April 29, 2022

Taking Steps to Collaborate

Consider this: we collaborate with office mates, we collaborate with competitors, we collaborate with friends. But, we give to non-profit organizations … our time, our financial resources. Imagine, for a moment, rethinking our relationship with philanthropy? Thinking differently, thinking in synchronicity, we’d make an even greater difference in terms of corporate altruism, employee teambuilding, and strengthening our communities. Most significantly, while helping charities achieve their goals, we’d have a more inclusive hand in bettering the lives of the people they serve … that’s real collaboration.

Sure, it might take a mental pivot in how we think about corporate social responsibility, but it’s not that radical an idea. In fact, there’s probably a non-profit or two near your office, or nearer your heart, that would welcome an invitation to explore a rich partnership. The benefits are great, and if you need inspiration, read on.

STEP workers at Novi, Michigan-based company, Fleece and Thank You

The First Steps

Brent Mikulski is president and CEO of Services to Enhance Potential (STEP) in Dearborn, Michigan, which offers employment training and job opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Collaborating with businesses of all sizes, and several NPOs, too, STEP honors its mission while companies find a source of reliable, well-trained workers ever eager for the chance to learn new skills and find their footing in the world.

STEP got its start in 1972 when parents of children with physical and cognitive disabilities met to discuss their children’s future. “They wanted more for their kids, more than the day programming offered … which at the time was basically adult day care,” Brent explained. Indeed, they wanted their children to enjoy greater socialization, learn job skills, and find meaning in their days. So, STEP was born with the purpose to reach out to local employers, and find those meaningful connections. But, Brent admits, conversations with human resources executives in that era were difficult. “Today,” he added, “We have corporate champions” who see value in what STEP clients bring to their operations.

Still, Brent cautions the conversations aren’t always easy. “We tell employers we can help with their staffing needs, and bring them enthusiastic, trained employees. They’re interested. We say ‘disabled’ and perceptions change,” he said, adding, “They wonder what that means. Our job is to explain these are high functioning individuals … and what exactly that means. It’s a perception of abilities and the employer soon gets past that.”

And as they continue speaking, Brent said, often the employer thinks for a moment, and then acknowledges knowing someone with a developmental disability.

Parents and families of disabled individuals discover there many “cool things that can be designed around a person’s wants and needs, and that there are good opportunities for someone to find a job in a safe environment,” Brent said.

For an employer, among the benefits of a relationship with an organization like STEP is that it provides a vetted and trained source of employees, especially for high-turnover work. “Not only do we support the business, but we can design training programs to ensure our workers are ready from day one,” said Brent.

STEP also runs three thrift store locations in Southeast Michigan.

A Job Well Done

Traditionally, according to Brent, disabled individuals had few options for work, and most of those were menial: bagging groceries or wiping trays at fast-food restaurants, for example. Through training though, from the STEPs of the world, they can do so much more, from packaging and mailing projects to retail to day care. STEP clients, then, work in diverse industries: boutique hotels including downtown Detroit’s Shinola Hotel and The Henry Hotel in nearby Dearborn, public utilities such as Detroit’s DTE Energy, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, software firms and hospitals. They’re also important team members at non-profits including Novi-based Fleece & Thank You, and Livonia-based Bundled, a subscription gift box retailer. “The owners of Bundle loved the work they did, and hired two STEP workers,” he said.  

Much as STEP collaborates with business to find solutions to their staffing needs, it collaborates with like-minded non-profits. Brent said, “We don’t treat an NPO offering similar services to ours as competitors. Rather, we work together. If we can’t find a match for a company we refer that employer to someone else. We all pass along leads. It’s much less territorial than it used to be.”

In fact, Brent explained, three years ago STEP and its peers partnered on a diversity and workforce inclusion committee for Detroit. City officials, acknowledging manufacturers returning to Detroit would be looking for trained workers, stressed the need for training. “Together, we answered that call.”

Finally, Brent said, “We can show what we’re capable of, what our clients are capable of … that the employer made the right decision,” and it all begins with collaboration.

Brent Mikulski, president and CEO of Services to Enhance Potential (STEP).

Edward Nakfoor is a Birmingham, Michigan-based freelance writer and marketer for small businesses. How does your business collaborate? Contact Ed at edwardnakfoor@gmail.com.

Connect with Brent at @ bmikulski@stepcentral.org.

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