded me that God gave us two ears and one mouth. Use accordingly. (A subtle message!)
Do you have a favorite celebrity?
Well, that’s a struggle. On a philosophical note, I would like to see more emphasis on people contributing to society in meaningful way recognized and given more attention than a typical celebrity.
Last but not least, is there anything you would like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes…thank you for your time and the opportunity to talk with you. We have such a sincere appreciation to our donors and shoppers, and even without a deep level of awareness they are supporting a greater good. Their actions are meaningful. As you saw in that video about Kendra going into a career center and succeeding, and heard from her daughter, you see it was not just her, but her daughters, seeing her living a better life. There’s a ripple effect that goes from the individual, to their loved ones, and to the community. Someone doing something good…we appreciate it greatly. Today there’s a higher level of social awareness of accepting people for who they are, people with disabilities, people with disadvantages.
If you are en employer, please consider contacting us. Even one job will help.
And it is privilege to be part of this organization. It’s a team sport. People here, heart and soul, we’re all in.
Vickie took me all around their headquarters: the career center, the workshop (where some of their clients were doing piecework), the t-shirts for the field trip they were going on the next day, the warehouse where the unsold clothing was stored in the large bales, the old photos in the hallways showing the history of the organization. She was on a first name basis with everyone there, staff and clients served. She showed me some gorgeous art created by one of the Goodwill employees in collaboration with the people he was helping. She generously agreed to let me come back with my ten-year-old daughter and some of her friends, so that they could get a tour and learn more about the work happening in and for their community. And she gave me some really impressive stats about what they’ve been accomplishing recently. In 2016, 146 brain injury survivors received support and residential services; 2,312 individuals found work with the help of their programs and services; 5,496 elementary school children from low-income families received backpacks and school supplies; and 8,886 people received free career counseling.
As I said to her while we were meeting, I’ve been absolutely discouraged lately by the current state of political dysfunction we’re in, and the coarseness of the political discourse. But when I turn away from the noise of the media, and go out in the world, I am often impressed and inspired by the good things I see and learn, and the good work so many are doing. Vickie is a perfect example of that.
Lead-in Image Courtesy of Lorelyn Medina / Shutterstock.com
ABOUT LAURA LaVELLE
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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