…if only they’d read the paper!
I redirected this blog a few months back to focus on issues that support my teaching and, I hope, the teaching of other PR profs. Here’s a simple lesson I spotted in my local newspaper today, and it’s a lose-lose situation for an organization that deserves better.
In today’s Akron Beacon Journal, columnist/reporter Bob Dyer (they do double and triple duty these days) wrote about a local woman who’s been dumpster diving behind the Goodwill store in Tallmadge, Ohio. It’s a classic hero-and-villain story that puts Goodwill in a bad light — and unfairly so.
And as we all know, journalists love stories with heros and villains. It’s one of the first things students learn in journalism school — or in my case, in a media relations class.
The hero: Meet Marion Lesher, a good samaritan who’s been fishing usable items out of the trash bin behind the Goodwill store. She salvages all sorts of stuff, from small appliances like curling irons and can openers to dolls and plush toys. She cleans and repairs them, then donates the items to a local homeless shelter. This 63-year-old woman, who is disabled and gets around in a motorized cart, can ony be called a saint.
The villain: While Dyer’s story doesn’t cast Goodwill as an “evil” villain, it does paint the organization as wasteful and uncaring. We learn in the story that Goodwill routinely tosses out hundreds of items donated by well-meaning supporters. Only deep in the story — on the jump page — do we learn that most of these are items are things Goodwill cannot sell in its stores for a range of reasons.
Some of the discarded items are in disrepair, and Goodwill doesn’t have the staff or resources to fix them. Besides, how much time do you invest in fixing a lamp that fetches $2.50 at retail?
And while some of the electrical items are in working order, guidelines of the Consumer Product Safety Commission make them risky resale items. Besides, would you want to use someone else’s curling iron? Or a secondhand can opener that might have a frayed cord or rusty blade? Think of the liabilities alone.
A Goodwill spokesperson explained its policies to the writer, but still lost the PR battle in this story. Overall, the piece casts Goodwill as wasteful and, by implication, ungrateful to its donors. That is unfortunate and unfair, but today it’s front-page news.
I can’t speak to the facts in this particular story, but I do know that too many well-intentioned donors use the Goodwill boxes as a dump for things they’d never use themselves. So why would anyone want to BUY them?
Long ago, I did some pro bono work for a Goodwill operation — wonderful people doing important work. But each day they hauled away 1 or 2 large dumpsters of donated goods that just weren’t fit for resale for a number of reasons. Goodwill stores, like any other retail operation, must turn their inventory quickly to remain viable. If it doesn’t sell, it gets dumped.
But aren’t Goodwill Stores there to help the poor? No. Sure, Goodwill stores are a good place to shop if you need a bargain, and that helps our low-income citizens. But the stores are a fundraising mechanism that let’s Goodwill do the really important work. Lots of folks don’t know this.
Goodwill’s central mission, according to its website, is “education, training, and career services for people with disadvantages, such as welfare dependency, homelessness, and lack of education or work experience, as well as those with physical, mental and emotional disabilities.”
Nowhere in that mission does it say: Sell used curling irons to poor people.
So today I’m feeling sorry for the people at my local Goodwill Industries. They do outstanding work and should be applauded. But today they find themselves in a lose-lose situation — a villain in a story that really has no heroes.
What could Goodwill have done to avoid this negative publicity? And what, if anything, should it do in response?
Update: 4:45 p.m., 9/17/09 From the Associated Press:
…Goodwill Industries now locks the trash bins and has asked police to help keep people away.
Goodwill regional vice president Valerie Still says the charity doesn’t want trash pickers hurting themselves. She also says a large portion of the discarded items are products deemed unsafe by federal watchdogs.
Ouch. Locking the dumpsters is the right thing to do. It really is. But slamming them on the fingers of St. Marion of Tallmadge isn’t gonna set well with some folks, many of whom are Goodwill customers and supporters.
Is there a way to compromise? A way to let Marion and folks like her pick through the leftovers? Maybe that isn’t possible. But this reaction by Goodwill just escalated the public discussion. Something tells me the local yakkers on WNIR-FM will be all over this one — if they aren’t already.
Update #2: 7:125 a.m., 9/18/09:
This story from today’s Beacon Journal has me wondering about the timing of yesterday’s story about Marion. Turns out the Jim Gibbons, CEO of Goodwill Industries International, was in Akron yesterday to address the Akron Roundtable. He was quick to point out that Goodwill’s mission is about helping people find jobs. It’s not about the the stores.
In the end, the story is a fluff piece about the speech, and it never mentions the dumpster issue. The PR folks at Goodwill can’t be too upset, even though it ran along the gutter on page 3 and doesn’t say much of local interest.
But it has me wondering about the timing. On the day Gibbons comes to town, a negative story about Goodwill appears on page 1. Just sayin’.