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Storytelling with a financial impact

April 2, 2012
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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Mental Health Systems engages public, raises funds, by deciding to tell its story
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Mental Health Systems (MHS, San Diego, Calif.) grew from a small provider of psychiatric day treatment and alcoholism recovery services in 1978 to a $90 million provider of mental health, corrections and rehabilitation, alcohol and drug, and professional education for behavioral health providers. MHS employs over 800 people and operates more than 90 community based programs, bringing services to thousands throughout California and Utah.

A vital element of MHS’ growth has hinged on its ability to develop needed programs of service and keep those programs funded through a complex mix of funding streams from grants, state funds, and county funds. And, within the past two years, MHS has added a modest new funding stream—philanthropy—as well as a new and highly engaged group of volunteers.

Both its philanthropic funds and its growing stream of volunteers are the result of a fundraising effort undertaken in late 2008 and 2009, when the MHS board realized that recession-driven shortfalls in state and county revenue would likely lead to cuts in available state and county program funds. While they knew that fundraising could not replace likely funding losses, they believed that the effort was essential to fill service gaps and help fund new initiatives.

After exploring various approaches under the leadership of President and CEO Kim Bond, MHS and its board decided to pursue a fundraising effort built around a “sustainable funding” model developed by Seattle-based Benevon. (See “Sustainable Funding: From Dream to Reality July/August 2011.)

Fundraising decision changes culture—and message

MHS board members and executives realized that creating the infrastructure required to support a sustained fundraising effort would drive changes throughout the agency. These changes would impact its culture, its self-image, its range of stakeholders, and its relationship with those stakeholders. Since the Benevon model focuses first on identifying individuals with interest in an organization’s mission—rather than those with the greatest financial resources—it meant that MHS would need to re-evaluate the way that it explained and acted on its mission. And, it meant that MHS would have to work with not only those who offered financial gifts, but those gave time and talent as volunteers.

For years, MHS built its reputation among local stakeholders—notably as a grantee reporting to grant funders, or a contractor working with state or country contract-holders for mental health, substance use, drug court, corrections, re-entry services, and the like. This made MHS an expert on delivering service data and making the case for the funding of its 90-plus community based programs with a relatively narrow range of specialty stakeholders. These stakeholders could “connect the dots” between each program and MHS.

But this also meant that the general public and MHS program participants had virtually no awareness of MHS’ identity or role in essential community services. So, despite the fact that a local business journal ranked MHS as the fourth-largest non-profit provider in the San Diego area, Bond says that MHS and its board came to realize that “we were the biggest service provider that no one ever heard of.”

Deciding what to say publicly about MHS and how to say it effectively—an essential part of any sustainable fundraising— was a challenge. “The question was, how do we ‘go out’ and talk to the public?” says Bond. Internally, the MHS team recoiled at the thought of self-promotion, but soon found what it needed within the Benevon fundraising model. “That approach helped us realize that, as a company, we’re not saying ‘hey we’re wonderful’ but instead, ‘this is who we are, this is what we do, this is our passion and if you share that passion, join us.’ It was a direction and culture that we could take as our own.”

But developing the message still took a lot of work, she explains. “The reality is that a lot of our clients have addiction issues, have made multiple attempts at recovery, or have a history of incarceration. And, we can’t run away from that. So, we needed to find ways to say, ‘hey, these are our clients. They’ve got problems, but they’ve got strengths too.’”

Learning how to engage the public

Through a series of one-hour events, designed to provide interested members of the public a “point of entry” through which they could experience the MHS mission, MHS found its voice. MHS employees, volunteers, and occasionally MHS clients, told and retold their stories, translating the clinical facts of service into realities that could be appreciated by the public and local lawmakers.

“Because our service areas are so diverse, we sought to find a few common threads—to find ‘lenses’ through which members of the public could look at what MHS and its programs do. Using our Mission, we focused on three—individuals, families, and communities, and found stories to go along with them,” says Scott Suckow, vice president of community partnerships at MHS.

Often, Suckow explains, “a story starts out with a myth, like that people think it’s too expensive to treat the mentally ill, but in reality, treatment costs less than half the cost of hospitalization or incarceration—so we seek to demystify and explain the myth. Then, the stories tell about what life was like before, how a client was living, what services or help an MHS program provided, and then a discussion of where they are today. Each story concludes with a description of an unmet need and considers what could be done if there were dollars available to meet that need.”

The benefits of public engagement

Though the financial proceeds of its fundraising program have been relatively modest so far (in the five figures), MHS leaders have put the money to work as they had hoped—to fill in service gaps and jumpstart new initiatives.