Nora Gorman is one of 126 new employees at Goodwill of Delaware & Delaware County. Several workers, like Gorman, are former welfare recipients who are turning their lives around at the nonprofit.
Like many convicted felons trying to rebuild their lives, when Nora Gorman was released from prison in April, her biggest worry was finding a job to support herself and her two young children. So in August when she heard that Goodwill of Delaware & Delaware County Inc. was hiring at its retail stores, she filled out an application and crossed her fingers.
“My daughter is only 11, but she’s smart,” said Gorman, who learned about the opportunity through a state-sponsored welfare-to-work program.
“She said, ‘Mommy, how are you going to get a job with your background?” A few days later Gorman, 39, had an interview and found out that evening that she got the job.
Gorman, her daughter, Sara, and her 6-year-old son, Dylan, were dancing around their apartment when Sara had a sobering thought. “She said, ‘Did you tell them? Do they know?’ And I said, yes.”
Gorman is one of 126 employees, several of whom are former welfare recipients, hired this year at Goodwill’s retail stores in Delaware and Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
While part of the national organization’s mission is to put people to work, this was not solely a charitable effort. Goodwill employees were overwhelmed by a surge in donations, a spike that officials attribute in part to the recession.
Between 2007 and 2012, Goodwill of Delaware saw a 48 percent increase in donated goods that continues to rise along with a 33 percent increase in retail sales, unlike the national organization, which saw a modest increase. Backrooms at Goodwill of Deleware’s 16 stores were awash in donations because they couldn’t be processed fast enough.
This not only posed safety concerns but also meant that items were not always priced at their full value because employees didn’t have the time or the space to cull the best items and spruce them up for the sales floor, said Lore Besaw, a supervisor at the Goodwill store in Bear, Delaware. Dishes were tossed in with clothes, and toys were mixed in with toasters. In short, it was a mess, she said.
If You Have a Pile, You Have a Problem
“The backroom wasn’t as safe because people put the donations wherever they found room,” said Besaw, who oversees the donation processing. “We got so many donations it was hard to keep up.”
In order to standardize and streamline the process, Goodwill of Delaware, which is based in Wilmington, launched the Donation Processing Initiative, a system that allows employees to sort through donations quickly and price items with greater accuracy. Employees are trained to specialize in specific types of donations, such as clothing, glassware or electronics, and identify valuable items. So far, eight of the organization’s 16 stores have implemented the initiative with the rest following in the next two years.
“Let’s say we get a bag of clothing,” said CEO Colleen Morrone. “Someone dumps it out on a table and goes through it and sorts the items to make sure they aren’t ripped or torn. After that they go to someone who is more specialized in handling clothing. They’ll say, ‘Is there a Ralph Lauren, a Talbots or Ann Taylor shirt?’ And they’ll sort it out based on the quality and the brand. We have clothing specialists, shoe specialists, housewares, electronics, and they look for anything that might be antique or collectible.”
Ted Sikorski, vice president of marketing and development, said that the focus of the initiative is to keep donations moving to the sales floor as quickly as possible. He pointed out that one of Goodwill’s guiding principles states, “If you have a pile, you have a problem.”
For Goodwill of Delaware & Delaware County, having a standardized donation processing system means more revenue to fund Goodwill’s programs to help the disadvantaged overcome obstacles to employment. Among the programs offered are skills training in computers, customer service, industrial cleaning, job placement and career coaching services.
Resale has become a booming business, and Goodwill Industries International Inc., which has 2,700 stores across the country and an online auction site, generated $3.5 billion in retail sales in 2012, according to the organization. While donations nationally have increased only modestly in recent years, sales have taken off.
“The economic downturn had a huge effect on overall consumer practices,” said Michael Meyer, vice president of donated goods retail at Goodwill Industries International in Rockville, Maryland. “At Goodwill, we saw increased store revenues during the economic downturn as more people shopped at Goodwill stores to save money. We saw a smaller increase in donations during the recession, likely due to people hanging on to their items a little longer than they normally would. In addition, the economic downturn led to more demand for Goodwill’s mission services. Many people lost their jobs and turned to Goodwill to help them find new jobs and rebuild their careers.”
‘At Goodwill, we saw increased store revenues during the economic downturn, as more people shopped at Goodwill stores to save money.’
—Michael Meyer, vice president of donated goods retail, Goodwill Industries International
At the Upper Darby store just outside Philadelphia, Goodwill’s newest facility, a job resource center, is the first thing customers see when they walk in. The idea is to illustrate for donors the effect that their donations have on other people’s lives, Sikorski said.
“People know us as the place to donate their stuff, but we want them to have a better understanding of what we do with those funds,” he said. “People don’t always understand what the mission of Goodwill is, and demand for those services is growing.”
Like many people who have dropped off bags of clothing or toys at a Goodwill store, Gorman, who works as a supervisor at the Upper Darby store, used to think of Goodwill as “the place where my mom donated things,” she said.
She never thought that it would also be the place that gave her a second chance when her life fell apart after a workplace back injury. That led to an addiction to pain pills and ultimately a felony conviction for forging prescriptions.
“It was a dark time, but that wasn’t who I am,” she said. She prefers to remember the day she got her first paycheck from her new job. It was her daughter’s 11th birthday, so she packed up the kids and took her daughter and some friends to Six Flags Great Adventure.
“It was a beautiful feeling, and I was proud to be there for her and to see the look on her face. She still talks about it.”
For its workforce initiative, which demonstrates excellence in several winning categories, including Business Impact, Corporate Citizenship, Innovation, Managing Change and Training, Goodwill of Delaware & Delaware County is the 2013 Optimas Award winner for General Excellence.