A conversation with Power of Work Breakfast speaker Ned Helms
We caught up with Ned Helms, the grandson of the founder of the Goodwill movement, Rev. Edgar J. Helms. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I see you have a history in health policy and practice and have since retired. So, how do you spend your days now?
A: Since retiring in 2015, a large share of my time has been on volunteer board work. I was on the Goodwill of Northern New England Board. Then seven to eight years ago, I came on to the National Board and, in the last four years, I was chair for two years before I was the vice chair and chaired the strategic Planning Committee. And now I’m the immediate chair pastor.
If I had to guess when I was chair, I probably spent about 20 hours a week or so on board work. So I’ve been really busy with my national Goodwill work.
In addition to that, I’m the co-chair of The Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership & Public Service. I’ve been the co-chair of the advisory group of that, and I also serve on a board called the Endowment for Health, which was created a number of years ago when Anthem Blue Cross bought Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Hampshire. It was a conversion foundation, and it’s now got about $100 million, and we give grants to not-for-profits in New Hampshire. So that’s kind of taken up my time.
Q: It sounds like a full-time job being on these boards.
A: My partner, who I started a business with before I was over at the Institute at UNH, said to me at one point, ‘Edgar, what is it you don’t understand about retirement?’ So I’ve spent my time doing that but I really love it, obviously and between my volunteer work and trying to get out and play a little golf now and then, and, my wife and I like traveling, but that’s been sort of curtailed, given COVID.
So at any rate and our, our daughter lives down in Arlington, Mass and she has two kids. … So we get down there usually every week or so to take care of the kids one day. So we’re keeping active.
Q: So when you were involved with the different Goodwill boards, what was that like for you?
A: It’s really something, to be very honest — sort of the family legacy. Edgar Helms, the founder of Goodwill, had 12 kids, and my dad was number 11.
I remember growing up and hearing about Morgan Memorial, (the name of the Goodwill in Boston and Goodwill in general), it was sort of a family thing.
We had a number of folks in the family who worked for Goodwill. I was really not that involved in it until this medallion with my grandfather’s picture on it was placed in Washington, DC.
My dad, me and my sister went down for the laying of the medallion. At that time, my cousin Charlie was the chair of the Goodwill National Board, and he asked if I ever thought about getting involved with Goodwill.
I knew what was going on up here. They were headquartered at the time in Portland, Maine. I told the chair of Goodwill of Northern New England that if they were to expand to New Hampshire to let me know. A year or so later, he called me, asking me to join the board. And that all led to it.
So how it has felt over these years has been really interesting. What’s fascinating is the social enterprise itself — the way it started in Boston has so many examples of what’s going on in the world today.
My grandfather started it in Boston, which was being inundated with immigrants primarily from Europe. They’d arrive, wouldn’t speak the language, didn’t have a job, they probably had only the clothes on their back and the money in their pocket and they were looking around thinking, ‘How do I get started?’
It was a really interesting time and then it just sort of grew across the country. In 1925-26, my grandfather took a year-long trip around the world visiting many Goodwills.
When he came back, he found that people not only wanted to know about this thing, Goodwill, but he learned a lot about social enterprises in other countries. The fact that it has grown to be what it is now, a lot of people ask, ‘What would your grandfather say if he saw what was going on right now?’ I have said, ‘He’d probably say what a lot of Goodwills have up on their wall: Be dissatisfied until everybody in your community can have a full life.’
It’s been nice, and being chair of the National Board, was sort of a capstone. … Having been able to be engaged in something that’s still so vital over 120 years later, is just such an overwhelming privilege, and it’s just been extraordinary.
Q: How does it feel to be a descendant of the founder of the goodwill movement?
A: It feels pretty nice, to be honest. I’ve gone around and I have spoken at a number of Goodwills.
The last Goodwill that I was at, it was so interesting seeing people who dedicated their life to this and seeing how enthusiastic they are. You see the kind of drive and the kind of spirit that people in Goodwill have, and it’s really comforting, especially at this time when a lot of our systems seem to be breaking down or being ignored.
Here’s this social enterprise that continues to grow and thrive and look for new ways, not just be involved with the stores, we run the training we do and all the rest, but all the issues on circularity and sustainability, what we do for the environment. I just really enjoy it. It truly has been a capstone for my life.