Investing in the Future of People with Disabilities: Our Partnership with the John J. Heldrich School of Workforce Development

Investing in the Future of People with Disabilities: Our Partnership with the John J. Heldrich School of Workforce Development

 

By Elaine Katz, MS, CCC-SLP, Senior Vice President of Grants and Communications at Kessler Foundation

Two decades ago, the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development was founded to strengthen the American workplace through workforce education, placement and training programs, and policy development. The Center, named for New Jersey business and community leader John J. Heldrich, is based at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Over the past 20 years, the Heldrich Center has become known as a national leader in addressing the needs of employers and jobseekers. Our own mission has been furthered through our relationship with the Center’s experts. For the past six years, Kessler Foundation has partnered with the Heldrich Center to ensure that we invest wisely and well in the future of people with disabilities. 

Kessler Foundation supports the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace through targeted research and grantmaking. Our research focuses on restoring function for people disabled by major illness or injury – the first step toward achieving independence. Achieving independence depends on more than restoring function, which is why our research includes looking at the factors that affect the ability of people with disabilities to return to their homes, their communities, and the workplace.

To ensure that jobs are available, we provide grants that fund programs that expand employment for people with disabilities. Over the past 10 years, Kessler Foundation has invested more than $32 million in New Jersey and nationally through our three grant programs. Our targeted grantmaking has supported new business ventures, job training and job creation, as well as increased job opportunities in retail, distribution centers, and entrepreneurship. We are known for looking at innovative approaches to help solve the persistently high rate of unemployment among people with disabilities.

Our major national employment grants encourage organizations to pursue promising approaches and concepts, beyond what they might accomplish without our support. We prioritize programs with the potential for large-scale hiring, such as social enterprise businesses, public-private partnerships, and faith-based initiatives. As collaborative models, these grants stimulate new ideas from the field, leveraging dollars and human capital, which we hope will serve as models for policy change.

We knew early on that grant evaluation was considered the gold standard for managing and tracking grant progress. As a Foundation, we were confident in our grant recipients, but wanted an independent examination of our projects to provide a non-biased opinion that would enable us to better judge program success, and provide accountability to our board of trustees. However, finding a partner that understood the field of disability, in addition to workforce issues, was key.

As the work of the Heldrich Center became known to us through staff participation in state and national disability employment initiatives, we felt confident that this was the right evaluation partner for us.

Working with the Center to measure the outcomes of our grants has been one of our best investments. With their aid, we're able to dig deeper and determine better performance measurements to help our staff and board understand the return on grant investment. The Heldrich Center’s independent evaluation of our national signature grants helps us to be smarter investors for future projects. Their project evaluations enable us to document the strategies that work, and to determine when to intervene to help projects that face challenges.

The Heldrich Center has been instrumental in helping us evaluate several innovative projects − for example, Pepsi ACT (Achieving Change Together), a corporate hiring initiative of Pepsi Americas Beverage, which aims to hire more than 1,500 individuals with disabilities over the next 5 years; “The Veterans Staffing Network”, a social enterprise employment project of Easter Seals of the Washington Baltimore Region; and “Putting Faith to Work”, a collaboration with Vanderbilt University that builds on the capacity of religious congregations in Tennessee, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Texas to support employment for their members with disabilities.  

The Heldrich Center works with our grantees to develop a research plan; creating targeted questions that clarify goals and outcomes and result in a customized evaluation plan for each project. Our grantees have given high marks to Center staff who've made field visits. Rather than a “got you” attitude, which often is the fear of organizations working with external evaluators, the Heldrich Center staff have worked hard to maintain collaborative relationships with our grantees. After all, evaluation is not just about demonstrating success, it is also about learning why things don’t work. As such, identifying and learning from mistakes is a key factor of evaluation. With the direction and guidance of the Heldrich Center, we are able to identify which strategies will contribute to a truly inclusive workplace.

Achieving successful outcomes for the Foundation’s investment depends on refocusing the national discourse on the gains in employment being achieved by people with disabilities. By emphasizing that the majority of people with disabilities are “striving to work”* and “successfully overcoming barriers”*, we positively influence the future of employment for people with disabilities. In partnership with the Heldrich Center, we're shaping the development of new priorities and programs of intervention that improve the workplace experiences of people with disabilities.  By partnering with the Heldrich Center, we are confident of an optimal return on our investment in initiatives that expand jobs for people with disabilities. 

*The 2015 Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey