Columbia Lighthouse For The Blind Matches D.C. Business Needs With Those Of Returning Vets

Tony Cancelosi, President and CEO of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind (CLB ), one of Washington D.C.’s oldest nonprofits, has rescued it—and the vets it serves—from the brink.

Some six years ago, the century-plus-old CLB was on a downward spiral, an outdated institution in the red and plummeting fast. Cancelosi's focus on business innovation was key to resuscitating the ailing organization; central to his efforts is the program Bridge to Work, which provides training for wounded warriors.

CLB logo Cancelosi decided to make veterans a focus of his work just over three years ago when he took a look at the statistics of injured veterans who were being transported back to the United States and recognized that a large percentage were visually impaired or blind.

Tony Cancelosi Through his participation in the Montgomery County Workforce Investment Board, he helped win a grant to establish Bridge to Work, a program that gives veterans who are visually impaired or blind training in digital data scanning, computer skills, and job interviewing.

"We created partnerships with the VA senior level people that do rehab-to-work within the community of veterans," Cancelosi said. "Working with great organizations like Vietnam Veterans, Veterans of Modern Warfare, and Blind Veterans Foundation, we were able to seek out and gain confidence within the community that this was a program that would work for veterans."

That was just the beginning. To generate new leads for the 7,000+ visually impaired or blind veterans living in the D.C. area, Cancelosi reached out to the District of Columbia, Fairfax County, Prince Georges County, and Montgomery County to generate combined partnerships to bring the Bridge to Work program to all four counties.

"The disabilities groups within the different counties recognized the fact that our veterans were coming back through miracle medical attention and had all the capabilities of survival," he says. "Yet they still needed to be reconstituted back into society at a level that they could be earning a living, and still maintain the quality of life that they had before they went into the military."

Cancelosi used Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind as an incubator to test the program, and now, after three years and cross-county support, he has a mature program and is in the process of identifying corporate sponsors (if you are interested, contact him at tcancelosi@clb.org).

This program, along with others that Cancelosi has put together, is now responsible for government funding that has taken the Lighthouse to a whole new level of operation; 2011 is the first year they are fully in the black.

As nonprofits face our uncertain economy, it is critical that they align themselves with current needs to ensure their relevancy. This strategy provides the assurance they continue to generate value that is appreciated by the public and sponsors.

"Bridge to Work helped us demonstrate that our programs are very secure investments, meaning that these programs work," Cancelosi says. "If you invest, there will be a return in the form of a job, and a trained individual who will work in a job. Having these kinds of infrastructure programs is very attractive to grantors who want to be sure they are investing their money into programs that will deliver benefits and have a positive impact on society. We do that with Bridge to Work by giving wounded warriors the skills they need to obtain jobs."

Nonprofits, like all businesses, are facing a challenging time. How they generate the value that clients and donors are willing to pay for is especially difficult. Leaders like Tony Cancelosi demonstrate that it can be done and are exemplary models for other nonprofit leaders.

[Top image: Flickr user The U.S. Army]

Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) is a Change Leadership specialist. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association, Project Management Institute, and NASA. He is the founder of Seth Kahan's CEO Leaders Forum, a year-long learning experience for CEOs in Washington, DC. His book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, is a Washington Post bestseller. Visit GettingChangeRight.com for more info and a free excerpt. Follow Seth on Twitter. Learn more about Seth's work at VisionaryLeadership.com.

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