Bringing Goodwill to central Indiana

by Russ Pulliam

Posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2014, at 4:43 pm

INDIANAPOLIS—Engineers and social workers seem to work from opposite ends of the brain.

But retiring Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana executive Jim McClelland has worked both angles with unusual success for 40 years.

Goodwill’s growth in Indianapolis area has been spectacular under his leadership since 1974. Back then, the balance sheet showed $3 million in revenue and 558 employees. Now it’s revenues of $130 million and 3,100 on staff. The organization has grown from eight to 55 stores, along with 10 charter schools, becoming one of the largest Goodwill groups in the nation.

With stock options in a publicly traded company, McClelland could have done fairly well with that sort of growth. Though entrepreneurial by instinct, he was never in it for the money.

With an industrial engineering degree and an MBA, McClelland found his sweet spot for helping people at Goodwill. He used his business skills in ever-expanding and creative ways to help those in need.

McClelland took Goodwill beyond its traditional sheltered workplaces to start one of the first charter schools in Indianapolis, Metropolitan High School, which quickly became a go-to place for students who had trouble at other schools. As others debated whether students from tough backgrounds could get a good education, Metropolitan developed an impressive record of students going on to college and trade schools.

Then Goodwill under McClelland launched another group of charters, the Excel Centers, for high school dropouts. The goal was not just a degree: The ideal was to teach the required academic skills but also teach “grit,” or character qualities such as perseverance with the help of coaches.

In another innovation to tackle multi-generational poverty, Goodwill under McClelland launched the Nurse-Family Partnership to help single mothers learn how to take care of babies and avoid long-term health problems.

Most social workers aren’t engineers, but local Goodwill board member and former Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Mike O’Connor sees McClelland’s engineering mind as a key to his effectiveness.

“Jim thinks like an industrial engineer,” O’Connor said. “He sees all the pieces and the support structures and the beams and how all the dots line up.”

Another board member, Gene Zink, thinks McClelland brings more than a mix of business and social work skills: “He’s an entrepreneur. He’s had some huge successes and he has had some failures. He’s willing to take chances.”

Growing up in Florida, McClelland had a paper route, mowed lawns, and worked at a bowling alley. At age 10, he also built a wood frame drive-in movie theater to accommodate bicycles. He charged 10 cents for admission and 10 cents for popcorn, and kept track of his expenses and revenues.

He took the old Goodwill slogans quite seriously: “Not charity, but a chance.” “A hand up, not a handout.” But he’s modernized them for a knowledge-based economy.

The compassion part of his calling came from serving in a church in Washington, D.C., after college. There he volunteered as a tutor for low-income teens.

“I got more satisfaction out of that experience than from anything I had ever done in my life and began to wonder if there was a place where I might be able to use my industrial engineering skills, get a similar kind of satisfaction, and get paid enough to live on,” he noted.

That place turned out to be Goodwill.

In running Goodwill of Central Indiana, McClelland steered clear of partisan politics. In some ways he can sound politically liberal in speaking about poverty and the breakdown of the family and related social problems. Yet he’s no big fan of big federal government programs to help the poor. He thinks the private sector can usually do better. His 40-year track record at Goodwill is a good argument for that essentially small-government conservative point of view.

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.

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