Interview: How to Do Good Better
California Volunteers Commissioner Robert J. Goodwin on maximizing the impact of charitable deeds
By Bonnie Eslinger
This summer, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Santa Monica resident Robert J. Goodwin to the California Volunteers Commission — fittingly, an unpaid position that asks members to serve as “Ambassadors of Service” and encourage others to offer their time and talents for the greater good.
The 43-year-old Goodwin, who moved to Santa Monica in 2014, said the loss of cherished family members when he was in his early teens, including his father to a heart attack, fueled his resolve and future accomplishments.
The executive director of the Mattel Children’s Foundation and director of corporate affairs for the multinational toymaker, Goodwin previously worked in the Pentagon as a U.S. Air Force deputy assistant secretary. He graduated from the Harvard Business School General Management Program before forming Executives Without Borders, a nonprofit that spurs business professionals to give back to their communities.
Before all that he held high-level positions within several U.S. governmental agencies, including a position as chief of staff and deputy senior advisor for the Ministry of Health in Baghdad as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
At El Segundo-based Mattel, Goodwin works to build the company’s reputation as a responsible corporate citizen, directing its global philanthropy
and overseeing employee charitable programs, volunteer activities and grant-making.
What do you hope to bring to the California Volunteers Commission?
I had a lot of tragedy when I was young. I found by serving others it put my own life in perspective.
I ended up joining the Air Force Academy and served five years there and then did a bunch of other things in government service — responded to disasters, responded to conflicts, and got involved in other things around the world. I ultimately found that there are a lot of people with great intentions but not a lot of results. Sometimes it’s a social worker who knows how to reach people, a doctor who knows how to care for people, but they’re just not business people.
I helped found Executives Without Borders to build that bridge from the business world to the nonprofit world. With California Volunteers, there’s this broader mission of being ambassadors for service and making an impact locally, and I really hope to be part of that.
From my experience, if you’ve got a person giving of their time and their talent, they can make a big difference. If you’ve got a person backed by their company they can make an even bigger difference. If you get multiple people backed by multiple companies working along with local organizations, that’s when magic and transformation can happen.
Why did you choose to go into the military? And why the Air Force?
I wanted to be a modern day John Glenn. I wanted to be an astronaut and then do something out in public life. I got to the academy and started studying astrophysics and found that those were the classes I hated the most, so I decided to do economics instead.
What is your philosophy on how and why businesses should pursue philanthropy?
I think that there’s a movement happening — and I hope I’m part of that movement — for companies to take on a broader purpose. Consumers are expecting it, their employees are expecting it. That’s part of the reason I joined Mattel. They have this incredible spirit of volunteerism and inherent values that their brand brings to the world, and I think there’s so much untapped potential there.
Mattel gives 2% of all pre-tax profits to philanthropy, which is very generous. At the same time, from my experience, when you give money plus expertise, it’s even more powerful. If you give money, plus expertise, plus brand, plus network and reputation, the amount of opportunities for you to do good is fundamentally different. For example, in Indonesia, we’re working alongside the government to address childhood suffering. … We make a lot of our own products in Indonesia, and we’re employing about 13,000 people in [that nation]. We want to be good citizens. Here in the United States, we fund a lot of organizations. Locally that includes L.A. Arts, Boys and Girls Clubs, and we have the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA.
You worked at the White House under George W. Bush. How did you get that job, and can you give us a highlight of that time?
I was fascinated by politics and got involved in grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts. They asked me to be a part of the inaugural staff, for no pay, and I did a good job there and suddenly I became one of the first couple hundred appointees in his administration.
I had more policy roles than political roles. In Iraq, when I showed up at the Ministry of Health it was on fire. It had been looted down to its electrical sockets, there was tons of trash outside, and there were 1,600 employees waiting in the parking lot for someone to tell them what to do. We hired local contractors and rebuilt two 11-story towers and got all the hospitals and clinics back up and running, mostly with the Iraqis, and ultimately worked to empower the Iraqi minister who was appointed to take over the ministry fully.
What’s the best way to be of service — in a job or through volunteer work?
Volunteer work is where people usually start. In my last role I used to mentor a lot of senior executives who would say to me, ‘I can’t wait to retire so I can give back,’ and I would say ‘Please do not retire — give back now because you’re at a senior level and can influence millions of dollars and thousands of people.’
Find a way to serve in your current role instead of trying to separate your work and service. I feel all volunteerism is good, but I definitely feel like people should leverage the most resources possible and have a bigger impact.