Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Whose Goodwill?

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | March 25, 2009 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, Politics, Politics
Tags: arbeit macht frei, nonprofit scams, San Francisco

Everyone knows that Goodwill is a racket, right? Their mission is to give poor people job skills, and here's how they operate: rich and middle-class people donate the shit they don't want anymore, so that they can deduct it from their taxes (that shag area rug is totally worth $750), and then Goodwill takes this shit and sells it at overpriced rates to poor people. In 2007, Goodwill made $2 billion from this shit.

Did you hear that? $2 billion went directly from poor people and bargain shoppers to this "nonprofit" that supposedly exists to train poor people in job skills. This nonprofit where the CEO is rumored to make over $1 million a year and regional heads make several hundred thousand or more.

Why not just give the $2 billion out to poor people? Oh, right -- because it's work that will set you free.

I go to Goodwill all the time -- there's a store three blocks from my house, and if I go often enough I can find all sorts of things that I need and/or don't need: glasses, plates, a lamp, an end table, children's books, plastic flowers. So I love wandering around -- it's a good distraction from how terrible I usually feel.

Unfortunately, in an era where public space disappears faster than you can say billionaire bankers bailout, Goodwill contains probably the most interesting cross-section of people in San Francisco -- tons of tweakers and transwomen and working-class people of color, young queers and old queers, toddlers and grandparents, people with homes and people without, people new to the city and people who've lived here forever and people who grew up here. Lots of madness -- some of it festive and some more desperate, but all somehow contained and enhanced by piles of discarded items now arranged for our consumer thrill.

I can't remember exactly when this Goodwill first hired a security guard, but I think it was about five years ago. Now, it's hard for me to imagine something more grotesque than a company that supposedly exists to provide services for poor people, hiring a security guard to make sure that these same poor people don't steal any of the merchandise that Goodwill got for free! I mean -- how much are they paying the security guard? Anyway, from time to time he follows me around but I ignore him -- since we all look kind of suspicious here at Goodwill, the security guard actually follows most of us around.

But then the other day I was walking out of the store and someone yelled hey! Hey! I wasn't paying attention, because there's always a lot of noise in this neighborhood, but then it turns out it's the security guard yelling at me, asking what I have underneath my arm -- this is my scarf and mittens, I say, the scarf and mittens that I wear every day! I hold it up to the two people working, who stare at me like they don't know what to do, which is probably the worst part -- I mean I've smiled at these people literally hundreds of times at this point, and they can't even say yes, that's the scarf that lady wears every day. Of course, part of the Goodwill training seems to include making sure that the staff members treat customers like trash -- I've seen people start at the store all smiles and within a few weeks they're making fun of customers with strong accents or yelling at people for taking too much time to pay.

I leave the store, and now I'm just angry.

Mattilda also blogs at

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Several years ago I called Good Will to donate an overstuffed chair. Their answer was put it on the front porch and we'll see. The chair was about 5 years old, the fabric wasn't torn or even particularly worn, the fabric wasn't "soiled". It was however, dusty. You know - that city dusty that sorta settles in. The kind that comes out with one of those little green steam machines - which I didn't own. I really liked that chair. It was just too big for my new house - Baltimore alley houses are about 11 feet wide.

The note they left was pretty snide - we'd have to clean this before we could utilize it. So much for teaching people skills. I'm thinking, "are they so clueless they don't know how "in demand" a formerly unemployed person with upholstery skills would be?"

Ever since then the veins in my neck stand up when someone say's, "why don't you give it to Goodwill." It's a shame my experience is so universal.

Twice in your article you state that Goodwill "supposedly" provides job skills training for out of work people -- are you suggesting that they do NOT do this? I interviewed for a job once with Goodwill, and have a friend who currently works there, and it seems like the job services Goodwill provides are invaluable. Not only do they train people how to write resumes, find jobs, etc, they also work with employers to give jobs to "risky" people -- people who have just been released from jail, people with drug histories, etc. Goodwill offers to vouch for them, and keeps close tabs on these clients to make sure they're getting to work and staying clean.

It's easy to look at a non-profit organization that takes in a lot of money and sneer, but I happen to believe that people who work hard at their job deserve a good salary, even a great salary, and Goodwill's status as a non-profit does not preclude that. The non-profit status means that there are no investors who are collecting profit shares; it does NOT mean that all the employees have taken a vow of poverty. If a non-profit wants the best and brightest people to work for their company, then they NEED to offer truly competitive salaries.

I agree that it's sad that you were treated badly in a Goodwill store, but I find that it's customer service EVERYWHERE that is failing. Have you complained to the store manager? Like any other business, Goodwill management needs to be directly informed of customer service failures, or else no corrective action can be taken.

Greg, that's interesting to hear that they don't even treat people who are *donating* very well...

Kirk, I'm sure that Goodwill does provide useful job skills in certain instances, but one common practice is when they hire someone as a "welfare to work" employee, pay them below minimum wage and teach them how to hang clothes on a rack, then fire them once the welfare to work term expires. What I'm trying to call attention to is how they operate in such an exploitative manner that it calls into question whether the balance is more in the direction of the exploitation than the aid.

I'm not necessarily trying to call attention to how I was treated specifically, but how Goodwill treats people in general.

beergoggles | March 25, 2009 8:31 PM

Well, not like any self-respecting homo should be donating to Salvation Army, which considerably cuts down on choices.

I guess there's always the recycle company that I can pay to take my old stuff away; no one's going to complain when they turn over a profit and since they don't have customers to turn around and sell that stuff to, I guess it's a win when they don't yell at you.

I do think it's important to know that "a company that supposedly exists to provide services for poor people, [is] hiring a security guard to make sure that these same poor people don't steal any of the merchandise that Goodwill got for free!" Someone out there is going to go on about businesses needing to protect their merchandise, so let me just make two points here: the stuff comes in for free; criminalising the population that's supposed to benefit from having a place to find stuff for cheap because, well, it's cheap, seems the dementedly wrong way to go. There's something very Dickensian-poor-house about that - like slapping the hands of people who reach for gruel (if you'll forgive the pathology there). This may not be as simple as "customer relations," but about figuring different relations with the community. There are lots of different ways of keeping an "eye" on the merchandise.

I think we tend to give a pass to non-profits in general because they've cloaked themselves in a cloak of piety. But, really, I've often thought these are the pseudo-corporations that are a lot more evil than the for-profits. What's that line from Alien? When Ripley comments to the android Bishop about the alien monsters, "You admire them," and his response is something like, "Yes, because, they're pure killing machines." Which is to say, they exist for one thing only and they don't hide it. Kinda how I feel about corporations.

But we don't have Goodwills here, and the other thrift chains, like Village Discount, Unique and, of course, the ubiquitous Salvation Army don't, as far as I know, make any claims about training people. Again, a lot more honest, I think.

Mattilda, this is something you might want to try to replicate in San Francisco.

The collect up stuff people no longer need, and give it to people who need the stuff. It is a pretty cool collaboration.

Beergoggles, are you saying I shouldn't be shaking my Salvation Army can?

And Yasmin, brilliant as always!

And Greg, that is a great idea!

beergoggles | March 31, 2009 11:10 PM

You can shake whatever you want MBS. I just won't be since the SA in Boston isn't such a pinnacle of graciousness.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 26, 2009 4:38 AM

I think we have to remember the smell of a thrift store and imagine it much worse to appreciate why they don't want to necessarily take in unclean fabric items or furniture. (Oh yes, I love thrifts, Chicago has dozens of them in the real neighborhoods (Yazmin evidently does not know) benefiting Amvets, among others. The real holy grail of a thrift shop is a Salvation Army shop off of Grand Avenue just East of Halsted which contains some of the most delectable goodies. All the best antiques and china. This particular store benefits substance abuse victims and their too frequently abused families. I do not care about the Salvation Army's stance on GLBT issues if they are helping children and families.

In Palm Beach "Goodwill of the Palm Beaches" keeps a store on Palm Beach island with a similar theme, but concentrating on assisting unwed mothers.

When you talk about the two billion they generate it also pays to remember that their rents are not free, their staff is paid so they can be fired if they are brain dead, the sorting centers are very labor intensive, and...those clothes that are deemed unsaleable go to the third world. Children and families in the poorest countries in the world are clothed by Goodwill Industries. About half of the clothing donated to Goodwill Industries is exported around the world.

Now Mattilda, if you have a problem with either security or sales staff you know how to contact their customer complaint department. I have to disagree with you that they are any type of racket. They are imperfect, but much better than organized religion. :) Peace,

Oh, Robert, Robert, Robert,

I quiver before your awesome superior knowledge about my own city, the one in which I live (but perhaps, alas, not in a "real neighborhood"). If only you could actually read what I said a bit more carefully - you might be able to discern the actual meaning of the words. And maybe then you would actually spell my name right.

But, Mattilda, he's so right about one thing.
I, too, have lived in the third world, where little children tremble in anticipation whenever boxes of t-shirts are rolled out. Oh, the joys of a faded and torn Che t-shirt made in China on slave labour wages, lapping up on the shores of some godforsaken - what was the term you use? - "third world" country.

First, the white missionaries taught the natives how to craft proper laws and cut down native wood to make furniture for Andersonville yuppies (is that one of those "real neighborhoods" in the fabled land of white people, I wonder?). Then, they showed them how to be happy wearing Kiss concert t-shirts from 1979. Be grateful, little ones - what you wear on your backs has been gently worn and somehow escaped the notice of some maniacal E-bay collector. Bow in gratitude before the awesome might of Goodwill, the force that clothes you, and, if you're lucky, will train you in the intricacies of hangers and receipts. Bow, bow, bow!

The Great Ganshorn alludes to something called ... Palm Beach? But I know not if 'tis a place or a paradise closed to such as myself. Please enlighten, Oh, Great Ganshorn. Is it a palm tree? Or a beach? A real neighborhood? My poor feeble mind is confused and I plead for the strength of your knowledge. All I know is that somewhere in that beautifully named land, an "unwed mother," having been assisted, can finally rock her bastard child to sleep.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 26, 2009 11:25 AM

Oh, Yasmin, Yasmin, Yasmin. I frequently transpose "z" and "s" so I do apologize. I have had my name mis spelled and mis pronounced since youth and it is hard on the ear.

Now, "great?" Read my bio in the alumni contributor area. I do not make any such pretense, but I hope I am considerate. I went to thrifts all over the city during the nearly three decades I and my partner lived there. Usually it was to help someone else out including the several people I have known who have had house fires.

When one of the members of the little league team we sponsored (read bio) needed a heavy winter coat I would find one there and wash the devil out of it and make sure he had gloves as well. But that does not make me great either, just caring.

From your response it would appear you would advocate burning usable, but unsaleable, clothing rather than seeing it available to other destitute people and I am sure that is not what you really think.

So you know your geography Palm Beach county is the largest county in Florida in land area and I lived in it in a house half the size of my Chicago home so that I could care for my partner. I did not live on "the island" but made many trips there as I enjoy museums. Nothing as good as Chicago, of course, but you should know that I am sure. During my nearly thirty years in Chicago I saw everything good and bad the city has to offer. "Your" city, no, ours!

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 26, 2009 11:29 AM

Oh, and I said "around the world" not third world

Donate to the Veterans!!!

They take just about anything but outright garbage. They give away their stuff to those in need and their money goes to the Vets.

I refuse to buy or give to Goodwill for years now. They turned away a leather couch with a small pen mark (and I mean small). There were other things but that was the last straw.

In the greater LA area, we have several thrift stores that benefit AIDS charities (Out of the Closet). I usually end up giving to them, even though I know that AIDS charities have certainly had their fair share of controversy through the years. I would recommend contacting your local gay center and asking them if they know of any LGBT friendly thrift stores.

Maybe the security guard is learning valuable job skills? That's a job that's in high demand post-9/11....

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 27, 2009 11:26 PM

A German owned grocery chain in Chicago is called "ALDI" and they specialize in foodstuffs at low prices. Their security guards can be a pain because they "get in your face." At least, until they met me who asked: "Who in the hell do you think you are talking to?" This guard was yelling at a little old lady to get her cart in a straighter line at the checkouts. After a conversation with the store manager on behalf of the Spanish speaking elder the security guard was replaced.

Sounds like he found his way to San Francisco. Sorry about that Mattilda.

beachcomberT | March 28, 2009 6:33 AM

In my part of Central Florida, Goodwill operates as a successful big business, but its thrift store prices seem fair, and they do run lots of clearance sales. They also operate a job-finding storefront that is much more helpful and humane to street people than the state's official "career center." If you don't like Goodwill, there are probably dozens of small church-run or hospital-run thrift stores close to you. Animal-protection groups also are big thrift-store players.

Alex, yes yes -- valuable job skills, indeed!