Online Data and an Entrepreneurial Spirit Revive an Advocacy Nonprofit

Heather Joslyn
The Chronicle of Philanthropy
July 19, 2017
CHRONICLE PHOTO BY JULIA SCHMALZ
 
MAKING WAVES: Under Paul Gionfriddo, its president since 2014, Mental Health America is cutting bureaucracy and revamping hiring. Mental Health America was a faltering education and advocacy nonprofit in 2014 when its new president, Paul Gionfriddo, launched a quick project: the creation of an online screening tool. 
 
The tool would help users evaluate whether they were showing symptoms of various mental-health conditions and direct them to resources for help. Mental Health America had long believed that it should help older people who had lived with mental illness for decades. But staff were surprised to find that most people who did the screening were women under 35. 
 
That experience carries a lesson for all organizations that seek to modernize their work, Mr. Gionfriddo says: "Make sure you really know your constituents — not who you think they are." 
 
Such new thinking is just one of the many hallmarks of sweeping change at Mental Health America. Once slow-moving and bureaucratic, the group now embraces experimentation, social media, and novel hiring approaches. "We’re 100-something years old," Mr. Gionfriddo says. "But we’re functioning like a start-up." 
 
It’s no coincidence that the group’s revenue has grown from $2.7 million to $4.1 million in the past three fiscal years. Its email list has doubled, to 40,000, and the number of visitors to its redesigned website has more than tripled, to 7 million. Staff turnover, at roughly 70 percent three years ago, is nearly zero. 
 
MAKEOVER TIPS: SAFE RISKS AND SMART TWEETS 
• Know your audience. An online tool revealed a surprise: Mostly young women, not older people, were seeking information from Mental Health America.
• Take risks with programs, not money. Experiment first with low- or no-cost tweaks.
• Trim that elevator speech to 140 characters.
• Don’t delegate tweeting to millennial employees. Learn social-?media skills yourself, says Paul Gionfriddo, the charity's      president. Otherwise, “it’s like 20 years ago when you didn’t know how to use Excel." 
 
Hiring From Reddit
Mental Health America was founded in 1909 by Clifford Beers, a former psychiatric patient who sought to reform then-barbaric conditions in mental institutions. By the time Mr. Gionfriddo arrived in 2014, it had carved out a niche as a source of information on mental illness, focusing on wellness. It participated in professional conferences, investigated "alternative" treatment strategies, and developed a research base on mental health in the workplace. 
 
But the organization was losing revenue and shedding affiliates. Its internal culture was nearly paralytic. Nothing was done without consensus and layers of review — a vestige of an old organizational approach in which "everyone has a say but nothing gets out the door until it’s perfect," Mr. Gionfriddo says. 
 
He was a natural fit for the group. A veteran health-policy expert and nonprofit leader, he had written a book about his family’s struggle to find care for his adult son, Tim, who suffers from schizophrenia. But from the beginning, he made waves. A former mayor and state legislator in Connecticut, he brought with him a pragmatic, "good enough" approach. He flattened the organizational structure, giving staffers more autonomy. And he oversaw a new approach to hiring: He wanted people who had a passion for the cause but who were also tech-savvy, efficient, and quick to seize opportunities. 
 
Cultural fit is vital, Mr. Gionfriddo says: "We hire people who want to work together." 
 
Today, Mental Health America finds staff members in less-traditional places. For instance, Sachin Doshi, its financial and systems analyst, was a recent college graduate who came to the charity’s attention via a Reddit post. Mr. Doshi had seen a job posting from the group, been impressed, and posted on Reddit that he would give up his first paycheck to anyone who could find him a job at an organization like Mental Health America. ("He still owes me money," Mr. Gionfriddo quips.) 
 
Mission in a Hashtag
In speeches before he joined the organization, Mr. Gionfriddo had started using the phrase "before stage four" as shorthand for his core philosophy: Treat mental illness before it reaches the crisis stage. 
 
At Mental Health America, he used #B4Stage4 as a hashtag in blog posts, then decided to unveil it at an organization conference as the linchpin of the group’s messaging. Some employees pushed back. "You can’t do that," they told him. "We haven’t all talked about it." 
 
Mr. Gionfriddo argued that he had been using the slogan to good effect for a year. "I knew it worked. I didn’t need a focus group." 
 
Now the organization promotes #B4Stage4 widely. The slogan is often coupled with a key statistic: On average, treatment for mental illness doesn’t start until 10 years after symptoms appear. 
 
If the hashtag gave the organization a tweetable mission statement, the online screening tool provided data to buttress it. Within two weeks of the tool’s launch, more than 20,000 people had shared their age, gender, and income level via its optional survey. 
 
The organization now has demographics for roughly 2.25 million people — data it uses in appeals to donors. The tool’s development underscores something Mr. Gionfriddo calls crucial for nonprofits in need of a transformation: "Use every dollar you’ve got to advance your programs, not your administration. Because programs are what people see." 
 
A Brighter Future
Now that Mental Health America is on more stable ground, Mr. Gionfriddo wants to build up its online infrastructure and help connect users more easily with treatment services. The nonprofit has launched a credentialing program to help people with experience of mental illness act as certified peer specialists in social-service and clinical settings. And it’s working on issues like incarceration policy, in the belief that many people with mental illness who don’t get treated wind up in prison. 
 
It will be doing all this in a bright, sunny new home in Alexandria, Va. The nonprofit moved a year ago from a dark, circa-1970s office. The new headquarters is a modern space with an open floor plan and big windows with panoramic views. Says Mr. Gionfriddo, "The office sort of describes what’s happened." 
 
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