A View From the Trenches: A Conversation with Keith Wasserman
“Terrorism really flourishes in areas of poverty, despair and hopelessness,
where people see no future.”–Colin Powell (addressing the World Economic
The preceding quote highlights the seriousness of social issues, particularly
poverty, in the United States and around the world. When President Bush
announced his Faith-Based and Community Initiative2,
which was intended to make Federal money for dealing with social issues available
to faith-based organizations, there was considerable public debate. Some
of the concern stems from the perception that Federal funds would be associated
with proselytizing. Yet, the fact remains that faith-based organizations
can be quite effective, reaching disadvantaged segments that their larger
secular counterparts often miss. These groups are models of efficiency through
their ability to marshal scare resources (e.g., money, facilities, volunteers)
to meet local needs. One such organization is Good Works, Inc., an Athens,
Ohio ministry focusing on the needs of “the widow, the orphan, and
the stranger” in southeastern Ohio. In order to fully appreciate social
responsibility and how to go about dealing with social issues, we need to
take advantage of opportunities to tap the ideas and experience of those
closest to the problem. My interview with Keith Wasserman was one such opportunity.
1Todd S. Purdum, &
David E. Sanger, ” Two Top Officials Offer Stern Talk
on U.S. Policy.” New York Times
LH: In order to get
started, how would you define social responsibility?
KW: Let’s look at the
word responsibility, which means to me “your ability to respond.”
We need to focus on what people can do. Certain people have more options and,
along with what they can do, they have more responsibility. A handicapped person,
paralyzed from the neck down has more limitations than a 23 year-old male with
perfect physical health. Physically, they have different options they can exercise
and, in my view, a different sense of responsibility. I think our responsibility
has to do with a Biblical principle I use, “To whom much is given, much
is required.” We have to answer to God for how we use the options and the
resources we have. A lot of people in this country made their money the old-fashioned
way – they inherited it – a lot of the wealth is passed along. Wealth gives
people infrastructure and because they have a family support system, they are
able to do things like get an education. This is quite a gift.
Social responsibility has to do with the recognition of an obligation to make
a contribution. Making that contribution is what life is all about. That’s where
the meaning of life comes about. Show me the person that has everything and
does nothing to contribute to others and I’ll show you a person who is miserable.
Selfishness will destroy a person. Unfortunately, that’s how the American dream
has been portrayed. The most fulfilling life is found in giving your life away,
serving, making a contribution sacrificially.
LH: Can you tell me
a little bit about your own personal philosophy as it relates to social responsibility?
KW: I was immersed
in a Biblical worldview after I became a Christian [prior to attending college].
This helped me recognize and notice things that I neither recognized nor noticed
before. These principles were not values in my life. I have not seen a lot of
modeling, but I do see in scripture a call to love our neighbors. Specific to
my stream, I break this down to three groups of people: the widows, the orphan
(and I include here children who are not in intact families), and the stranger
(this includes, at least for my life, internationals, as well as homeless people).
Let me veer off to say love is more than “love is kindness.” I don’t
believe in love is kindness only. I believe when you are taught to love people,
you ask the question “what is the best thing for them; how can I best help
them.” Sometimes the most loving thing is not the kindest thing – those
of us with children can understand what I am saying – so we need to define love
in a much more broad perspective. That would include such things as love as
commitment, love as accountability, and love as responsibility. Did you clean
your room? No. Well, you need to go back and clean your room before you come
to supper. That is love as accountability. That’s the most loving thing that
I can do, perhaps.
What I discovered is that the dominant evangelical church does not illustrate
much concern for the people on the edge of society, the periphery of society,
the margins, the poor, the disconnected. They have been seduced, and this is
a generalization, into the dominant culture’s valuing the pretty, valuing the
successful, and I don’t see the Bible teaching that. We criticize what happened
to the Church with Constantine, but it’s still around. I’m a big fan of John
Wesley. One of the things that always struck me was that he had the courage
to go outside of the institutional system, even at great disapproval on their
part, to reach people who were the forgotten people of Great Britain. I guess
that’s my niche. I want to find people who are disconnected, forgotten, excluded
and find a way to create a community for them to be loved and helped. I try
to be holistic. I want to help people physically and emotionally, as well as
spiritually. Whether they are responsive to the spiritual message is not my
purpose. I would say that (the spiritual aspect) is only a component in my motivation
for being involved in their lives. I want them to have a better life. I want
to improve the quality of people’s lives and I want to glorify God in doing
LH: Your college experience
was set in rural Appalachia. Do you think you would have embarked on the same
path had you attended college in a large metropolitan city or a community where
poverty was not as prevalent?
KW: I do not know how
to answer the question in terms of what would have happened. I can say that
it I do not think it was the poverty in southeastern Ohio that particularly
drew my attention. My passion was always to be a change agent in people’s lives.
I really did not have a big grasp on all the poverty of the community at that
time. I guess I was just trying to be faithful in what I felt called to do.
I think that probably would have happened anywhere.
LH: Do you think Americans
in general turn a blind eye to social responsibility and needs that exist in
our society? In your experience, do you think future generations are more or
less likely to be concerned about societal needs/issues that do not affect them
directly? What factors do you see contributing to this?
KW: We have institutionalized
a form of neglect. The people who help and get involved, beyond nominal commitment,
there is something else motivating them at the core of their life, and they
are the minority. In some ways the culture has tamed us. Christmas is a great
example. You get to Christmas and people feel pressure through the social system
to do something more, and that is good. They should feel the pressure, and they
should feel guilty if they are going to spend (the way Americans do). Socially,
Americans are concerned with “affluenza.” Weaving social responsibility
into daily life is an afterthought. We are consumed by “busyness.”
The pace of our lives is so intense, and we are so easily isolated and insulated,
that we do not see. Maybe we do not want to see.
I take a radical view that says the poor have something to offer us that Bill
Gates cannot buy. All the money in the world cannot purchase what we can be
given as gifts by involving our lives into the lives of those who “cannot
repay us.” There is something that comes with helping others; it is spiritual
life. There is something that is returned to us. We do not have a mechanism
to measure it, but it is alive. It is there. I am not sure that you can find
it inscribed in the institutional system of the university, this message that
“you need to give, why, because you will become a better person by giving.
You will be enriched personally. You will enjoy life at a higher level. You
will have more meaning and purpose in life. You will become a nicer person,
a likeable person. You will be better off.”
LH: Do you think this
philosophy is behind the recent call from President Bush for Americans to commit
at least two years over their lifetime to community service?
KW: I cannot speak
to what President Bush is thinking, but it is wonderful to hear the leadership
setting up a sense of standard, or an expectation, calling for people to get
involved. We need more. We need local leadership, from the presidents of universities
to department heads, willing to make that challenge. Why are people not doing
this? Oftentimes, it is because these individuals are not able to do it and
they do not want to be hypocrites. You want to be able to do the thing you are
calling other people to do. For example, I worked with some college students
recently and I challenged them to make a contribution to the project they were
working on. I told them I would match the highest gift out of my personal income.
You have to be willing to do this.
LH: From a personal
standpoint, what do you think of the initiative proposed by President Bush to
include faith-based organizations in the federal plan for dealing with social
issues? Does a partnership between the Government and private, faith-based organizations
make sense? How has this initiative affected Good Works?
KW: The whole faith-based
movement is a good thing. I do not think it is going to work, but it has had
some benefits, irregardless of whether faith-based organizations receive any
funding from the Government. There is a whole new climate and organizations
like Good Works are now at the table where we have not been before. The President
has lifted our status, whereas before we were just kind of pooh-poohed or pushed
to the side. Now, at least, we are players. My recent experiences reinforce
this. I applaud the idea of including faith-based organizations and calling
Americans to service. However, the President is going to have to model some
of this, and he will have a chance. President Carter has done it since leaving
office. He did not just talk about service. His whole credibility with Habitat
for Humanity is because he is so involved and modeling what is needed.
LH: I want to turn
the discussion back to social responsibility models for a moment. Noted economist
Milton Friedman espouses a classical view of social responsibility, arguing
that management’s only responsibility in running a business is to maximize profits.
He argues that acceptance of social responsibility by corporate officials would
undermine the very foundations of free society. What do you think of this view?
KW: This is absurd!
It sounds as if there are no guidelines – if I offend, if I take advantage,
if I manipulatively steal, deceive, it is irrelevant – because businesses only
exist to make a profit. How can you remove responsibility? You cannot. Take
a hypothetical example: Bedrock Rental owned by J. B. Hayes. Mr. Hayes is making
lots of money. He rents equipment and it fails. He says, “Sorry, I have
no responsibility.” What prevents this from happening is that Mr. Hayes
does not want the media to give bad press to his business for taking advantage
of somebody. So, he is going to fix the equipment and work to make it right.
Fortunately, there are other forces that are pressing in on businesses that
create some responsibility because, if there were not, we would have a lot of
the powerless being exploited more than they are now.
LH: In fairness to
Mr. Friedman, I think he meant to imply, from a purely economic perspective,
that markets should determine what businesses do. In other words, if customers
want businesses to be socially responsible, they will reward those that do and
leave those that do not.
KW: Banc One’s Coats
for Kids is a marvelous example of how a business has taken on a project locally
that does not have any direct benefit to the company in terms of increasing
its profit, but it sends the warm public relations model. I think that is certainly
what is going on, but I think they are concerned too. You also see this with
Wendy’s and their adoption program. I think that it is just common sense for
people who are making profit to give back to the community and to provide time
for their employees to get involved. The leadership of the business sets the
standard, so that if they allow that, they are sending a message that this is
important. It goes back to leadership setting the standard.
LH: Let’s explore the
idea of social responsibility at the top levels of the organization. There are
basically four strategies that a business can take with respect to social responsibility:
obstructionist (i.e., fight social demands), defensive (i.e., do the minimum
legally required), accommodative (i.e., do the minimum ethically required),
and proactive (i.e., take leadership in social initiatives). Which one do you
KW: I think it has
to be measured. Particularly, as a business is beginning it can do less than
when it is making huge profits. Again, I take the principle “to whom much
is given, much shall be required.” As a business begins create to financial
stability, they have more responsibility and so the first place they should
start is by providing better wages and incentives (e.g., educational opportunities)
to help employees improve their lives. One of the reasons we start our staff
at $8/hour for our Good Gifts business is so that, when they leave us and go
to apply for another job, they have the backbone of a previous wage that makes
an employer say, “Wait a minute, I cannot pay them $5.50. I would have
to being doing it sheepishly because they were making $8/hour.” Social
responsibility begins internally and it has to be measured. As businesses begin
to prosper, their moral and ethical responsibilities grow. It is incumbent upon
us as citizens to charge them with that moral and ethical responsibility. Now,
I do not really know what is going on with Bill Gates, but I applaud the fact
that he is actually doing something to help people. I mean, how much money can
a person use anyway? How many million a year can you really spend on yourself?
LH: If I am a businessperson,
struggling to keep my business going, why should I be concerned about social
KW: Again, it is measured.
It is hard for me to scrutinize all the variables. You start a restaurant, say,
and you are there all the time. I think we have the principle of the tithe.
Again, I am subscribing to a Biblical model that is infusing and influencing
my conversation with you. You have a principle that, no matter what your level
– you make a dollar a day, you can give ten cents back and if you make a 100
million dollars a day, you can give a lot more back. This struggling business
owner still can give something measured back. It does not always have to be
in the form of money, it can be in the form of releasing resources. It could
be in the form of releasing employees’ time. One of the things we did last year
was help Salvation Army when they had a little bit of a crisis. I released our
staff of ten employees for four hours each to work for them. I felt like that
was a measured response, to help them with a task they had to do. It does not
always have to be financial in my view. You know as well as I do, if you carefully
examine how employees are using their time you can find gaps in their week that
can be better used by directing them to do something else. I find that frequently
with my full-time staff.
LH: What do you think
about a business providing incentives (e.g., paid time off from work, matching
donations) to get employees involved in social responsibility? Some people would
argue that this violates the “true spirit” of social responsibility,
which, in essence, calls for giving without expecting anything in return. How
would you respond to those who hold this view?
KW: This is where institutionalization
can have a positive effect by setting the pace. For example, should my son be
able to choose what he wants to eat on his plate? Well, one day, yeah, but until
then he going to eat his peas whether he feels like it or not if he wants to
have privileges after dinner. We do that as a training mechanism, so that eventually,
if I can use another parallel, you can remove the boards from the sidewalk where
you poured the concrete in. The boards are a means to an end. This decision
on the part of the company to provide incentives is designed to create habit
and experiences that can propel the person beyond just that day or event. Let
people taste an experience. There is a life flow from giving. It does not imply
that they get it the first time or the second time. There may be some development
over a period of time. I think corporations can set the tone by saying we believe
this is important enough, we are sending that message, and creating experiences
through which people, on their own initiative, can be propelled to doing this
on their own more.
LH: Do you think this
is necessary to get the individual involved?
KW: More so today than
30 years ago. In this country, we have lost some social norms, some momentum,
that once existed within the family. Positive social norms are becoming extinct.
It is necessary, particularly in the United States, because we are so insulated
and isolated from visually seeing poverty.
LH: Let’s take individual
involvement to another level. President Bush wants to expand the role of the
Peace Corps worldwide. Undoubtedly, all of us feel a certain degree of compassion
toward to less fortunate populations, particularly in third world countries.
Recent media coverage of events in Afghanistan and the Congo heightened our
awareness of human suffering around the world. Yet, the events of September
11 made us realize opportunities exist in our own country. Do you think Americans
have a tendency to cast their gaze too far, ignoring the problems that are right
here in front of them, or are we informed about the needs that exist locally?
Are we doing enough at home? Can local and international social problems both
be dealt with effectively?
KW: I have found that,
as a whole, if you immerse people internationally with poverty, it creates a
high level of sensitivity and perception on the local level when they return.
It does not mean that it lasts forever, though. I just returned from Guatemala
with my son. When we came back, he was noticing things. After being back in
our culture a while, he lost that sense of noticing. When you serve abroad,
you come back with a different perspective. This idea of having people immersed
in another culture, particularly a culture where there is poverty, creates a
different lens. People who step over homeless people in New York, you could
argue easily, step over them but do not see them. So, there is a scene that
has more to do with perception. You cannot erase the reality that it is a spiritual
matter at its core. Social responsibility cannot be separated from something
that is a spiritual issue. When we send people to the Peace Corps for two years,
and they work to build wells in Somalia, there is a part of them that is growing
spiritually, not just socially, physically, or intellectually. I say that even
if they will not acknowledge any spiritual being. They come back to the United
States and you can touch something in them that is different from what the dominant
culture is producing. I think it is great!
LH: So are you saying
that global initiatives are compatible with local issues?
KW: Yeah. Let me veer
off and tell you I also believe the homeless people in this country live better
than half of the world’s population. There are millions of citizens in the world
that would rather be homeless in United States than live in the situations of
oppression and injustice and poverty they are in. We have to look at poverty
from a global perspective and realize that even the poor in this country have
a higher standard of living and a greater infrastructure of opportunity (i.e.,
possibilities and resources) than most of the world’s poor. Being immersed in
another culture will give you a different view of the local community of poverty.
You look at someone that struggling to feed their children in the United States.
That is a lot different than struggling to feed your kids in Somalia, where
you have to walk two to three days to food and then you may get only a single
The amount of resources in this country is staggering. As an example, we provide
16,000 meals a year through Good Works, but we do not need any money to do it.
All the food is donated to us and there is a lot more where that comes from.
There is no shortage of food in this country. Are people going hungry in America?
I do not think anyone is going hungry at all. Is there malnutrition? Yes, no
question about that. There is tremendous malnutrition. In my 23 years of social
service, I have never seen anyone starving in this country because the infrastructure
of resources is so abundant. You will not find that in Zaire and you will not
find that in most developing nations.
LH: It almost sounds
to me that you are saying these international experiences have a way of changing
our perspective when we get back about how to deal with these issues.
KW: Absolutely. International
experiences help us recognize the root issues and how to deal with them rather
than just throwing band-aids at the problem. They ultimately give us a new lens
when we return to define things differently.
LH: Let’s talk specifically
now about your organization, Good Works. What were some of the “defining
moments” that led you to start Good Works?
KW: First of all, I
had no idea what I was doing, I made a lot of mistakes, but my heart was in
the right place. The defining moment was, and continues to be, people. God sends
me people to launch different initiatives. It was one such person that helped
me launch Good Works. She was a fellow student with me and she helped me get
things off the ground. After six months, there was a series of events that gave
me a boost. It became a community effort. My wife played a significant role.
Good Works began as my senior project at Ohio University. I went to the ministerial
association, at that time there was one, and asked them if they would support
me. I also had the support of three area pastors. While the beginning was very
much my idea, I had to have people that would take hold of the idea and agree
to walk with me. That is how God works. I do not think I had the moral courage
in the early stages to take these initiatives without someone helping me.
As far as the mechanics of getting Good Works started, I inherited some money
as the result of my father’s death. I was able to purchase a house–again, to
whom much is given, much shall be required–and I used some of the money to
renovate the basement, having no guarantees that anything would come of it.
I remember reading a book called The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman
that totally transformed my thinking. I selected some guys to live with me –
the year I started Good Works – and those guys assisted me. Money was never
an issue initially. Then we came to the first crisis point about three years
into the ministry, where I realized we had to move out of the basement of the
house or this thing was going to die. So, we took some human steps to try to
find to another location, but, ultimately, it was a divine step. I was riding
around with a friend who said, “what about this house?” He basically
allowed us to assume a mortgage and take a year to put together the down payment.
We did not have to go through a bank and we were able to get into our present
location. It all developed so smooth and all the obstacles were removed. Things
happened along the way at different checkpoints and have been significant events
that more or less sent the message “keep going, you are doing the right
thing.” Along with that, there have been some closed doors too. I have
been trying to buy a piece of land for three years and the guy keeps shutting
the door in my face. I do not want to suggest that everything has been an open
door. Sometimes a “no” can be as important as a “yes.”
LH: Do you attribute
any of your early success to your college experience? If so, what aspects influenced
KW: I do not remember
anything specific that I learned in college that helped me start the organization.
I did have some training in mental health. I had some professors that were flexible
and willing to take a risk with me. As a result, they were really instrumental.
I found that there were not people thinking outside of the box and, to this
day, I do not see it that much. There are lots of things that can be created
at the university level. I proposed, a few years back, a public-private partnership
in housing for the poor that the university could do in conjunction with several
key academic departments. Universities can do something like that. They have
the land, they can get the grants, but there is an unwillingness to think outside
the box. I do not find, in terms of social responsibility, universities serving
as a catalyst to get students involved in projects that could really be transformational
and have an impact. What I do find, in contrast to that, is that the general
state of poverty has not changed at all. If anything, it is worse. Yes, universities
are the big sugar daddy, but, ultimately, where is the lasting impact? Could
they use their resources to be transformational? They are not doing half of
what they could be potentially. I am talking about training students to think
creatively and then getting behind them. They do it in the business world, so
it is not about not being able to do it. They just have not done in the social
LH: I wonder if it
goes back to what you said before that maybe these are not the pretty issues.
Entrepreneurship is nice and comfortable to be involved in, but then you start
talking about homelessness and that is a not pretty issue.
KW: That and they are
not profitable. No one who is going to graduate the university and take a job
at a social service agency is going to have a substantial income stream. That
is why I call the university to a higher level of moral responsibility. We need
to say that social service is a legitimate use of someone’s life even though
they are not going to make what Matt Lauer is making on the Today Show.
LH: Could you describe
the importance and role of volunteers to your efforts?
KW: Volunteers are
not peripheral or incidental, they are essential. They are essential in carrying
out the goals and they are essential because, in the core value of Good Works,
they oversupply the organization. Half the organization’s goal is to accomplish
our mission; the other half the organizational goal is to provide an avenue
through which the community can get involved. That is a bit of an oversimplification.
It does not really matter whether we feel our volunteers are having an impact.
As long as they are in our stream, they are fulfilling our goal by becoming
involved. Involvement, being in the process, is part of the goal. We are creating
that avenue where an average person can become involved socially and relational
with people that are outside of the normal social stream. That is the goal.
LH: How does operating
in a university town affect your approach to volunteers?
KW: Not only do you
have numbers of people, a university community provides more disposable time
and greater proximity to volunteers. We market our volunteer opportunities that
way. Our motto is “you can commit to once a week, once a month, or once
LH: Can we make an
argument that it ought to be easier to deal with social issues in a university
community because there is that potential pool of volunteers?
KW: The issues do not
become any easier because of the numbers of people. They remain just as tough.
In terms of our organizational goal of providing hands-on, face-to-face experiences
that ultimately help people grow and change, it is much easier to accomplish
in a university town. Again, in terms of solving social problems, I am not convinced
that having more volunteers, in and of itself, makes it easier. I could be mistaken.
I do think a healthy network of relationships is a strategic way to help people
move out of the circle of poverty. More relationships create a better statistical
chance of people moving out of those streams.
LH: How does corporate
involvement factor into what you do?
KW: The marketing of
volunteer programs is not select to businesses. We focus on the general public.
An attorney of local law firm inquired about becoming a volunteer. We have him
working in our weekend program. He is definitely out of his element (i.e., in
terms of the type of work he usually does). He is doing things that he normally
does not do and I think it is very fulfilling for him.
LH: As we conclude
the interview, what suggestions do you have for academics who want to encourage
students/future business leaders to become more socially aware?
KW: Create a mechanism
within your own life. Sort through the masses of students and find one or two
that you can mentor. Involve them in different activities and serve as a model
for them through your life. Do two things simultaneously. First, mentor on a
personal level. Then include them in your service to your community. While mentoring
might seem to be outside of your job description, it really is inside in terms
of their development and yours. Not everybody can do this because some people
are really into titles and professionalism and, to that degree it is really
hard to come down from the Ph.D. and make mistakes. It is tough to get close
enough to people that they can really see who you are. A lot people will not
do it because they do not want people to see who they really are.
LH: As we conclude
the interview, is there anything else you would like to say (i.e., are there
any critical points that we failed to cover)?
KW: I am concerned
by the difficulties of social service today. New graduates today are burdened
by tremendous debt load from their education. As a result, they are focused
on getting a good-paying job and getting their career off to a good start in
order to meet their financial needs/obligations. I see this as a limiting factor
for social service. [Note: this issue came up in casual conversation as I was
returning Keith to Timothy House after the formal interview.]