Robert Baden-Powell and Edgar J. Helms: Their Lives and Legacies

This issue of Compassion and Culture explores the lives and legacies of two gilded-age social entrepreneurs. Robert Baden-Powell’s ideas led to the creation of two organizations on the Nonprofit Times top 100 list–the Boy Scouts of America, ranked 13th with revenues of $727 million (including $4.4 million in government aid), and the Girl Scouts of the USA, ranked 16th with 2001 revenues of $680 million (including $3 million in government contracts).

Rev. Edgar J. Helms created Goodwill Industries. According to the Nonprofit Times, in 2001 the Goodwill agencies–all of which are independent local organizations–were collectively the sixth largest nonprofit in the U.S., with revenues of $1.9 billion (including $373 million in government contracts).

Robert Baden-Powell and Edgar J. Helms

Their Lives and Legacies

In works of active beneficence, no country has surpassed, perhaps none has equaled, the United States. Not only are the sums collected for all sorts of philanthropic purposes larger relative to the wealth of America than to any European country, but the amount of personal interest shown in good works and personal effort devoted to them seems to a European visitor to exceed what he knows at home.

James Bryce,

The American Commonwealth (1888)

This issue of Compassion and Culture explores the lives and legacies of two gilded-age social entrepreneurs.1 Robert Baden-Powell’s ideas led to the creation of two organizations on the Nonprofit Times top 100 list–the Boy Scouts of America, ranked 13th with revenues of $727 million (including $4.4 million in government aid), and the Girl Scouts of the USA, ranked 16th with 2001 revenues of $680 million (including $3 million in government contracts).

Rev. Edgar J. Helms created Goodwill Industries. According to the Nonprofit Times, in 2001 the Goodwill agencies–all of which are independent local organizations–were collectively the sixth largest nonprofit in the U.S., with revenues of $1.9 billion (including $373 million in government contracts).

How can individuals “make a difference” in their communities today? We do well to consider the lives and legacies of Robert Baden-Powell and Edgar Helms. They were two men born in the late 19th century who championed the often-disparaged Victorian virtues of duty, work and self-reliance. They built organizations that survived financial and management problems and now are strong enough to resist social and ideological attack. Their legacies flourish in the 21st century as examples of successful volunteer service to others.

Baron Baden-Powell of Gilwell (1857-1941)

Founder, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides/Scouts

Robert Baden-Powell did not begin his career as a philanthropic entrepreneur until he was almost 50.2 He had already achieved substantial success as a military hero and author, before turning to philanthropy. But while many other Edwardians founded organizations similar to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, Baden-Powell’s organization was distinctive in that that it provided young people with fun and adventure–and it taught virtue without being preachy. As a result, the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides flourished while their competitors withered and died.

Baden-Powell spent many of his early years in the British Army. He achieved early successes by operating as an independent agent, spy, and scout, either correcting maps of enemy territory or roaming the terrain where future battles would take place. In the campaign against the Ashanti (1895-96) in what is now Ghana, Baden-Powell scouted the terrain and provided intelligence that led to a British victory.

By the late 1890s, Baden-Powell had written three books, including Aids to Scouting (1899), designed to teach cadets the scouting skills he had developed. In 1899, Baden-Powell went to South Africa to serve in the Boer War. He marched to Mafeking where his regiment was quickly surrounded by Boer forces who lay siege to Baden-Powell’s troops for 217 days. When the siege of Mafeking was finally broken, Baden-Powell’s tenacity and courage made him an imperial hero.

After the Boer War, Baden-Powell found that he had risen as high in the military as he could. He returned to Britain in 1903 to become inspector-general of the cavalry, but he was trying to decide what to do with the remainder of his life. His book Aids to Scouting was being used by some teachers to inspire boys to become independent and self-reliant. Why not turn the book into a boy’s book?

Thus, between 1905 and 1907, Baden-Powell developed the idea of the Boy Scouts. Other entrepreneurs were creating similar organizations at the same time. In America, Daniel Carter Beard created the Sons of Daniel Boone to teach American youth pioneer virtues. Britain had several scout-like organizations: the Boy Guides’ Brigade and the Boys’ Empire League, that had on its board six noblemen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The most important precursor of the Boy Scouts was the Woodcraft Indians, created by Anglo-Canadian naturalist and author Ernest Thompson Seton in 1902. The Woodcraft Indians had several features that Baden-Powell adopted, including the grouping of boys into patrols with Indian names and giving awards for various activities (which Seton called “wampum medals”). In addition, Baden-Powell met Seton in 1906, and acknolwedged that Seton was one of the his many sources.

But the reason the Boy Scouts still thrive while the Woodcraft Indians are little more than a footnote to history is that Baden-Powell widely sought ideas for how his scouting organization would work. According to historian Michael Rosenthal, Baden-Powell’s sources include Epictetus, Livy, and books on the education of young Spartans, the ancient British and Irish, Zulu warriors, and the Bushido samurai of Japan. By gathering material from different times and places, Rosenthal observes, Baden-Powell provided Scouting “with a centrality and timeliness beyond simply one man’s vision.”

One of the fundamental questions of Scouting was what moral code, if any, the group should teach. Baden-Powell’s goal was to have the Scouts be an organization that taught virtue without explicitly endorsing any particular religion. Scouts, he also believed, should possess many of the virtues of a good soldier, without formally being a branch of the military.

Baden-Powell spent a good deal of time refining Scouting’s moral code. His secretary, E.K Wade, recalled in her memoirs that he kept a large file he called “Pats and Pinpricks”–and most of the letters were pinpricks. Politicians wanted Scouts to work for them as unpaid volunteers; others wanted the Scouts to explicitly ban beer or tobacco. Animal-rights supporters denounced any article Baden-Powell wrote defending hunting, Ministers questioned why Scouts should hold meetings on Sundays. The Young Communists even sent him a coffin, as a symbol of what would happen to the Scouts after “the revolution.”

But the largest file concerned the relationship between the Scouts and military organizations. Baden-Powell, according to Wade, was “scolded by pacifists for allowing Scouts to go in for marksmanship, and by militarists for not turning them into Cadets.”

Baden-Powell’s vision was that the best way to build character was by convincing a Scout that he wanted to improve himself. His experience led him to believe that mandating military drills, far from ensuring character building, would force the Scout “on to an approved standard as part of a machine.” In 1916, he wrote to former Scouts serving in the British armed forces, and all who responded told him to keep the Boy Scouts independent from the military. Baden-Powell, by resisting attempts to place the Scouts under military control, ensured its expansion after World War I ended.

But Baden-Powell made some missteps as well. As a British gentleman, he prided himself on not taking a salary as Chief Scout; he lived on his military pension and the fees and royalties from his numerous books and articles. When the Boy Scouts began in 1907, Baden-Powell allied himself with popular publisher C. Arthur Pearson, who published The Scout, the official Scout magazine.

Scouting for Boys was one of the 20th century’s best sellers; the book was continuously in print from 1907 until the early 1980s. However, Baden-Powell’s contract with Pearson included no arrangement for royalties, since, as biographer Tim Jeal notes, he “looked down upon tradesmen and felt uncomfortable about being paid for something which he considered a matter of patriotic duty.” He had an arrangement with Pearson for a thousand pounds in expenses, with all other fees to be negotiated somewhere in the future.

By 1909, The Scout had a circulation of 110,000, little of which was going to the Boy Scouts. Baden-Powell negotiated a new agreement with higher royalties, which would take effect in 1910. But until this second agreement took placed, he paid the expenses of the Boy Scouts himself–while simultaneously paying for medical care for his ailing mother.

While dealing with these expenses, Baden-Powell also had to deal with a revolt by his second-in-command, Sir Francis Vane, who had schemed without his boss’s knowledge to take control of the Scouts. On several occasions, Vane had insinuated that he was in charge of the Scouts, not Baden-Powell. Vane also privately negotiated with the Church of England to create “Diocesan Scouts,” a quasi-independent organization which would have its own version of the Scout Law.

After asking Vane (an unpaid volunteer) to resign at least three times, Baden-Powell fired Vane in November 1909, stating, “You did not suit me” and “I could not trust you.” Vane promptly took 300 troops, including all of the London Boy Scouts, and created the British Boy Scouts, a rival organization. Although many of these troops subsequently disbanded or were reabsorbed into the Boy Scouts, the British Boy Scouts never ceased to exist, even though they were down to four troops in 1960 and one troop in 1978. They now have 20 troops, including Canadian and Australian branches, and serve as a traditionalist alternative to British scouting.

Having solved the Vane crisis, and with the Pearson royalty providing the Scouts with a steady source of income, Baden-Powell was ready to found two more organizations: the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Guides.

Copies of Scouting for Boys had been circulating in the U.S. since its publication in 1907, but no one tried to create a Scout organization in America until 1910, when William Randolph Hearst announced that he was copying Pearson’s model and creating the United States Boy Scouts. Presumably these new scouts would need to subscribe to Hearst publications to be kept informed of scout activities.

To counter Hearst, a group of organizers (many of whom came from the YMCA) approached Baden-Powell. In 1910, he traveled to New York and allowed the creators of the Boy Scouts of America to license Scouting for Boys, the Scout uniform, and other Scouting paraphernalia for free. He also made no attempt to control the new organization, even as the American Scouts evolved in ways that Baden-Powell did not like, including adding an eagle to the Boy Scout emblem, adding three more scout laws (stating that Scouts were brave, clean, and reverent), and creating three ranks (Star, Life, and Eagle) that did not exist in Britain. Thus the Boy Scouts of America has always operated as an independent franchise of the Scout movement.

Baden-Powell next devoted his energies to creating a scouting organization for girls. As early as 1908 he stated that there was no reason why girls should not be Scouts. After some wavering, possibly under the influence of his mother, he decided not to call the organization “Girl Scouts,” but created the Girl Guides in 1910.

The Girl Guides were even more successful than the Boy Scouts; by the 1920s, Tim Jeal observes, “there were 200,000 more Guides and Brownies in Britain than there were Scouts and Cubs.”

By 1920, the crises in the creation of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides were over. Baden-Powell had made the Scouts into a flexible organization that offered millions of young men and women a chance to enjoy the outdoors and learn the principles of a virtuous life. Baden-Powell succeeded because he was extremely determined, and was able to persevere despite funding crises, insubordinate staffers, and changing times.

Baden-Powell remained Chief Scout until his retirement in 1937. In his memoirs, published in 1933, he was modest about his achievements. “Some people like golf and others like horse racing, and I took up Boy Scouting. But that I should be rewarded and honoured for having a hobby was beyond all that I had ever imagined.”

Baden-Powell’s Legacy

To understand how the Boy Scouts have evolved, we need to compare and contrast the Boy Scouts of America with other Scouting organizations. As we’ve seen, the Boy Scouts of America from its beginnings in 1910 evolved separately from the rest of the Scout movement. This division has ensured that while most of the Scouting organizations have drifted away from Baden-Powell’s intentionsThe Boy Scouts of America remained relatively traditional.

But as the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald observes, “the 1960s counterculture and the Boy Scouts were a train wreck waiting to happen.” Boy Scout membership began to drop, and in 1972, the Boy Scouts changed their name to Scouting/USA. In 1972, the Scout Handbook dropped sections on outdoor activities such as canoeing and tracking and replaced them with material on treating rat bites and fighting drug abuse. The goal, Mac Donald recounts, was to turn scouting into “an urban survival movement.”

Scouts who preferred camping to “relevancy” fled the organization, and the American Boy Scouts faced its greatest crisis since its creation. In 1978, the scouts underwent a counter-revolution, once again becoming the Boy Scouts of America and making camping and other woodsy activities mandatory. At the same time, the Boy Scouts maintained their commitment to America’s inner cities, not only introducing inner-city youth to the outdoors, but also teaching civics lessons (such as understanding the Constitution) that often aren’t taught in today’s public schools.

In 2000, the Supreme Court, in Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale, affirmed the Boy Scouts’ right to exclude practicing homosexuals from its membership. Since then, the Boy Scouts have continued to insist that gays and atheists should not join their organization, while welcoming all races, creeds, and political viewpoints. “The Boy Scouts of America aims to allow youth to live and learn as children and enjoy Scouting without immersing them in the politics of the day,” declares an official Boy Scouts of America position statement. “We realize that not every individual nor organization prescribes to the same beliefs that the BSA does, but we hope that all Americans can be as respectful of our beliefs as we are of theirs and support the overall good Scouting does to American communities.

Since September 11, 2001 the Boy Scouts of America has increased its commitment to patriotism and emergency preparedness. When the Iraq war began this March, Scouts across America held patriotic ceremonies. And this May, the Boy Scouts announced that is was working with the Department of Homeland Security to create an “Emergency Preparedness BSA” award, the requirements of which include completing the First Aid and Emergency Preparedness badges, taking other first aid courses, and developing a troop preparedness plan.

The history of the Boy Scouts of America can be contrasted with its Canadian counterparts. Canada no longer has “Boy” Scouts; since the 1980s, Canadian Scouts have admitted boys and girls. (By contrast, the Girl Guides of Canada is still an all-female organization.)

When the Boy Scouts of America won its Supreme Court case in 2000, the New York Times sent reporter James Brooke to Toronto and discovered that not only did Scouts Canada have no policy about excluding gays, it had an all-gay and lesbian troop of 18-26 year old adults, which marched in the Toronto Gay Pride Parade “with knotted rainbow kerchiefs.” Scouts Canada spokesman Andy McLaughlin told the Times that “it’s our perspective that sexual orientation has no bearing on the ability of a person to participate in or deliver our programs.” McLaughlin added that the gay troop was comparable to “other specialized troops,” such as ones for Mormons or Cantonese speakers.

But this gay-friendly policy of Scouts Canada comes at a high legal cost. Faced with a rising number of lawsuits from scouts claiming they were abused by pedophiles, Scouts Canada has implemented a policy requiring two adults to be present at all times. In addition, parents have to take their children to and from all Scouts Canada activities.

But these policies have not proved strong enough for Canadian insurers. In May 2002, Scouts Canada cancelled the part of its insurance policy protecting it from pedophile lawsuits. More stringent policies for volunteers–including mandatory criminal background checks–will be implemented as a consequence of Scouts Canada’s gay-friendly policies.

A similar drift has taken place in the Scout Association, the organization of Scouts in Great Britain. The British Scouts began admitting girls in 1967, when it changed its name from the Boy Scout Association to its present name. Unlike Canada, a few all-male troops still exist. (The Girl Guides in Britain remain all-female, but recently changed their name to Girlguiding UK.) The age range also increased; now British Scouts can join as young as age six and as old as age 25.

The British Scouts have also made dramatic changes in their official uniform; they abandoned the traditional Stetson hat and shorts in the 1960s, claiming that this uniform “projected a Boer War appearance.”) In 2001they announced that Scouts as of 2003, would replace the traditional khaki with teal green, beige, and dark green shirts. Cub Scouts and Beaver Scouts (aged 6-8) no longer wear uniforms at all; these have been replaced by sweatshirts.

Faced with these changes, some competing organizations have arisen to practice traditional Scouting. The British Boy Scouts, nearly extinct by 1980, now have over 20 troops in Britain and have established troops in Australia and Canada. Another “traditional Scouting” alternative is the Baden-Powell Scout Association,. According to the website of the organization’s American branch ( founded in 1969 “by a group of English Scout leaders” who “believed that trends in England to ‘modernize’ the Scouting program diluted the original intent of the Founder.” Troops of the B-P Boy Scouts currently exist in six American states, as well as Germany, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Mexico, Japan, and Ireland.

Reverend Edgar J. Helms (1863-1942)

Founder, Goodwill Industries

“Why should it be assumed that automobiles and electric sweepers can be reconditioned, but men cannot be? It has been our experience that you can recondition clothes, and through reconditioning clothes, you can recondition men and women.”

Rev. Edgar J. Helms (1940)

Goodwill Industries was born out of improvisation and desperation, as Rev. Edgar J. Helms struggled to find ways to pay the mortgage on his collapsing inner-city Boston church. But Rev. Helms’s idea, and the decentralized system of management he implemented, resulted in the creation of one of the largest nonprofits in America.

In his late twenties, Rev. Helms decided to become a Methodist minister, and, after earning his divinity degree in 1893, hoped he would become a missionary in India. “But due to the hard times of the late nineties the missionary funds ran out,” Helms said in a 1940 interview with William C. Stidger, “and I started to work in my little mission on the South Side of Boston. I did this because I was stranded in Boston, following my graduation, with a young wife on my hands.”

In his first decade as a minister, Rev. Helms thought a good deal about the causes of poverty. As a 1953 Saturday Evening Post article observed, other inner-city Boston churches sought to win souls by rounding up drunks on Saturday night, tossing them in their churches, locking their doors, and refusing to allow the inebriates to leave until they heard a sermon. Rev. Helms would have none of that. He tried to find out what poor people needed. For example, he saw that the women in his congregation whose husbands had abandoned them would lock their children in their tenements when they went to work. Rev. Helms found a safe place in his church where women could leave their babies during the day. This result is what became the first “day nursery”–what we now call day care.

In 1899-1900, Rev. Helms used a Boston University fellowship to travel to Europe, where he visited British settlement houses (including the renowned Toynbee Hall) and German cooperatives. This prepared him for the financial crisis he faced in 1902.By then, his church building had become so unsafe that it was about to be condemned. Rev. Helms needed $50,000 for a new building, but funds were hard to come by. So someone (it’s not clear who) thought money could be raised by repairing old clothes and cleaning and repairing them. Rev. Helms agreed, and clothes collection began.

After some false starts, the business of cleaning and repairing clothes became more systematic, Rev. Helms realized that Bostonians who couldn’t afford to give his church money could donate old clothes. He also learned that there was a market for these clothes once they were cleaned and repaired.

By 1905, Rev. Helms’s church had become financially solvent. Also in this year, he incorporated the clothes-repair enterprise as Morgan Memorial Co-operative Industries and Stores, which became the first agency of Goodwill Industries.

For the next decade, Morgan Memorial continued to grow, and Rev. Helms’s successes began to be noted in other cities. In 1915, Rev. Henry Park Schauffler and Rev. Edward P. Sanderson of the House of Goodwill mission in Brooklyn came to Boston to organize what became the second Goodwill agency. Another minister, Rev. Carlton Park, combined the names of the Boston and Brooklyn organizations into Goodwill Industries. “The title was accepted quite readily by institutions doing similar mission and industrial work,” notes Goodwill historian Robert Rollin Huddleston.

By 1919, the Methodist Church decided to make Goodwill a national enterprise; Goodwill became a division of the church, and remained so until about 1960. The church spent a good deal of seed money sending Rev. Helms on agency-establishing missions in the U.S., Canada, and overseas. By 1935, Goodwill Industries had 95 agencies in the U.S. and 17 other nations, including Tokyo, Shanghai, Calcutta, and five agencies in Australia. Goodwill–and the burlap “Goodwill Bag” for donations–were nationally recognized charitable brands. The Hudson County, New Jersey chapter even offered donors a song:

Goodwill Bags, Goodwill Bags

Fill them up with clothes and rags,

Clothes too old for you to wear,

And better things that you can spare,

Is it flat, or square, or round

Weighs a ton, or half a pound.

White as snow, or black as jet?

Any fish will fill our net.

Some donations were legendary. In his memoirs, John P. Hantla, Jr. of the Iowa City, Iowa chapter noted some of them: artificial legs, marriage certificates (usually donated by a disgruntled spouse), and a collection of preserved appendixes the Goodwill in Wilmington, Delaware allegedly sold as fish bait).

The most memorable donation during Rev. Helms’s lifetime came during the 1930s, when a donor gave an old painting to Morgan Memorial. An artist working for Goodwill recognized the painting as the work of Renaissance master Gentile Bellin. Morgan Memorial subsequently sold the painting to the Museum of Fine Arts for $20,000–on condition that the deal was cancelled if the owner reclaimed it.

After news of the donation was reported in the Boston press, the owner showed up at Morgan Memorial . But after taking a tour, the woman was so impressed by Goodwill’s activities that she let Goodwill keep the $20,000.

As Goodwill steadily grew, Rev. Helms made two decisions to make his workload manageable. First, he decided that all Goodwill agencies would be independent nonprofits. Rev. Helms continued as head of Morgan Memorial and of a small national organization that helped local agencies connect with each other. But unlike other comparable nonprofits of the period, Goodwill became a collection of allied independent agencies, not a large, centralized organization.

Second, all Goodwills adopted Rev. Helms’s work-oriented philosophy. Many other poverty-fighters of Edgar Helms’s generation concluded that battling the causes of poverty (bad housing, poor medical care, low wages) was more important than improving the lives of the poor. These thinkers ultimately devised the intellectual rationale for the welfare state. But Rev. Helms never crossed this particular frontier. He insisted that the best way to help the poor was to employ them productively.

In a 1924 interview with journalist Earl Christmas, Rev. Helms explained that many charities spent much of their time exhaustively investigating cases to determine who should receive aid. But Goodwill preferred to offer the unemployed work–”a chance and not charity.”

“You can’t help a man by doubting him,” Rev. Helms said. “When he tells us he wants 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 part of our program.”

When the Great Depression hit, Goodwill donations fell by 20 percent. But because Goodwill donors primarily contributed goods rather than cash, the group was able to survive while other nonprofits failed or were absorbed by the welfare state.

Indeed, by 1934, Goodwill was so strong that it proposed one of the more intriguing counterfactuals of welfare history. According to Goodwill Industries historian John Fulton Lewis, top Goodwill executives (led by Rev. Helms) made an offer to FDR adviser Harry Hopkins: If the federal government would make a $5 million grant to Goodwill, Goodwill would put every unemployed American to work.

It should be noted that Lewis’s history of Goodwill is unsourced, and it’s not clear how seriously the Roosevelt Administration took this offer. According to Lewis, Hopkins was impressed, and FDR may have been, “but in the final analysis the proposal was rejected by the New Deal bureaucracy.”

Rev. Edgar J. Helms’s Legacy

It’s been just over sixty years since Rev. Helms’s death, Goodwill remains an organization that he would recognize. But it has changed in four significant ways.

First, Goodwill is no longer a faith-based charity. In a 1935 training manual, Rev. R.E. Scully, head of Goodwill’s Department of Religious and Cultural Work, stated that “the ideals of the Goodwill Industries are distinctly religious…{W}e seek to save the man, his self-respect, his morale, and his soul.” But Rev. Scully added that, although Goodwills affiliated with churches could legitimately evangelize, those that were “a recognized social agency, supported by the public through the Community Chest” should provide chapel services limited to “spiritual encouragement, moral uplift, and Christian fellowship rather than evangelistic effort.”

Goodwill ceased to be part of the Methodist Church about 1960, and by 1970 had become a completely secular organization. According to Christine Nyrjesy Bragale, spokesperson for Goodwill Industries International (the small organization that serves as a networking center for local Goodwill agencies), this change also came about when Goodwill agencies began to accept government training contracts that required grantees to neuter or eliminate their religious content.

Goodwill Industries International CEO George Kessinger, an ordained (but not practicing) Methodist minister, stresses that Goodwill still has a muted spiritual component to its mission. “Goodwill is an organization with a big heart,” he says, “but our ‘heart’ is based on our desire to serve others.”

A second substantial shift is that the customers Goodwill serves have changed. In the 1950s, Goodwill largely served those with physical disabilities. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Goodwill’s emphasis swung back to lending a hand to anyone who needed help, thus returning to Rev. Helms’s original vision. Joe Evans has been with Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit since 1982, and he thinks the change is due to Goodwill’s steady expansion. “The number of people we serve with disabilities hasn’t decreased,” he says.

Other changes have taken place in Goodwill stores. Between 1980-85, Goodwill stores largely stopped making repairs to donated products, besides checking appliances to see if they still work. At Washington, D.C.’s Davis Memorial Goodwill Industries, workers add value to donated products in two ways: they treat donated furniture with a sanitizing solution, and do check electrical appliances to see if they still work, But no other repairs are made. If unwearable rags are donated, they’re bundled and sold to rag dealers.

But the news that Goodwill is no longer in the business of re-caning chairs or darning socks has escaped many donors, who clog Goodwill boxes with unusable junk. Particularly troubling are obsolete computers (with monitors filled with hazardous lead) and soiled mattresses. Some Goodwills have closed collection boxes; others resign themselves to spending large sums on dump fees. Morgan memorial, for example, spent $300,000 in 2000 hauling away unsellable stuff and closed its unattended collection boxes. In Portland, Maine, Bob Doherty’s card now reads “director of donated goods–and junk,” as he has had to throw away dead animals, remains of clambakes, and rotting raw hamburger meat from collection boxes.

Stores have also changed to reflect the increasing segmentation of the marketplace. Most cities have regular Goodwills, which reach out to the same sort of customers who shop at Wal-Mart or Target. But other cities have more upscale markets. Washington, D.C. has its Best Kept Secrets stores, filled with the clothes and accessories that would appeal to women who shop at Saks or Bloomingdale’s. Portland, Oregon launched a “Club Goodwill” loyalty program, combined with television commercials that featured children dancing around a dinner plate and seniors dancing around a big shoe. These ads caused sales at Portland area Goodwills to increase from $25 million to $43 million in a four-year period. In the Phoenix suburb of Peoria, Goodwill industries of Central Arizona, faced with tough competition from for-profit enterprises (including “Uncle Dirty’s Liquidation” and “Licensed Junk Dealer,”) opened North America’s biggest Goodwill in May 2001, a 92,000 square foot emporium that features a snack bar and a coffee shop.

But increased competition, the sour economy, and the high costs of hauling trash have caused Goodwill Industries to shift away from stores in favor of contracts. Are you a bureaucrat? Your notepads may have been made by Goodwill under contract. Stayed at a hotel in the Midwest? In 2001, Goodwill workers cleaned 13 million pounds of dirty laundry in hotels, prisons, and hospitals throughout Wisconsin and Illinois. Drive an American car? Most of the license plate brackets for cars from the Big Three automakers were assembled by Goodwill contractors.

In 2002, Goodwill collectively produced $2.06 billion in revenue, and over 46 million people donated goods to Goodwill stores. Nearly half a million people underwent job training, and Goodwill placed more than 98,000 people in jobs with local employers and hired 38,000 more for its stores and other contracts–taking more than 100,000 Americans off the welfare rolls.

Goodwill Industries International estimates that 5 million Americans sought work at Goodwill in the organization’s first century. In 2002, Goodwill launched a “21st century Initiative”, designed to help 20 million people enter the labor force by 2020.

“At Goodwill Industries, we know that the most effective way to help people is by providing the chance to earn a paycheck and help their families,” George Kessinger said at a press conference announcing the initiative. “We believe that work creates the necessary energy to build strong communities.”

So the dream of a struggling inner city minister has become one of the nation’ largest–and most productive–group of charities. And while his more statist competitors created a system that ensures dependency and defeat for the poor, Rev. Edgar Helms’s work-oriented philosophy has freed millions of Americans from the dole.

Few today would seriously question the merits of the Boy Scouts and Goodwill Industries. But these charities would not exist without “social entrepreneurs” like Robert Baden-Powell and Edgar Helms.


1. In By Their Bootstraps: The Lives of Twelve Gilded-Age Social Entrepreneurs, published by the Manhattan Institute in 2002, I examine the ideas of 12 founders of important nonprofits in America and Britain.

2. Portions of the article on Rev. Edgar J. Helms, including a quotation from an interview I did with Goodwill Industries International CEO George Kessinger, first appeared in a 2002 article in Philanthropy.

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