Jackie Norris ran President Barack Obama’s campaign in Iowa, served as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff and taught in Rome. She’s a self-described “jogger” and triathlete who admits being prone to working long hours. But every day, she makes sure to eat breakfast and dinner with her family, even if it means sending emails at 3 a.m. She bikes or walks her kids to school, too.

Now Norris is in her first few weeks of serving as president and CEO of one of Iowa’s long-standing and best-known nonprofits, Goodwill Industries of Central Iowa. 

She and husband John Norris, the longtime Tom Vilsack aide and now co-owner of State Public Policy Group, wanted to raise their children in Iowa. So they’ve settled into a house in the Waterbury neighborhood and have begun reconnecting with friends and making new ones.

We spoke with Norris about Goodwill’s role in training people to work new jobs, the service end of an operation many of us know as a place to donate used merchandise and to pick up a good buy from time to time.

What is your experience with Goodwill?
I have had great experiences. It’s funny because the joke is you never know what you are going to get at the door when you come in. When I was interviewing for the job and I was doing a little undercover work, my favorite was when I went into the store on Valley West Drive. I pulled up, and this lovely woman came out and she took my (donated items) and I asked about her story. She had just come here from Somalia three months before. She is working with Goodwill. I asked her what Goodwill does. She was perfect. She said, “I know exactly what they do. They help someone like me. They are teaching me how to do retail sales.” I loved that.

When you drop off your stuff, you don’t want somebody who is just “meh.” You want someone who says, “Thank you.” Maybe someone who will go a step further and say, “This is really going to make a difference.” 

Many of us donate clothes and other items to Goodwill, and we know about the stores. Tell us about your services.
We offer skills training in retail, janitorial and kitchen help. The neat thing about Goodwill is it’s a social enterprise. You wake up every day trying to figure out how you can increase your sales because the more you sell, the more that you can actually put in programs. Our programming is about skills training and putting people in jobs.

So it’s a really great way to focus on business and to run a business while simultaneously knowing that your motivating factor every day is that you are putting people to work. I love it. 

Every time I go to a Goodwill store, I’ll donate items. So I can learn more about the people who are receiving the items, the staff, and I can go back into the production facility. You have so many containers and people are sorting, and pricing and moving stock out to other stores.

We have 19 stores. Some of our jewelry and higher-end antiques go onto shopgoodwill.com, which is in the nascent stage of growth. 

How much “stuff” does Goodwill have?
As of last inventory, there is roughly 1.6 million pounds in our warehouse — all goods donated to be sold in stores or salvaged. In 2015, we kept 29 million pounds out of the landfill through selling and salvaging. As of last count we have four semis, three straight trucks and 28 trailers. 

How many employees does Goodwill have here?
We have 400 employees, including 270 in full- or part-time retail positions.

Are the cash register workers employees?
Yes. Sometimes they are in one of our training programs.

Can you describe your workforce?
Approximately 13 percent of the individuals we serve have a mental, physical or intellectual disability. The remainder have a variety of barriers to employment such as a history of substance abuse, past criminal background, limited English proficiency, lack of education or poor work history.
 
How big is the operation?
We have 19 stores in 22 counties, and $20 million in revenue. 

Any recent innovations? 
Our website sales at shop.goodwill.com are starting to take off. We have a recycling program with Dell. Our goal is to send very little to the landfill. We even sell rags. They may only bring 1 to 3 cents a pound, but that’s money for more programming.

One of the things I’m super excited about is to take this concept of a connections center and take it on the road. We would make a classroom in a truck so each week we could go to one of the 22 counties and you could offer that service to people in places where their needs maybe aren’t being met.

Do you also have volunteers?
Yes. I am a big advocate for the get-your-hands-dirty volunteer. They help sort the merchandise. We are always looking for volunteers, including in graphic design, marketing and law.

Do you find that some people wonder if it’s OK to shop at the Goodwill store if they aren’t of modest means?
Look, I think that for some reason that I can’t explain, there is a stigma associated with shopping at what most people call a thrift shop. What I want them to know is that there are really cool things to find. There are brand names, furniture, CDs. I tell people to get there. The other day I went in and I bought one of my son’s favorite CDs for, I think, $2. It’s a fun experience. There is lots of great stuff. I’m a bargain shopper. What if someone at the register said, “Thanks, you just helped create a job today.” 

How are you wired?
My husband would say I’m wired too tightly. I’m competitive. I don’t like to lose. I am really driven to excellence, both personally and professionally. I work 60 to 80 hours a week, but they are flex hours.

You mentioned you lived in a busy downtown area in Rome, in an apartment, which you found loud, though you got to ride your bike along the river to work. How is life in Des Moines versus Washington and Rome? 
We really wanted to raise our children here. I want them to be raised with the right value system, and I think this is a great place to do it. There is a real movement (underway) here. I think there are a lot of people realizing that in a place like Iowa you can have a great job and raise a great family and have the kind of life you want to have, with probably half the stress.