Where do the donations go? Goodwill of South Central Wisconsin gives glimpse behind the scenes

Goodwill of South Central Wisconsin gave tours Friday, laying out how rare items go into the ecommerce pipeline.

Not just a rare find with a great deal or a place to discard your old belongings. Goodwill of South Central Wisconsin opened up its doors to show how your donations translate into social programs for marginalized communities.

Goodwill of South Central Wisconsin held an open house Friday to give community members a better look at what they do behind the retail store front. Attendees were able to gain a better understanding of the breadth of work the nonprofit thrift chain does and how it funds its programs that often go unrealized by people. Throughout the tour of facilities of its home office on Mendota Street, Goodwill gave a behind the scenes look at how the things you donate funds their programs on workforce development, affordable housing and tax services.

Goodwill started with a breakdown of how its processes work. Attendees of the open house were taken through its processing warehouse to see how items are evaluated, priced and distributed.

“Most people know Goodwill by the retail thrift, opportunity to donate, and that’s really important, but we want people to know about the good work we do,” said Michele Harris, CEO of Goodwill of South Central Wisconsin. “It’s really about just helping people really see the good we do and know us and learn to love us for the work we do and the thrift.”

Goodwill is currently working on how it is perceived. It wants to move away from being seen as the place to donate old goods to focus on how your donated goods translate into good for your community. Harris, and Goodwill nationally, are highlighting its individual branches’ social programs through efforts like open houses.

The tour kicked off with a look at its warehouse and sustainability area, where things like clothing and household goods are evaluated for their ability to be sold.

Groups then moved to its e-commerce section where they got to see how books, electronics, appliances and clothing are evaluated. Items are checked for quality and rarity as Goodwill determines where donated goods should be sold. Items end up either in stores, sold online or, the case of rare finds, put onto its auction site.

“We get far more stuff than we can possibly move out of the door of stores,“ said Jim Haselden, e-commerce manager at Goodwill of South Central Wisconsin.

The e-commerce team scans items cleared for quality to determine whether it should be sold in store, online or auctioned off. Items that are harder to find or have not been sold for a long time at places like Amazon are listed online for a higher markup than at stores, but still below market rates, for the chance to bring more money than an instore purchase due its rarity. Items deemed on the “hot list” are sent to stores with the assumption that the item will sell quickly.

The tour then moved from the behind-the-scenes retail to Goodwill’s programs, and how it will move forward with them in the future. Attendees were able to learn about its employment services program, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program and affordable housing initiatives.

Goodwill’s employment services provide training for adults with disabilities and other barriers to find a job that provides a livable wage.

“The one thing I always try to highlight is that culturally, work is so important in the United States,” said Susan Kozar, program manager for employment services. “We identify ourselves by what we do, and the people we serve are no different.”

Kozar spoke on the importance of finding and having a job for those who have mental disorders and other disabilities. The work she does with employment services trains people to find jobs that work for them and provide a livable wage.

Goodwill’s VITA program helps provide people with free tax preparation for community members with low to moderate income. The service is entirely volunteer-led and provides training for tax preparers with different levels of certification required by the IRS to process tax returns.

“Most of the people, it’s hard to find $250 in their budget to get their taxes filed,” Joe Brynes, VITA program coordinator, said. “This is their money that they’re getting back.”

Users of Goodwill’s VITA program often share with Brynes how they are going to use the money they get back from tax returns. Recipients are using the free service to catch up bills or pad their bank accounts to provide a little more financial security for their families. VITA has helped with over $1 million in tax returns so far.

The final program, and the crown jewel of everything Goodwill of South Central Wisconsin offers, is its stable housing program. Goodwill provides subsidized apartments for those with mental disorders in need. The program currently offers 90 units, between group homes and one-bedroom apartments of permanent, affordable housing for those with mental disorders capped at 30% of an occupant’s income.

“Your donations from your socks to your sweaters, that gets processed… so it can support the three mission programs we have,“ Elena Golden, director of residential, said. “If you want to make a huge difference when it comes to homelessness, this is how you can help.”

Golden turned an eye to how supporting Goodwill, and especially its housing initiative, helps mitigate recidivism in homelessness.  She cites that if someone was homeless once, it is very likely that they will be again and that supporting its affordable, permanent housing is a great step to combating the ongoing housing crisis here in Madison.

Residents of Goodwill’s housing are there for the long haul. The longest occupying resident has been in one of Goodwill’s units for 39 years. The wait list fills up immediately when it opens.

Tour groups had their perception of Goodwill changed by the open house. Attendees were often left saying that they did not realize that Goodwill was more than a thrift store. One attendee of the open house, Rob Stelzer, learned just how many people Goodwill helps through their retail efforts.

“Coming in, I was only aware of the retail aspect of it. I didn’t realize the multiple populations that [Goodwill] serves and helps,” Stelzer said. “I learned how much of a huge cycle that it can be from the beginning of a donation to where the money ends up.”

Going forward, Goodwill hopes to bolster its efforts on its programs — the tour was just one of its first steps. It has recently partnered with the Latino Chamber of Commerce for its VITA program to provide its service to more of Madison’s marginalized populations.