The warehouse at Goodwill’s Tacoma headquarters is a thrifter’s paradise.
Aisles and aisles of metal shelving house vintage sock monkeys, well-loved duck boots, checkered wool coats, and hand-painted ceramics. There’s a separate room where currency from around the world is sorted, along with ornate jewelry that was deemed too unique or valuable for thrift-store shelves. And the books! Almost an entire quadrant of the warehouse is dedicated to books to be sold on amazon.com or Goodwill’s online auction site.
After items are donated to local Goodwill stores, employees reroute some of the more remarkable items to this Goodwill of the Olympics and Rainier Region warehouse for inspection and sale online. From there, they’re photographed and posted on the site for someone else to fall in love with. One of the most famed items to come through the South Sound warehouse was a signed sketch by Salvador Dali, which sold in the online auction for $21,005.
Those who know Goodwill stores simply as brick-and-mortar treasure chests are missing the most significant aspect of the global nonprofit. Its thrift stores, boutique shops with higher-end retail items, and online auctions — fueled by warehouses like the one in Tacoma — support what Goodwill is really about: providing educational opportunities for those in need.
Leading this regional operation of 1,526 employees is President and CEO Lori Forte Harnick, who joined the nonprofit in March 2017 after serving as chief operating officer of Microsoft Philanthropies and general manager for its Citizenship and Public Affairs team.
After 10 years with Microsoft, Harnick felt a longing to be more community based and was drawn to the work Goodwill had developed over its 116-year history. It has educational programs nationwide, but the regional education arm of the nonprofit is a $9 million operation, and 90 percent of the funds are generated from Goodwill’s retail sales. But even though Goodwill is a global brand, each regional branch operates fairly independently and works daily to make a local impact.
Last year, Goodwill of the Olympics and Rainier Region provided job training, job placement, and support services for more than 9,400 people. In Harnick’s 15-county region, training that ranges from math tutoring and computer skills to the culinary school and barista program offers a “a hand up, not a handout,” as Goodwill founder Edgar J. Helms once said. And it caters to almost everyone: youth, people with disabilities, adults, seniors, and veterans.
“People know our stores, but they don’t know our stories,” Harnick said, of Goodwill’s lesser-known educational and job-training programs. “It’s true: We have this street presence in terms of the brand that you see, but the reason for those stores is to fund the job-training programs, and certainly through the people we employ in the store, we’re providing them with job training and job opportunity, of course, but we also have designed these programs for the community.”
Harnick, a Connecticut-born, first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Italy, decided as early as elementary school that she wanted to work in international relations. As a child of immigrants, she saw firsthand the importance of cultural understanding and communications, which forged early on her interest in the communications field.
Early in her career, she worked in public affairs in Washington, D.C., and London. Then for a decade, she worked in global communications for Burson-Marsteller in Detroit. In 2007, her family settled in the Pacific Northwest when she was hired on at Microsoft as the senior director of corporate communications.
Throughout her career, philanthropy had always been in the background, and it was at Microsoft that it really came to the forefront. After a full career in global communications and philanthropy, she determined she wanted to be in a setting where she could see the more direct, local impact of her work.
“(At Microsoft) I had a chance to meet so many nonprofits and got to visit those local communities and to see the impact (we were making), and I realized I wanted to get a step closer to that,” she said. “The global corporate effort, of course, was so satisfying and really impactful, but I just felt for my own professional journey I wanted to take it a step closer to a community impact, and that led me to determine it was time to join a nonprofit and be more local as opposed to global.”
A nonprofit as a social enterprise was an attractive quality, she said. All nonprofits want to make a difference, but doing it is easier said than done. Goodwill, for the most part, is self-sustainable, with 10 percent of its support coming from public and private donations. It was a model she knew she’d learn a lot from.
Also notable are Goodwill’s efforts in sustainability to rehome unwanted items. Goodwill’s retail stores divert 77.4 percent of donations from the landfill, helping lessen the epidemic of today’s ever-increasing throwaway culture.
Goodwill’s donations go through a tiered process, so to speak. Whatever isn’t sold at the thrift store is sold by the pound at its outlet stores, and from there it goes to the salvage market. Anything that isn’t sold at the salvage market is recycled, and the residual goes to the dump.
And other businesses have sprung up to upcycle or resell what’s sold by Goodwill, said Public Relations and Communications Director George White.
“On our salvage side, we have a guy that buys single shoes,” White said. “So, if you donate only one of your shoes, he’ll buy them and pair them up.”
Harnick added: “That’s one of the things I’ve learned. If you don’t know whether to donate something to us, just donate it, because we’ll probably find a way to keep it out of the landfill.”
With a little over a year under her belt at Goodwill, Harnick is still getting to know the community. She and her family — husband Blake and their two teenaged children — still live in Sammamish, so during her down time, she’s been exploring and getting to know the South Sound.
“I want to understand what the community needs are, and where can we add value,” she said. “I want to make sure we’re adding unique value and not repeating things that are already being done … But it’s fun. Tacoma is such a vibrant place. There’s so much good happening. There’s so much change happening.”
So we could get to know her better, Harnick took us through a day in her life as she met with her boots-on-the-ground employees, visited training programs, and spent time off the clock. Continue reading to see a day in the life of this philanthropic powerhouse.
Photos courtesy Lori Forte Harnick
7:30 a.m. I start my day with a lovely drive along State Route 18, with plenty of time to gather my thoughts on my way from Sammamish to Maple Valley.
8:15 a.m. Today, I’m visiting our Maple Valley store. Regular visits to our stores give me the chance to say hello to our retail teams, share news of our organization, hear from employees about any challenges or opportunities, and answer their questions.
8:30 a.m. Still at Maple Valley with our front-line store employees. We usually spend a good deal of time talking about the needs of their communities. The retail industry has been a challenge as of late, but our employees take great care of their customers, and it shows in the numbers of those who return day after day. These hard workers are my inspiration!
10:30 a.m. Our regular board of directors meeting is today. We are so fortunate to have top leadership from the Tacoma community providing us guidance and support. Top of the agenda is how we will enhance our missions’ services across our region.
11:15 a.m. Having a culinary school on our campus means I can drop in to sample the day’s lunch. Head chef Jeff Pratt publishes the menu each morning, giving me a heads-up on my favorite soup — broccoli cheddar. Today, however, a taste is all I get, as I’m off to Tacoma Rotary 8 for its weekly luncheon.
12:55 p.m. Sneaking out five minutes before the end of the luncheon to make a meeting back in the office with our marketing and fundraising teams to plan the latest in our series of “Goodwill Experience” events, designed to increase community awareness of our job-training program offerings and services.
5:00 p.m. After some afternoon office work, I’m at Stadium High School to recognize the launch of the Healthcare Careers Collaborative, an initiative led by leaders from Tacoma Public Schools and our local universities. We’re thrilled to be a part of this effort to expand the gateway for students interested in the many hot jobs in the healthcare field.
7:30 p.m. Thank goodness for the long summer days. It’s still daylight as I settle into dinner and some quality family time. My son, Bryce, has fun with our “candid” dinner scene.