Spreading Goodwill

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2008

The Rev. Don Roberts knew early on that he was an entrepreneur. But he was always an entrepreneur with a twist.

“When I was 15 years old, I decided I was going to build motels for black people,” he says.


“I grew up in the Jim Crow South,” he explains. “On our back 40 acres was a tarpaper shack that an African-American family lived in. Because of the racial divides in that day, we didn’t associate much, but I knew the kids. And I remember this kid saying to me, ‘We had to travel to Alabama, and we had to stop on the side of the road for my momma to go to the bathroom ‘cause nobody would let her go to the bathroom in a regular white place.’ That was 1950. And at 15, I said, ‘I’m going to develop a business with social enterprise rules.’ And then the Civil Rights things blew my business model totally out!”

Darn that Civil Rights movement.

“It screwed up everything, or I’d be the king of African-American motels!” he says, laughing. “I don’t know why a 15-year-old envisions both a business model and a social enterprise model in the same place. Who knows? A gift of God? But I find myself now, 50 years later, running a business with a social enterprise.”

And what a business it is. As president and CEO of Goodwill Manasota, the 6-foot-2-inch, Southern-tinged, humor-loving Roberts runs a $25 million organization, encompassing four corporations with 525 employees. He’s spent the last 31 of his 65 years atop the local Goodwill operation. But it’s not just a local business. Roberts and his team have developed such a solid reputation that they consult to or operate Goodwills in two other states and two Canadian cities.

“Our business model,” he says, “is that we make it convenient for 600,000 people in the Manatee-Sarasota area to bring something and drop it off at 35 donation centers. Then we make 11 retail vocational training centers convenient to about 1.5 million shoppers to come and buy that stuff back. We took the branch-banking model and adopted it to Goodwill, because you can sell money anywhere, but unless you’re on the prime corner, you’re not going to get the deposits. You can’t go two miles here in this community without running into a Goodwill, because it’s about convenience, convenience, convenience. We find people really don’t care who they give their stuff to. They say they do, but the person that gets in their way first, that makes it convenient and has charitable intent, they’re going to donate to.”

To make it even more convenient, Goodwill Manasota has even equipped every store with a drive-thru for patrons making donations. Inside, shoppers—who cover a wide gamut of backgrounds and income levels (attorneys looking for bargain-basement Armani suits, for example)—find well-organized racks of clothing and everything from cookware and books to stereo equipment, furniture and more. Special “boutique” sections offer top-quality goods and collectibles at higher prices.

Eighty percent of Goodwill Manasota’s revenue, which Roberts estimates will be $18 million this year, comes from retail sales, and 70 cents of every revenue dollar goes to payroll, providing jobs for what Roberts calls “special people.” All those donations and the sales are really all about only one thing, Roberts says: “Our real business strategy is that we want to create as many jobs as we can by collecting as many donations as we can and selling those donations at the highest possible price. It’s the old Goodwill model—not charity but chance.” As in giving people a chance, that is.

“He’s brilliant,” says Steve Baseman, a longtime Goodwill Industries board member and personal friend. “What you see is what you get. There are no promises that he will not keep. He runs the most successful Goodwill in the world, out of 195 of them.”

One characteristic that distinguishes Roberts, Baseman says, is that while many of the people running charitable organizations want to do good, too many don’t have the business acumen to successfully run their programs. “It’s inherent in the not-for-profit sector,” Baseman says.

Take Roberts and put him in the private sector, and look out, Baseman warns.

“I pleaded with him to give up the collar years ago. I said, ‘Come on! We’ll make a fortune!’ If he didn’t have a calling to be a Methodist minister, I can’t even imagine what he’d be worth. He’s an incredible visionary.”

Roberts has steered Goodwill from an agency that in 1977 served approximately 100 people with state-funded services to one that in 2007 served more than 7,500 people with a variety of self-funded social services. During that time, Goodwill grew from a 60-employee, $900,000 agency to a 527-employee, $22 million organization.

In addition to its chain of retail outlets, Goodwill Manasota provides a variety of social services through various programs. Its affordable housing development group has built 60 homes and helped another 90 families own existing homes. It offers English classes to immigrants so they can enter the mainstream of their new country and find success here. It also operates a charter school for young adults with developmental disabilities. The students take academic classes and vocational training, and when they graduate, they’re guaranteed their first job.

Goodwill was started by the Methodists in 1902 to put unemployed Irish-Catholic immigrants to work in Boston, where “No Irish Need Apply” signs were common. “It was really an anti-prejudice program,” Roberts says. “There is always somebody in the culture who the rest of the culture wants to deny access to. General Motors and Chrysler would not hire a Jew up until the ’70s. I’m old enough to remember those days. Goodwill has always tried to give a hand up to the folks who the rest of the culture is telling, ‘No, you can’t get your foothold on the first rung of the ladder of success in the American dream.’”

In an era when there is once more debate over the disposition of illegal immigrants in America, Roberts finds himself continuing the Methodists’ original intent.

In Sarasota and Manatee counties, Goodwill Industries serves a different clientele than perhaps its founders imagined, from immigrants and the disabled to recently released prisoners and victims of age discrimination. The bottom line is that they apply for work and many employers won’t hire them.

“All the little signs in the windows are not as visible as they used to be, but they’re all still there,” says Roberts. “Historically, it’s always been part of our movement to help people who are on this side of the line to move to that side of the line through employment because we recognize that, until you’re next to a paycheck, it’s all just conversation. The best social service program in the world is a job.”

Roberts compares himself to Carl Weinrich, president and CEO of the Sarasota Family YMCA. Both came to town around the same time. Side by side, they built unusually strong and wide-ranging, stand-alone community organizations.

“Both of us are, by nature, entrepreneurs and stupid enough to do it in the not-for-profit world when we could take those same skill sets and make a bazillion dollars if we wanted to be for-profit entrepreneurs,” Roberts says. “But that’s not what tugs our hearts.”

“Obviously, he’s got a great business model,” Weinrich says. “Not only has he done a great job with his agency but he’s stepped up to give leadership to other causes. And he’s an incredible orator. His speaking ability and wit—I admire him a great deal in that way.”

Roberts says the “fun part” of his job is receiving calls such as the one from the national Goodwill organization to go to Memphis to take over a bankrupt organization and turn it around. Manasota-based Goodwill currently has consulting and training contracts with Goodwills in Sacramento (in the city and to develop Reno, Nevada, as a territory for it), Memphis (in the city and to develop Mississippi as a territory for it), Flagstaff, N.M., and four Canadian cities. Additionally, the Toronto Goodwill sends its employees to Bradenton for training.

“We have a contract between the boards of directors to provide donated goods, employment and development services,” says Roberts. “We help them by enhancing their capacity to expand their donated goods basis; some of the contracts extend to 2014. It builds mission capacity for that Goodwill and this Goodwill at the same time.”

In years past, the Manasota Goodwill has also provided services to Goodwills in Tucson, Houston, Austin, Jacksonville and Tallahassee.

Roberts’ parents were active United Methodists, involved in the American labor movement and Democratic politics. “The church was the epicenter of our family life,” he says.

He grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, where he recalls attending high school dances with Janis Joplin long before the world ever heard of the future soul singer.

At 19, his church turned over a children’s home to him and he raised 40 boys before he even started college.

“We kept a strap in the top drawer of the breakfast buffet and when the boys got out of line I said, ‘Grab your ankles.’ And I never had behavioral problems,” he says, adding quickly, “They would throw you in jail for that today.”

He graduated from Lamar University (class of 1964) in Beaumont, becoming active in the United Christian Fellowship, when President Kennedy was shot.

“The world was coming apart,” he recalls. “I found that the only people who were really at the forefront of making societal change in a positive way [were those in] the faith community.”

Roberts went off to seminary school at Duke with the intent of becoming a college pastor. At that point, seminary enrollment had dropped like a rock “because nobody was going to go and be God’s ear, churchy and all that stuff,” he says. “So they were hurting for clergy, and the bishop called me and said, ‘Don, would you take over this lovely church in the hills of western North Carolina?’ I was 21 years old. I’d just graduated from college. I moved over to Duke in September, and on Oct. 1, I became the pastor of this little Methodist church in the hills of western North Carolina.”

Duke University had an endowment program for seminary students that paid their tuition and fees if they served at rural churches while attending classes, “so you got a free ride as long as you were pastoring,” he says.

His next job as an associate pastor was in Houston, but the life of a parsonage didn’t suit Roberts or his first wife. In 1967, a church member with Goodwill connections started working on Roberts to join the church’s business operation. It took seven years for him to buy in—and much encouragement from his bishop—but when he did, he realized it was a perfect fit.

“I have concluded that entrepreneurs are born, not made,” Roberts says. “We’ve looked at that for years with the entrepreneurs on our board of directors. How do we teach the guy who’s running a lawn service to be an entrepreneur? My experience says you can’t. You either is or you ain’t. I think I is.”

Goodwill Industries earns money in two ways. One is by selling products or services. The other is through fund-raising.

“When I was ordained in Texas, somebody asked Bishop Martin, ‘What advice would you give new preachers?’ And the bishop said to us, ‘Boys, never worry about protecting the pocketbooks of the Methodists. They’ll do that very well themselves. Your job is to never fail to give them the opportunity to give, because it is a part of the faith-based Christian response to the world.’”

In addition to encouraging area residents to donate their used goods to Goodwill Industries, Roberts also wants them to open their wallets for Goodwill’s foundation, which has a $35 million goal for the next five years.

At that time Roberts will turn 70, and he says that’s when he’s going into business for himself.

“I said to my wife, ‘If health permits, let’s just go make a bunch of money so we can give it away!’” he says.


· Don Roberts becomes CEO;

· Six locations: Airport, Manatee, Main Street, Arcadia, Wauchula, Ruskin;

· The population of Sarasota and Manatee is 306,700;

· A sheltered workshop is the primary service

· 60 employees; about 100 people participated in programs;

· Revenues: $900,000;

· Donations collected in sheds that looked like outhouses and “we drove around picking them up” (in advance of people who helped themselves);

· All processing done at the airport facility;

· To provide activity/employment, furniture is reupholstered and TVs and radios repaired.


• 35 locations;

· Sarasota and Manatee population: more than 682,833;

· Services include education (E.S.O.L., G.E.D., Homebuyer’s Education); job training and placement (GoodwillWorks, Job Connection, JobsPlus, Supported JobsPlus, GoodHomes and the Goodwill Academy); housing (GoodHomes, Beneva Oaks); neighborhood services (Information & Referral; Jobs, Etc. mobile center, Sarasota County Health Assessment van);

· As of September 2007, Goodwill has served 7,522;

· Anticipated revenues: $15 million;

· Donations are collected at every location except Selby-Newtown, which is strictly a services center;

· Anticipated number of donations: 600,000;

· 527 employees;

· GIM has achieved national recognition as being the first to develop Donation Drive-Thrus, stand-alone bookstores and applying branch banking concept to donated goods (make it convenient for donors);

· Presently consults with other Goodwills in the U.S. and Canada.

SOURCE: Goodwill Manasota

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