When my husband, Dave, was preparing to retire from his profession in accounting, we decided that we would do something together in the nonprofit world. He had served on nonprofit boards throughout his career and after I retired from teaching, I volunteered for several nonprofits. We had raised our family in Cincinnati and wanted to do something to help people in our community.

We spent about a year visiting various agencies around the country until we found one that helped us decide what our focus would be. In 1995, we began creating the agency that would be called Cincinnati Works. The vision of Cincinnati Works is to lead the effort to eliminate poverty in the Cincinnati community. Our mission: Cincinnati Works will partner with all willing and capable people living in poverty to assist them in advancing to economic self-sufficiency through employment.

We were very naïve in our early years. We had much to learn about program development, partnerships, staffing, recruiting, barriers to employment, and advancing to a self-sufficient wage. We felt that if we developed an assistance program, job seekers would flock to us on their own accord. Instead, we had to do a lot of community outreach. And while we knew about some of the barriers that job seekers encounter, we learned of many more. Originally, we thought that if we could just get people a job, they would naturally advance to better and better paying jobs. But job retention and advancement required that we address things like childcare and transportation, as well as mental health and legal advocacy. We continued to reshape our programs to fit the need: Our job readiness workshop, which included information on topics such as healthy eating habits, originally ran three weeks, but people coming in were so desperate for a job that we decided to reduce the length to one week so they could get started faster. Through research, looking at best practices, and tracking results, we were able to make the needed changes that would help our job seekers be more successful. To this day, we believe in making changes when we see something that isn’t working. Continuous improvement is one of our core values.

There are some major differences between our program and other job programs, and we believe they’re the reason behind our excellent results. For one, we are all about self-sufficiency, which we define as 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (a little over $18,000 for a family of three). We are not satisfied with our job seekers just getting a job. Our goal is retention in the same job for at least one year. Then the job seeker can start advancement, which will lead to self-sufficiency. We address all the barriers to employment. We believe that when we have a business problem that we can’t solve, research is the key. Our research has been responsible for many changes in our program. Also, all of our funding comes from the private sector, which allows us to adhere to our philosophy of assisting those in poverty.

One component of our program has not changed in any way through the years. Cincinnati Works is operated by standard business principles. We have annual, audited financials (published in our annual report), a written business plan, a board-driven strategic plan, and specific measurable outcomes and measurements.

Since inception, we have assisted in over 5,000 employments with an exceptional 85 percent retention rate. Cincinnati Works has received many awards, including the Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics, the Manhattan American Institute for Social Entrepreneurship, and Best Practices by the American Institute for Full Employment.

We believe that the future of Cincinnati Works is secure. There is a professional staff in place and funding the program is no longer dependent upon us. There is a plan for researching the need for reaching into the other four pockets of poverty in our region. Presently, most of our job seekers come from our city. We’re not sure what that would look like. It might be partnering with other agencies or starting satellites. We are already involved with the expansion of the Cincinnati Works’ model in other cities. It is our hope that as long as there is poverty in our country, there will be a Cincinnati Works’ model that can help families escape poverty and become contributing members of society.