Building a Better Foundation

How a visit to the Alternatives conference catalyzed a far-reaching change in the foundation.

It was in October of 2006, at the national Alternatives conference, that Lynda Frost had her epiphany. Frost had been with the foundation for three years, as associate director. But it was her first time attending Alternatives, a SAMHSA-sponsored conference organized for and by mental health consumers.

“The consumer movement has a saying,” says Frost. “‘Nothing about us without us.’ I didn’t quite get it until I attended the conference. Then all of a sudden, it seemed antiquated to work for a mental health foundation with no self-identified consumers on the staff or the national advisory committee. It seemed out of sync with our commitment to inclusion and civil rights.”

Frost approached King Davis, who was then executive director of the foundation, and asked for permission to start working on a process for changing the situation. He immediately agreed.

She began to comb the literature for information about other mental health-related organizations that brought on consumers as staff and board members. She reached out to consumer contacts in Texas and across the country for guidance. The process picked up steam when Vicky Coffee-Fletcher joined the foundation as a program officer, bringing with her a passionate commitment to consumer direction and empowerment. Coffee-Fletcher attended the Alternatives conference in the fall of 2007 and gathered more information and contacts.

“It was an exciting idea, but it was also a challenging one,” says Coffee-Fletcher. “We needed to be thoughtful and careful in how we went about it.”

In addition to the logistical challenges involved in creating new positions, there were broader organizational questions about how to prepare the foundation staff and leadership for the change.

Coffee-Fletcher and Frost worked with Davis to draft a position description and to implement relevant staff diversity training. Attendance at the Alternatives conference became a key event for new professional staff, including the yet-to-be-determined executive director who would replace Davis later in 2008. And it was decided to start by bringing on board two new consumer staff members. They in turn would be involved in the process of bringing consumers onto Hogg’s National Advisory Council.

In June 2008, the foundation announced a national search for two Consumer and Family Liaisons. The position was designed to be comparable to other program officer positions but had a focus on engaging consumers and developing networks while infusing the foundation’s work and grantmaking with a focus on recovery. It also allowed applicants to substitute lived experience for years of education.

“We wanted to recognize from the outset that consumers might have a nontraditional background,” says Frost. “That’s precisely why we wanted consumers, because they would bring a different perspective to the table, but it presented potential issues in the hiring process.”

The foundation received 160 applications, which went through a rigorous review and multi-level interview process with panels that included external consumer participants. The final candidates, Stephany Bryan and Tammy Heinz, interviewed with the new executive director, Dr. Octavio N. Martinez, Jr., who enthusiastically embraced the new focus on recovery and consumer engagement.

“It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made as executive director,” says Martinez. “It’s changed who we are, for the better.”