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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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What Social Entrepreneurs Can Learn From an Old Nonprofit
Nell Edgington

April, 2011

I talk a lot about what nonprofits can learn from social entrepreneurs–how to be more innovative, think bigger, create sustainable business models, etc. But I also think that in the movement for social innovation we can’t dismiss or deny the nonprofit sector, which offers tremendous history, resources and even innovations.

Indeed, there is one example in particular of a very old nonprofit organization that actually exemplifies the qualities of a true social entrepreneur. And that is Goodwill Industries.

Goodwill provides jobs and job training to the hardest to employ. Although Goodwill was launched 109 years ago, long before anyone even uttered the words “social entrepreneur,” the organization illustrates four key traits of a true social entrepreneur:

  1. Solutions-Focused. Goodwill trains and creates job for society’s most difficult to employ. It addresses their impediments to jobs and provides them the skills and actual jobs to get them back on track.

  3. Broader System Change. But Goodwill is not just about jobs and job training. It is also about recycling, economic development, community integration. Instead of throwing away old clothes, books, computers, or furniture, we can take them to Goodwill, get a tax write off and feel good about 1) not filling up landfills and 2) contributing to putting people to work. But we can also shop there to stretch our own recession-tightened family budgets. We can enjoy much less environmental waste in our communities (Goodwill’s ComputerWorks facility in Austin sends nothing to the landfill). We also can meet, shop and mingle with a cross section of our community in a way that we never would be able to at the local department store.

  5. Financially Sustainable. A big part of Goodwill’s brilliance is the fact that over 65% of the organization’s revenue comes from earned income from their retail stores. Goodwill has done a great job of developing and continually improving their stores, so that they have become not just a place for job training, but a destination for shoppers. Goodwill has found a way to encourage the communities in which they operate to consistently and generously donate their clothing and other items and then to turn those donations into revenue streams.

  7. Scalable Model. Because the Goodwill model is simple, solution focused, integrated, and sustainable, it is scalable. Goodwill started in 1902 in Boston and in 2009 boasted 184 organizations throughout 16 countries providing jobs and job training to 1.9 million people with a budget of $3.7 billion. The ancillary benefits I mentioned above (economic development, community building) they have not quantified, but I imagine they are even more impressive.

Goodwill excites me because it is an “ancient” social impact organization by today’s standards, yet it is a model of social change. It squeezes every last drop out of the community resources it gathers and translates them into many times that in social impact. I wonder if any of the social entrepreneurship programs cropping up at universities across the country ever use Goodwill as a case study. I think it could be fascinating.

Visit Nell Edgington at


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