Magazine article Behavioral Healthcare Executive

Storytelling with a Financial Impact: Mental Health Systems Engages Public, Raises Funds, by Deciding to Tell Its Story

Magazine article Behavioral Healthcare Executive

Storytelling with a Financial Impact: Mental Health Systems Engages Public, Raises Funds, by Deciding to Tell Its Story

Article excerpt

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 m ix 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 organizations 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 iMHS 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 tor 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 savs 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 fundraisig model. "That approach helped us realize that, as a company, we re not saying 'hey wer'e 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. …

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