June, 2010

Hello. Can I Come In?

For years, I’ve complained about human services agencies with locked front doors.  Agencies that require you to push the little doorbell, then talk to the receptionist, then get buzzed in, and then sign in.  One agency I frequent even asks me to include my license plate # on the sign-in sheet.  When they let me in, it’s not clear what criteria I met or failed to meet.  Did I not look dangerous?  Did they assume I didn’t have a cute pink pearl-handled revolver in my big Coach bag (like I even know what a revolver is….although, happily, I do know what a Coach bag is).  So agencies are worried about security — after 9/11, everyone got intense about security so I always attributed it to that and shrugged, oh well.

A dear colleague of mine, Ramon Wagner, had a completely different approach.  He talked all the time about front porches and how agencies had to sit on their front porches (figuratively) to understand the world and their place in it.  He didn’t believe in locked doors and, to this day, Community Advocates, the agency he founded, is a walk-in place. Stop in any day and you will see dozens of people in the waiting room who just walked in looking for help.  This is more than just not having a locked door.  Community Advocates, probably without knowing it, was on the cutting edge of a new way of thinking about human services than can be summed up in the word welcoming.

For the past few months, I’ve been assisting the Community Services Branch of the Behavioral Health Division in its efforts to establish a Comprehensive Continuous Integrated System of Care.  Fundamentally, this is about integrated substance abuse and mental health treatment services but, to me, the overarching value in the approach is the concept of welcoming.  Drs. Minkoff and Cline, the primary consultants to Milwaukee County on this effort, explain this concept in an article “Developing Welcoming Systems for Individuals with Co-Occurring Disorders: The Role of the Comprehensive Continues Integrated System of Care Model,” found at

Welcoming is about not having a locked door to anything.  At least as I understand it so far, it means that a troubled person presenting him or herself for help is welcomed, helped and respected.  “You’re in the right place.  We’re glad to see you.”  That’s the message.  Even if a person ends up needing to go to another program with more expertise or somehow can’t qualify for what’s available on-site, the message remains – “it’s good that you’ve decided to seek help and we will help you find it.”  This isn’t just at the front door but throughout an organization.

When people are sick and down, when they feel they’ve lost everything and have no choice but to ask for help, they don’t need locked doors and stern looks.  They need ackknowledgement, a smile, and maybe a nice cup of coffee.  In short, they need to be welcomed.


Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg

Girls Rule!

I’m not saying sexism is dead, but it’s been a long time since I walked into a meeting feeling apologetic because I didn’t bring the coffee pot.  This is a bit embarrassing but I actually had a secretarial job once that included not only making the coffee but having a hot cuppa joe in my hand as the boss walked by into his office.  This came after the job where I typed the exact same letter (I’m talking typed here, folks, as in the key hitting the paper and having to erase same if said key was the wrong one) for eight hours a day for two straight weeks so the coffee making/handing thing seemed like a small price to pay to get free of that damn letter.

Remember how Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said he couldn’t define pornography but he knew it when he saw it?  Once you get past the obvious like huge disparities in pay and opportunity, that’s what sexism is.  It’s a bad electricity a woman feels the minute she walks in a room.

It’s something I can feel in an instant but can’t explain or define.  It’s the feeling of being tolerated, considered to be taking up space, not possibly being able to contribute, regarded as fundamentally nonessential.  It brings on a visceral, angry, fear-like feeling that dips really fast into believing that maybe some of that disregarding, dismissive attitude might be warranted.  The sickening thing about any ism is how quickly its victims absorb its judgement.

I’ve often told people that I decided to get a Ph.D. so people would listen to me in meetings.  Sounds flippant, but it was actually my driving force.  I wanted to be taken seriously – I figured the extra letters would help.  It did.  But hard to tell if the Ph.D. lessened the extent to which I absorbed others’ sexist attitudes or whether the degree changed other people’s attitudes toward me.    Chicken-egg.  All I know is the degree coupled with the fact that I now look like everyone’s mother has really made my recent encounters with sexism pretty darn rare.  But not non-existent.  Not yet.

Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg

Show of Force

If you’ve got a lot of fire power, it’s hard to resist the urge to show it off.  Hence, the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds and the whole concept of Shock and Awe which I’m kind of ashamed to admit I’ve used in various efforts to try to beat out competition for one thing or another.

But like every other tool, you have to be strategic about when you use it.  As an evaluator, I frequently meet with programs to review progress.  Usually, I meet with the agency director and the program coordinator.  But sometimes, I walk in and there’s a sea of people – from administrators to line staff to the receptionist.  Then I think to myself, why do they think they need all these people here?  I thought about putting a limit on the number of people at an evaluation visit but then, I thought, doesn’t a program’s decision about who needs to be there telling me something important?

Lobbying elected officials or meeting with bureaucratic higher-ups is another area where people often miscalculate the appropriate show of force.  Do you want a roomful of supporters if you’re trying to get a touchy piece of legislation passed?  Of course.  Standing room only.  But do you want a crowd when you’re meeting with an individual elected official about a delicate policy issue?  Different matter.  If each person in your delegation represents an essential and unique expertise, it’s probably ok to bring them along.  But if they are just taking up space or helping you feel more confident or important (it is nice to have an entourage), think again. 

When policymakers see a gaggle of people heading for their office, they put on their public face.  Not their ‘let’s get to know each other’ face or ‘let’s work out this problem’ face.  They glad hand, listen politely and move on.  And then they wonder why you needed a small army to talk to them. 

Advice?  Think about who will add essential value to a meeting; who will make the outcome better.  Make sure you’ve determined who is going to play what role.  Think Blue Angels.  Each one of them knows the plan and sticks with the program.  That, and the fact that they’re maneuvering those amazing planes within inches of each other, makes for a very impressive show of force.

Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg

Pssst! I Know Why You Can’t Get Good Board Members

Yippee!!  You’ve got a live one.  Someone who actually wants to be on your board of directors.  What’s next?  Wining and dining?  Flowers?  Nope.  If you’re like many nonprofits, you’re going to spoil the mood with an application and an interview, maybe a couple of each, with references.

I hate this.  I figure if I’m going to offer my time to be on a nonprofit board of directors, not much should go on except profuse thanks and  celebration.  My message to nonprofits that have gone to too many board recruitment workshops – STOP IT!  Drop the”let’s see if you’re good enough for our two-bit organization” approach and go with “I love you now and will love you more every day we’re together.” 

I’ve sat through a couple of these first date hells.  Once I mentioned to the director of a small community center that I would be interested in helping out by serving on their board of directors.  “Oh, great!,” she said.  Then started the vetting.  The application.  The interview. The interview with board members. The queries about my motivation.  What I would offer the organization.  Was I committed enough.  Interested enough.  I was, actually.  I thought it was a dynamite little organization. But, you know what? I was very put off by the process.  I wasn’t applying for a job.  I was there basically to DONATE MY TIME.  Should you kiss my ring for that? Maybe, especially since you need me more than I need you.

I recently joined the board of Spotted Eagle, Inc.  Here’s how they handled me.

  • The board chair responded to my email inquiry quickly and enthusiastically.
  • The executive director sent me info on the agency and set up a meeting.
  • I was welcomed to the meeting by the board chair, executive director, and another board member – who turned out to be someone I’d worked with several years ago.  He was obviously asked to come because the others thought he had some positive pull with me.
  • We had a lively, funny, interesting meeting in which they laid out their hopes, dreams, disappointments and worries.
  • They made it clear that they had already vetted me — I got clear “google” vibes.
  • I felt appreciated and needed.  Now, isn’t that a great way to start a board membership?
  • There was no idiotic  application, no interviewing me, no hoops.  It felt respectful and appropriate.  These folks got it — I was willing to volunteer my time and whatever expertise they might find useful. 

How did this make me feel?  Good.  I like the organization, I like the people and what they are trying to do.  I’m happy that they thought I could be useful.  It’s all good.

Next time you go recruiting for board members, understand that you are asking people to donate their time to your organization.  Would you treat a potential financial donor like you are treating prospective board members?  Are you vetting financial donors to make sure they’re worthy of donating to your cause?  Board members are precious.  Show them you love them from the get-go.  You’ll get paid back, many times over. 

Wine and dine works every time.  Trust me, I’m right about this.

Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg