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Our history

  • 1996

    Project SEARCH is established in Cincinnati.

  • 2008

    The programme’s first UK site is opened at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

  • 2017

    NEXT Distribution announces its first ever 100 per cent graduate record.

  • 2018

    DFN Foundation sign master franchise agreement for exclusive rights to Project SEARCH.

  • 2018

    DFN Project SEARCH celebrates 1,000 jobs.

Working every day to build a more inclusive society

DFN Project SEARCH is a transition to work programme for students with learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions, aimed at those motivated to achieve competitive employment.

We believe that every young person has a right to aspire to work, something that is often denied to people with learning disabilities and autism.

Our collaboration with the DFN Foundation is building a more inclusive society by helping young people with learning disabilities and autism receive high quality work-related learning and improved opportunities to access long-term paid employment.

Today we are running over 69 schemes throughout the UK and Europe and have supported more than 1300 young people into paid work.

Our programme is evidence based and works at scale and includes total workplace immersion at its very best, facilitating a seamless combination of classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on skills training.

Partnering with a global leader

Project SEARCH was developed at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center by Erin Riehle and Susie Rutkowski in 1996 and has since grown to over 600 licensed programmes, spanning 47 US states, 11 countries and multiple puWblic and private sectors.

DFN Project SEARCH holds the exclusive master franchise rights in the UK, Ireland, and Iberia to the prestigious programme that has been developed in the US and across the world.

Meet the team

The DFN Project SEARCH Team

David Forbes-Nixon

Founder and Chairman

David has over 33-years experience as an investment banker and fund manager and from 2002-2020 served as Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Alcentra, a leading sub-investment grade asset manager with over $40bn AUM. David was inspired by his disabled son Charlie to set up the DFN Charitable Foundation in 2014 and DFN Project SEARCH in 2018 to make a positive difference to the lives of young people with special educational needs and disabilities. He bought Undershaw, Conan Doyle’s old country house, in 2014 and converted it into the Upper School for Stepping Stones School and obtained the Master Franchise Agreement for Project SEARCH for the UK, Ireland and Iberia in 2018. His vision is to transform the life outcomes of disabled people throughout the country and build a more inclusive and fairer society.

Claire Cookson

Chief Executive Officer

Chief Executive Officer of the DFN Foundation and DFN Project SEARCH, Claire is an experienced senior leader with an extensive background in education. She brings a strong understanding of collaborating with businesses, educators and Local Authorities to develop employability outcomes for learners with special educational needs and disabilities.

Lily Beyer

Programme Specialist

Lily is the Programme Specialist for Wales, joining DFN Project SEARCH in 2018 having developed a background in Job Coaching, Project Coordination, and Supported Employment in a Welsh context.

Maureen McHugh

Programme Specialist

Maureen has had an extensive and successful career educating young people with learning disability. A qualified teacher, Maureen moved to DFN Project SEARCH to manage the award-winning Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust site.

Carmel McKeogh

Programme Specialist

Carmel is a DFN Project SEARCH Associate and Director of her own company. She brings extensive local government experience having previously served as Deputy Chief Executive of Blackpool Council. She has worked on several national initiatives designed to support people with learning disabilities for a number of years.

Our Trustees

David Forbes-Nixon

Founder and Chairman

David has over 33-years experience as an investment banker and fund manager and from 2002-2020 served as Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Alcentra, a leading sub-investment grade asset manager with over $40bn AUM. David was inspired by his disabled son Charlie to set up the DFN Charitable Foundation in 2014 and DFN Project SEARCH in 2018 to make a positive difference to the lives of young people with special educational needs and disabilities. He bought Undershaw, Conan Doyle’s old country house, in 2014 and converted it into the Upper School for Stepping Stones School and obtained the Master Franchise Agreement for Project SEARCH for the UK, Ireland and Iberia in 2018. His vision is to transform the life outcomes of disabled people throughout the country and build a more inclusive and fairer society.

Mark Hudson

Mark spent most of his fulltime career advising retail, consumer and leisure clients on Strategy and creating value from Deals. He was a partner at both PWC, where he also chaired the UK Supervisory Board, and at Bain & Company. Between these roles he was an executive board member at Iceland Group and Welcome Break. He is now an investor, advisor and NED at several early stage businesses, and is a coach and mentor. He is married with 3 grown up children.

Lela Kogbara

Currently Lela works part time as an adviser in the field of disability and employment for the Department for Education and NHS England. She is actually a qualified accountant but decided 16 years ago to branch out. Up until September 2016 she was Assistant Chief Executive at Islington Council responsible for corporate policy and performance, equalities, communications, media, arts and culture, employment, adult and community learning, business engagement and community safety.

Most of her professional life has involved tackling inequality in some form or other and this has also been a feature of her private life and she continues to sit on boards that have equality and justice at their core, including DFN Project SEARCH.

Emily Sun

Emily is involved in designing, launching, and consulting to innovative programmes within the social sector that enable disadvantaged young people to significantly improve their life outcomes, primarily through education and sustained employment. She also consults to educational institutions and the NHS on leadership development and change management. Previously, she was at Eli Lilly and Co. for 10 years, where she served as the HR Director for the company's UK operations, as well as for their R&D operations across Europe. She also served as Head of Development for Impetus – The Private Equity Foundation.

Larry Sullivan

Larry is the Chairman and Co-Founder of Construction Industry Solutions (COINS), a global software company. He has also founded 6 other successful software companies and is an investor in tech and biotech start-ups that focus on AI and social impact. His interests extend to education and other areas of social enterprise. Larry co-founded and funded the special education school Stepping Stones in Surrey in 2004 and has also started and funded a number of social enterprises to further support the School and individuals with disabilities. These include the Cookie Bar and Cookie Bar Bus, assisted living flats for students, a recording studio, and a ski hotel in Austria.

In 2006, Larry established the COINS Foundation as the not-for-profit organisation of the COINS group, which aims to use the power of business to create a better and more sustainable future and address issues of social injustice. COINS Foundation is committed to supporting social enterprises and businesses with a social mission and believes that economic and social value should be intertwined.

Elaine Colquhoun

Elaine joined Whitefield in 2011 as Executive Principal has worked in the field of special education for nearly 35 years — including three years as President of Nasen (National association of Special Educational needs) and over 10 years as Head Teacher of Hill Top School. In 2015 Elaine was awarded the title OBE for her services to Education and joined the DFN Project SEARCH Board of Trustees in 2018.

Susie Rutkowski

Susie is the Co-Director and Educational Specialist for Project SEARCH. She is a nationally recognized transition expert with specific experience in program development in career technical education and employability curricula for young adults with disabilities. She served as the Manager for Disability Education at Great Oaks Career Campuses for over twelve years. During that tenure she, with Erin Riehle, co-founded Project SEARCH. Susie has been instrumental in designing Project SEARCH training modules and leading replication efforts for new Project SEARCH sites in the U.S. and other countries as well.

Erin Riehle

Erin was Director of Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Department and felt that, because the hospital served individuals with developmental disabilities, it made sense that they should commit to hiring people in this group. Therefore she set up Project SEARCH in 1996 with Susie Rutkowski.

Erin is a recognized authority and national leader in promoting employment opportunities for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment. She is a founder and Senior Director of Project SEARCH, an employment and transition program that has received national recognition for innovative practices pioneered under Ms. Riehle’s guidance.

The DFN MoveForward Team

Sean Porter

Programme Manager

Sean joined ThinkForward in 2013 when he became one of its coaches at an alternative provision school in east London. He is currently running the DFN MoveForward programme, bringing frontline experience in working with vulnerable groups including the long-term unemployed, single parents, homeless people, ex-offenders and gang members.

Vincenza De Falco

Progression Coach

Vincenza has extensive experience working with young people with various learning needs and barriers in a variety of settings. She joined MoveForward in 2017, bringing her knowledge and expertise to support young people with learning disabilities and autism to make a successful transition into work.

Kayleigh Smith

Progression Coach

Kayleigh has a background working within the charity sector and with young people from a range of different backgrounds. She has experience of working with Kent County Council, the Prince’s Trust and Young Kent. Before joining ThinkForward as a MoveForward coach in December 2017, Kayleigh worked as a Project Manager for Girlguiding.

Katrien Buckens

Business Partnerships Manager

Katrien joined ThinkForward and the MoveForward initiative from Pearson, where she managed partnerships with secondary schools and Multi Academy Trusts in Kent, East Sussex and South London, to help them understand and implement new BTEC vocational courses and learning services. She has also developed extended school services for Kent County Council.

Sarah Eason

Business Partnerships Manager

Sarah has worked with young people with learning difficulties in mainstream and special educational needs settings for over a decade. In her role as Business Partnerships Manager she continues to develop a network of employer relationships to create employment and ‘Ready For Work’ opportunities for the programme’s young people.

Natahsa Payne

Progression Coach

Natasha is a progression coach working in three West Midlands schools, focused on high quality delivery and developing strong and effective working partnerships with young people, their families and schools. Bringing experience of delivering targeted projects and direct work in a local authority setting, Natasha has a passion to support young people to raise and realise their aspirations.