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).
- Grant-based flexible funding is a useful leveraging tool to attract other systems' dollars.
- The project used customer-directed braided funding for resource acquisition, rather than blended free-floating, self-directed accounts. (Braided funding is leveraging multiple funding streams toward a single individual's employment goals.)
- WIA ITAs can be used for a wide range of purchasing options if local policies are open to the concept.
In pursuing both standard Customized Employment and self-employment outcomes, Project Exceed had considerable success leveraging a variety of resources for customers.
The services provided to grant participants emphasized the importance of having a broad base of funding and resource support. Staff helped participants review their various options, and encouraged them to pursue creative venues on their own. Whatever the individual outcome, the project believed that each success should be a collaborative effort of multiple agencies built around the individual's goals and direction.
Grant-Based Individual Training Accounts
As with many of the projects nationwide that focused on individually directed funds and leveraged resources, Project Exceed's first step was to apportion much of its own grant budget to use as a flexible funding pool, which staff termed Individual Training Accounts (ITAs). The accounts were primarily valued for their efficiency and ease of use. The project used these funds in a variety of circumstances. Furthermore, Project Exceed experienced a large degree of success leveraging outside resources (monetary and otherwise) by using their own funds as a confidence-building investment. For instance, when one customer was developing a towel-cleaning start-up business (Keep It Kleen), he bought his own vehicle to pick up and drop off towels from salons. He braided this existing resource with VR funding to get an industrial-strength washer/dryer, and with grant funds to buy supplies and marketing materials.
Whether the participant's goal was wages or self-employment, the grant focused on resource acquisition. By purchasing the equipment an individual or business needed to be competitive, the grant improved self- and standard employment situations for customers. In most cases of self-directed and "braided" funding, the creative use of money was tied directly to a tangible object or necessary service rather than being committed to a "blended" account that was controlled directly by the consumer. The grant or a partner directly purchased products or services that were necessary for the customer's employment goals, rather than giving the customer a set amount to make these or other purchases. Since the customer played the lead role in determining which products and services were necessary, at no time during multiple interviews with customers who used these funds did it seem that this method of dispersing and using funds hindered the customers' employment goals.
As with many projects, grant staff described an ongoing progression in their relationship with Vocational Rehabilitation (VR), and VR's openness to providing flexible funding for self-employment ventures. This progress entailed building relationships and training. Initially, the concepts of self-employment and resource acquisition were almost entirely foreign to VR staff. However, after seeing multiple self-employment successes, VR staff became more open to this approach. Project staff also reported that the willingness to commit resources to self-employment varied a great deal by counselor. On various occasions, VR provided funding for equipment or necessary services as well as job coaching for customers (in standard or self-employment) who needed additional assistance to master required tasks.
Project staff reported that with small exceptions they were largely unable to change state policy, though they did create the opportunity for people with significant developmental disabilities to pursue self-employment with VR-funded hourly coaching services. In the past, these services had been available only to those customers who were thought not to need long-term supports, and they were rarely available for entrepreneurial endeavors. However, through relationship-building and education, the practices of individual counselors changed significantly. This gave further evidence that presumed policy barriers are, as often as not, barriers created instead by habit, assumption, and practice.
The Microenterprise Center: The Edge Connection
Project Exceed's collaboration with the Microenterprise Center, now the Edge Connection (www.theedgeconnection.com), was a compelling model for reproduction elsewhere. Edge offered proven training on business, life skills, financial literacy, and technology, as well as ongoing business consultation to help microentrepreneurs and small business owners launch, sustain, and expand businesses. The partnership was highly effective because strengths of each organization contrasted with the weaknesses of the other. Project Exceed was expert at customizing supports around an aspiring entrepreneur, while Edge was expert at supporting the development of entrepreneurs and their microenterprises.
The challenge for both organizations was to learn enough about the other to be effective partners. That was particularly difficult for Edge since they had so little background in disability concerns, though serving disenfranchised populations had long been part of their mission. Much of the initial collaboration consisted of project staff educating Edge staff on the basics of Customized Employment and the customized self-employment ventures they had developed. After that time, Edge customized many of its classes so a broader audience could participate.
Additional important innovations were low-interest microloans from collaborating banks and credit unions, and publicly funded Individual Development Accounts (click here for more information about diversified funding resources). Traditionally, customized self-employment ventures had not successfully accessed these loans, as there was very little connection between the two fields. Access to these loans was highly beneficial to the customers who qualified. This model compelled the Cobb/Douglas Community Services Board to provide a similar service based on a foundation they were establishing. This foundation would be based in Cobb County and be funded by local businesses, corporate sponsors, families, and the like. With enough capital, the Community Services Board could create a revolving loan pool to provide the flexible funding that was the key to many of the project's successes.
Connections to Other Community Resources
Supporting the various needs of growing businesses required more expertise than any one organization could reasonably collect. Beyond the need to plan and implement the business model, entrepreneurs required very specific services around accounting, legal questions, and insurance that only highly qualified individuals could provide. In conjunction with Edge, Project Exceed made connections to these resources in the community at rates that fit within the project's and/or the individual's budgets. Through a network of peers, namely other entrepreneurs, customers accessed reliable services at reasonable rates, occasionally through barter. This was an in-kind services resource that saved the time it might otherwise have taken to find the right match with the right provider.
The project's connection with CobbWorks (the county One-Stop) was particularly compelling because Project Exceed was based in a public mental health/developmental disabilities/addictive disease community services organization. This type of connection between these two organizations is exceedingly rare, and its success is worth noting.
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. They acted as a resource for other staff and partners on disability issues and Customized Employment. The One-Stop planned to support one of these positions 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.
As for resources provided, the One-Stop contributed to numerous self-employment ventures through the use of its own WIA Individual Training Account (ITA) dollars. This connection was also rare, as WIA ITAs (as distinct from the project-funded ITAs referenced above) are typically too restrictive to allow for the type of training purchased in these scenarios. However, in this case the One-Stop was able to exercise enough local spending control to allow for more flexible spending. This flexibility led to multiple successes.
Spending allowances through WIA ITAs included:
- Training necessary for self-employment and Customized Employment ventures
- Equipment necessary to complete the training (and thereafter use the skills in employment)
- Dependent care (e.g., day care) so a person could attend training
Through these means, the One-Stop could both conform to its legal requirements and contribute to many progressive successes through the Customized Employment grant.