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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).
- Multimedia training and marketing methods tend to have a greater impact on both staff buy-in and community outreach.
- A model of revolving loan funds and foundational granting can replace flexible grant funds for resource acquisition and business start-up.
Staff and Partner Training
A key element of sustainability for any grant is maintaining staff and partners' skills. Project Exceed used the following methods, and faced the following challenges, while ensuring ongoing training and adequate staff capacity. For both practical and fiscal reasons, maintaining staff and community training and awareness would be an important part of Project Exceed's sustainability.
Initial training methods
At the inception of the project, Griffin-Hammis Associates were brought in to offer a community training series and to directly mentor project staff in self-employment and Customized Employment. This training support was in place for the first three years of the grant. It created a core nucleus of highly knowledgeable and experienced staff, and a broad sense of community interest, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the Customized Employment concept.
Maintaining skill levels
Staff who were new to the project and Customized Employment used the following training methods:
- The Human Services Management Institute at the University of Georgia created a web-based job coach certification training with much of the key information available to new staff. This proved an invaluable tool for maintaining expertise across new and tenured staff. This tool was developed independently from the grant funding, using the Workforce Action Grant received by the university's Institute for Human Development and Disability.
- Virginia Commonwealth University and other organizations offered considerable archived information free for download (www.t-tap.org.
- Staff held weekly team meetings to discuss the individuals they worked with and to share in colleagues' successes. This was perhaps the most important way information was disseminated. Crucial to this model was its standardized weekly time and location. This meeting was task-oriented: Staff identified each next move and focused on making progress even when the next step was uncertain. Team members relied on each other for ongoing guidance.
- Cobb County Community Services Board staff used multimedia methods to collect and disseminate information. Videos, interviews, and multimedia presentations were used when training and reaching out to staff, the media, and partners.
Generally, staff reported that Customized Employment concepts became so deeply rooted in the Community Services Board culture that new staff would have every opportunity to learn the methods involved. These were not special techniques sequestered in a small department, but a set of practices that guided employment projects throughout the organization. With that in place, the key challenge became spreading the same mentality to partner organizations.
Vocational Rehabilitation staff
Grant personnel described an ongoing progression in their relationship with Vocational Rehabilitation as VR staff became open to providing flexible funding for self-employment. Although project staff were unable to change state policy, the practices of individual counselors changed significantly due to relationship-building and education. This gave further evidence that presumed policy barriers are, as often as not, barriers of habit, assumption, and practice.
The project needed to maintain some momentum around disseminating good practices to ensure the long-term buy-in from VR. Project Exceed was looking at a few different ways to guarantee this. First, they planned to continue partnership meetings in order to give managers and staff the chance to discuss ongoing issues. General meetings would occur regularly but likely not more often than once a quarter. This would keep communication open between various agencies, without overly burdening people's schedules.
The Georgia Workforce Action Grant, which worked closely with Project Exceed throughout the time of the grant, wanted to expand the scope and effectiveness of statewide partnerships between various agencies. They coordinated regular statewide employment planning meetings whose purpose was similar to local meetings, but on a larger scale. It was anticipated that this work would support the efforts of the local office.
And again, the use of effective multimedia presentations allowed Project Exceed to emphasize the effectiveness of their project and practices. The ability to show pictures and videos of successful entrepreneurs proved to be a key method for securing partner and community support.
CobbWorks staff training
One-Stop and project staff reported that the nature of a One-Stop--as a collection of diverse partners--made the burden of providing training and securing buy-in much more challenging than it would be in a unified organization. Staff were unsure whether or not there was a "magic bullet" for this problem but believed that ongoing exposure and the continued commitment of One-Stop management would help overcome these challenges.
Another challenge for the grant was maintaining the momentum offered by their ability to offer flexible funds. This was the key sustainability challenge for the project, and they were looking internally and externally for solutions.
The Edge Connection
Project Exceed's collaboration with the Edge Connection (formerly the Cobb Microenterprise Center) was a compelling model for reproduction elsewhere. The element that was most notable for sustainability was the use of low-interest loans and Individual Development Accounts. These loans and matching funds had traditionally not been successfully accessed by customized self-employment ventures, as there was very little connection between the two fields. These funds were highly beneficial to customers who qualified. The funding model compelled the Community Services Board to provide a similar service through a foundation that they were establishing. (See "Foundation Grants" below for more information.) With enough capital, the board could create a revolving low- or no-interest loan pool that would provide the flexible funding that was key to many of the project's successes.
As noted above, CobbWorks leaders were strongly dedicated to the mission of the grant and to ongoing collaboration. They planned to continue offering WIA Individual Training Accounts and other relevant resources to shared customers. While these resources would not provide the whole solution, they would certainly help many would-be entrepreneurs.
Spending allowances through WIA Individual Training Accounts 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
The staff training section above noted the project's ongoing work to maintain a partnership with VR. Much of the same applied to the project customers' ability to access VR funding for their employment goals. At its root, VR funding was one of the most flexible and substantial sources available to customers. The challenge was to maintain the partnership and the buy-in of individual counselors, who were the ultimate gatekeepers for much of the available funding.
The Cobb Community Services Board was in the early stages of setting up a foundation to provide flexible funds to replace what the grant once provided. They determined through the grant that a core of flexible funding was essential in almost every case, regardless of the buy-in from other systems. While starting a business might be possible without this type of funding, assuming the right buy-in from VR and other agencies, it was far more expedient to start with this core of flexible funds. After that, other agencies could be brought on to pay for distinct needs that conformed to each system's rules.
The Cobb County-based foundation planned to seek funding from employers, families, and other stakeholders. The board intended to ramp up fundraising efforts over the fall of 2006, focusing primarily on funding for individualized accounts. Customers would access this money for resource ownership and self-employment start-up in a microloan format with direct support from agency staff.