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Evaluation of SBDC Pilot Projects



This is to alert the P2Tech readership to a recent evaluation done for EPA of six pilot projects involving SBDCs in the delivery of environmental assistance.  The projects in question took place over the period 1995-99.  For the benefit of the busy P2 Execs among us, I've written a synopsis of the study, which is attached to this e-mail.  But if you would rather read the study itself, or at least its Executive Summary, please go to: www.epa.gov/p2, and click on "technical assistance."  I hope that  those of you who think about how best to provde technical assistance will find this report as interesting as I did. 


 Ed Weiler (USEPA--Wash, D.C./Pollution Prevention Division)
202-260-2996
Environmental Assistance to Small Businesses:
An Ex Post Evaluation of SBDC Pilot Projects
(US EPA: Washington, D.C., February 2001)
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A Synopsis


Background

        In early 1995, EPA, in conjunction with SBA, funded Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) in Iowa, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin to test the feasibility of delivering “environmental assistance” (regulatory compliance integrated with prevention) in a small-business context.  Lacking in-house environmental expertise, these SBDCs in turn forged  partnerships with environmental assistance providers in their respective states.  Shortly thereafter, EPA on its own funded similar pilots with the SBDCs in Pennsylvania and Vermont. 


Need for a Formal Evaluation

        While the mere existence of the SBDC pilots inevitably raised the profile of the SBDC Network to some extent among the established environmental assistance provider community, no provision had been made for a compilation of  the project experiences, or for an assessment of their implications for the design of future environmental assistance programs.  In order to fill this gap,  EPA commissioned Kerr & Associates, Inc. (Reston, VA), in late 2000 to compile the collective experiences of the pilots, based upon project records and personal recollections among key players, and to articulate the most significant “lessons learned” from these experiences.  


Lessons Learned

        
> Organization Matters:  In order to remain viable within an SBDC, environmental assistance must be accorded a discreet functional area within the organization, and must be headed by an individual with defined responsibility for this function state-wide. At the same time, on the operational level, environmental assistance should be integrated as much as practically possible into the regular functions of the business assistance counselors. This is not to say, however, that business counselors can be expected to become environmental experts. A more practical goal is for them to become sufficiently knowledgeable in environmental issues to be able to spot problems and make an informed referral to sources of technical expertise.

        >Collaboration with Environmental Assistance Providers Is Essential: In order to ensure a smooth hand-off  from an SBDC to an environmental assistance provider when a referral is indicated, there must be in place a viable working relationship among the providers which recognizes and values the respective domains of competence.


        >Access as a Function of Established Client Base: While the SBDCs claim, not without  considerable justification, that the relationship of trust they enjoy with their clients gives them a competitive edge in offering access to small businesses, it is also the case that the bulk (but by no means all!) of SBDC clients are service-based businesses, which, on a per-unit basis of output are generally not considered heavy polluters.  By contrast, the environmental assistance providers have logically enough targeted the relatively less-numerous, but more heavily- polluting industries (e.g., metal finishing).  Thus, apart from the “trust” issue, SBDCs offer access to a wide variety of businesses that the environmental assistance providers are not well-positioned to reach.  This difference in the respective client bases is yet another reason for collaboration among business and environmental assistance providers (see above).  

        >Pollution Prevention as a Standalone Is a Hard Sell: Despite its intuitive appeal in the abstract, pollution prevention was best understood by established small-businesses when it was presented in conjunction with regulatory compliance.  At the same time, the prevention message was an easier sell with “start-ups,” which constitute a significant share of the SBDC client base. 

        >Targeting Is Important, but Follow-Up Is Critical: The conventional wisdom in  offering environmental assistance is that it is most effective when tailored to specific groups-- generally along industry-specific lines. While the SBDC pilot experiences are generally consistent with this notion, they also would seem to indicate that, however useful they might be useful as an initial  approach, targeting in of itself is no guarantee that the small-business customers will pay heed. More critical is active follow-up, with repeated messages and on-site visits.  Obviously, this point is not without significant cost implications.

        >Measurement of Results: Future similar efforts should develop better metrics for assessing program results.

Caveat 

        There is always a risk of over-interpreting the findings from an evaluation of the type conducted by Kerr & Associates. In this regard, the reader should bear in mind that there were only six pilots, hence only six discreet observations. In view of this situation, the findings are necessarily subjective to some extent. .