Partnership and Collaborative Efforts
Grant number, name, and location: Project Exceed, Cobb County GA, #E-9-4-1-0080
Grant recipient: Cobb Workforce Investment Board, CobbWorks!
Project lead: Cobb County Community Services Board
Partners: Cobb County Community Services Board, CobbWorks! Workforce Investment System, and Cobb Microenterprise Center, all located in Cobb County GA
Project Exceed was implemented by the Community Services Board of Cobb and Douglas Counties. These boards are a major recipient of state developmental disabilities funding. For this project, the board focused much of its efforts on learning the best methods of self-employment and microenterprise development, and building this capacity in the community's workforce development network. Along with CobbWorks (the One-Stop) and Vocational Rehabilitation, Project Exceed built significant partnerships with the Edge Connection (Empowering and Developing Georgia's Entrepreneurs, formerly the Cobb Microenterprise Center) the Governor's Development Disabilities Council, and SCORE (formerly known as the Service Corps of Retired Engineers).
- Although the practices of Customized Employment, including self-employment, take considerable effort to master, they are highly marketable and valuable to other collaborating systems.
- Systemic change is often as much about changing individual minds as changing policy.
- Standard economic development organizations can benefit entrepreneurs who require customized supports, though service and resource barriers will likely exist.
The key to collaboration in Project Exceed was the learning and confidence-building that occurred through successful work. Collaboration occurred because project staff possessed exciting and meaningful practices such as Customized Employment and self-employment, and could share them with other community members. Each good partnership was built on the strength of shared successes and a powerful dissemination effort by the project.
CobbWorks, the One-Stop involved in the project, was a particularly good example of partnership. CobbWorks staff members were innovative in their willingness to:
- Collaborate with a developmental disability-style agency such as the Cobb Community Services Board
- Participate in self-employment initiatives
- Allow Individual Training Account dollars to be used flexibly to underwrite these efforts
The partnership success was due to the time and energy spent by staff, and to the fact that many Project Exceed staff were co-located and therefore could convey a concrete sense of the project's importance.
Initially, the project funded three staff who were co-located at the One-Stop and became part of the One-Stop's overall service delivery approach. Ultimately, one full-time, navigator-like staff person was funded to act as a resource at the One-Stop for other staff and partners on disability issues and Customized Employment. CobbWorks planned to support one position of this type indefinitely past the life of the grant. This position worked closely with One-Stop management and was a key piece of the One-Stop's universal approach to service provision.
A strong partnership with Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) was a key part of the project's success and ongoing sustainability. VR had access to customer funding and support that other agencies and partners could not match. The challenge for Project Exceed was winning buy-in from most counselors individually, from the ground up. VR counselors were the gatekeepers of much of the agency's funding, and centralized, top-down, change was often difficult. While project staff reported strong relationships with VR management, these relationships did not impact the practices and habits of individual staff.
Initially, the concepts of self-employment specifically for customers with significant disabilities, and resource ownership rather than assistive technology, were almost entirely new to VR staff. By seeing multiple successes that project participants had in self-employment, VR staff slowly became more open to the concepts. Over time, they began to provide flexible funding for self-employment ventures, though project staff reported that resource commitment varied with each counselor.
The Edge Connection and SCORE
The Edge Connection and Project Exceed built an important partnership. While other Customized Employment projects made strong headway in self-employment concerns, they could not build strong partnerships with the "standard" economic development engines in a given area. When approaching these organizations, projects often found an apparent lack of alignment between the interests of "standard" small business and the self-employment efforts of grant participants. Economic development staff typically felt that these businesses were too small and speculative to concern themselves with, and disability staff found the economic development procedures too restrictive to be of much value. This was not the case for Project Exceed and Edge.
One reason for the success of this partnership was that Edge had an orientation towards microenterprise rather than standard small business. As such, they were somewhat more inclined to work with the types of businesses highlighted by this project. And while they did not have a great deal of previous experience serving customers with disabilities, they were open to doing so. Beyond that, the key to success was a long period of exposure during which Edge viewed the project's successes, and participated in some of them.
As a consequence of the partnership, Edge staff generally increased their awareness of the issues at hand, and furthermore revised many of trainings to align with universal design principles. Edge allowed a supported education model so customers could attend classes with a one-on-one support person for writing, note-taking, or other necessary tasks. Edge also opened up their loan program to a wider range of potential applicants.
Creating a relationship with SCORE (formerly called the Service Corps of Retired Executives) proved to be a smooth process. While the counselors were all volunteers, many encouraged the businesses on which they advised. Furthermore, through experiencing each individual's success, the volunteers supported the concept more and more, and ended up being strong allies of the project and participants' businesses.
Other Community Resources
Given the complexity of starting a small business, and the added complexity of assisting a wide range of them, project staff had to build relationships with many service providers and mentors who could speak to the specific needs of a given business. The success here also drew from the relationship with Edge, who could be a conduit to a variety of resources. Their recommendation ensured a degree of buy-in from VR.