Strategic Partners (part 2) 

Visually impaired woman filling soap bottles

NIB forms strategic partnerships with government agencies, commercial businesses, and training organizations to carry out its mission to enhance the personal and economic independence of people who are blind. These partnerships enable both partners and customers to gain an appreciation of the capabilities of people who are blind. 

Commercial Partners Expand Product Offerings 

For more than 30 years NIB has been partnering with commercial businesses to develop job opportunities at NIB associated nonprofit agencies. One of the first commercial partnerships was with 3M, which added self-stick notes the procurement list, says NIB Director of Products Amanda Alderson.  

Through that partnership, NIB associated agencies began producing a variety of items with 3M materials. In addition, agencies formed partnerships with other industry-leading companies to produce sponges, cleaning supplies, and office products.  

The partnerships are a win for both NIB associated agencies and commercial businesses, says Alderson. They enable agencies to grow manufacturing and engineering resources and expertise in new areas, expanding their families of products in categories that would otherwise be inaccessible. Growing AbilityOne product lines and services means agencies can provide more job opportunities for people who are blind. 

For commercial partners, selling through the AbilityOne® Program broadens their market to include GSA global supply and AbilityOne Base Supply Centers® (BSCs). With the SKILCRAFT® brand’s nearly 100% recognition in the federal market, commercial partners who co-brand with NIB strengthen their products’ recognition beyond the private sector.  

The partnerships offer operational benefits, Alderson says. Because NIB associated agencies were deemed mission essential during the pandemic, they never closed their doors. As a result, they effectively served as back-up manufacturing sites for partners like Showa Group, allowing for continuous production of gloves as an essential product. Co-branding also offers commercial partners reputational benefits: Working with NIB associated agencies can enhance their image in the community.  

“It can be a challenge to reach new commercial partners because initially, they see us as their competition,” explains Alderson. “But once they understand our mission and the benefits of co-branding, they’re very receptive to the idea and the possibilities.”  

NIB’s partnership with the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) has also been invaluable to NIB associated agencies, says Anne-Marie Wallace, director of the military resale program. DeCA has overseen the commissaries of all branches of the military for more than 150 years. The equivalent of on-base grocery stores, the Commissaries sell goods at reduced prices to active-duty military members, their families, and veterans. 

NIB has participated in the military resale program since the 1950s and today provides nearly 1,000 unique items made or packaged by approximately 400 people who are blind working at NIB associated agencies. “We have a home care section, a gourmet section, and a kitchen section,” explains Wallace. “These sections comprise the SKILCRAFT line in the 236 commissaries throughout the United States and abroad.” 

Wallace attributes much of the success of the military resale program to DeCA’s support over the years. “We’re one of the few organizations selling in the commissaries that has posted positive sales for the past seven years and our sales are positive because of DeCA,” she says, noting that a DeCA buyer envisioned and introduced the kitchen section line of products.  

DeCA came to the rescue in 2022, when one of its distribution centers planned to reduce the number of SKILCRAFT items it would keep in inventory. “We were going to lose more than 400 items,” explains Wallace, “but with the support of DeCA, we were able to move the products to another center. They helped us accomplish it in a very short time.” 

“Thanks to DeCA and a great group of NIB associated agencies, we were able to add 120 new items in 2021 and another 112 new items in 2022,” says Wallace. The addition of those items, she emphasizes, translates into more jobs for people who are blind. 

Partners in Career Training 

In addition to its work establishing strategic partnerships with rehabilitation agencies operated by states and nonprofit organizations, NSITE, NIB’s talent management enterprise, has developed training programs with a number of private organizations to increase career opportunities for people who are blind. 

A partnership with Google offers foundational IT courses in data analytics, project management, IT support, and UX design, says Learning and Leadership Program Director Marianne Haegeli. The design of the courses allows cohort learning and offers virtual chat rooms for participants to interact with classmates. 

A partnership with Cisco prepares people who are blind for the industry-recognized Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) examination. Known as the Cisco Academy, the rigorous 40-week program is adapted to accommodate the learning styles of people who are blind. Learners meet virtually with an instructor two evenings a week and study and complete lab assignments on their own time. At the end of the program, participants take the CCNA exam at Pearson Vue testing centers throughout the country. Once they earn their CCNA, NSITE assists in obtaining employment in the field by leveraging its partnerships within the IT community. 

A partnership with digital platform Leaderosity, a company that focuses on nonprofit organizations, provides a home to NSITE’s learning management system NSITE-U, explains Haegeli. “They have really helped us develop our courses and the virtual learning environment to be very accessible.” 

Credly, a New York City-based subsidiary of Pearson, worked with NSITE to create and issue digital badges to learners as an independent validation of their achievements. “The badges can be shared via LinkedIn, on resumes, and other social media,” explains Haegeli. “Employers can click on the badges to see the learning content, skills learned, and final exam results, and learners can click on their own badge to access a list of available, applicable jobs. The list can be sorted all sorts of ways, including by geographical location and job title.”  

In partnership with the American Printing House for the Blind, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, NSITE developed an online job seeker’s toolkit as part of NSITE-U. The accessible, self-paced, free online courses help people who are blind acquire and build critical tools to conduct a successful job search through work on self-awareness, career exploration, finding employment, interviewing, and maintaining and advancing in one’s career. 

Bristol Myers Squibb and SocialTalent, a Dublin, Ireland-based hiring and talent management e-learning company, work with NSITE to offer a sourcing specialist certificate program specifically designed for people who are blind and visually impaired. The 18-week program provides education, training, and an integrated six-week work experience that prepares graduates to enter a human resource career in candidate sourcing. 

To enhance its Business Essentials program, NSITE partnered with Roy Hinton of Herndon, Virginia-based Powersim Solutions, Inc., to develop an online business simulation for participants. “We partnered with Powersim again this year for the business simulation and to facilitate group sessions for participants,” says Haegeli. “In the simulation, small teams of learners establish a fictitious company, develop a strategic plan, formulate desired business outcomes, and then manage their organization to achieve the goals outlined in their strategic plan. The teams compete against each other, so in addition to being educational, it’s a lot of fun.” 

Houston-based Baker Communications, an award-winning sales training provider, worked with NSITE to make its virtual workshop on customer outcome selling accessible, including materials provided to learners and facilitators who deliver the virtual workshop appropriately for blind and low-vision learners. Haegeli hopes to include internships in future sessions with Baker, to provide work experience in addition to classroom learning.  

“It’s been an incredible experience working with all of these outstanding companies. They’ve been so open to ensuring their courses are accessible to learners who are blind, and to helping NSITE build its own catalog of courses,” says Haegeli. 

In terms of partnerships, she believes the future is bright. “These training programs are critical in broadening the career opportunities available to our learners. People who are blind have historically experienced employment roadblocks, and that should simply not be the case,” she says. “These partners are helping us break down those roadblocks, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.”