Announcing MHAAO's Merger Exploration With Bridges to Change!

Transcript of Eric Martin’s interview with
MHAAO Executive Director, Janie Gullickson &
Bridges to Change Executive Director, Monta Knutson

Eric Martin: I’m here with Janie and Monta and you guys have like a pretty exciting announcement to make, don’t ya?

Monta Knudson: We do!

Janie Gullickson: Yeah!

Eric Martin: So what is it?

Janie Gullickson: Ok well, about six months ago, Monta and I were talking about our organizations and the programs and some of the synergy that our organizations had, from housing to peer services and everything in between. We both are peer-run organizations and we started to think, “Hey, it might be a good idea to have some sort of intentional partnership!”

Monta Knudson: That’s true! Yeah, we spent the last six months working together, working with our board and our senior management team to really look at if this was worthwhile to move forward toward a more intentional space, which now we’re in. We didn’t want to send out a memo to staff. We wanted to do it like this to really let our staff know that we’re moving toward an exploration between boards, senior teams, and line staff to explore the idea of what would it look like for MHAAO and Bridges to Change to come together in whatever type of partnership might come out of that.

Eric Martin: That would be incredible! I mean if you guys came together as one organization that might very well be the biggest peer organization in America. You guys are two fairly large peer programs, and that would allow you to offer the full continuum of peer support care, which would be incredible. That would be a model, not just in Oregon, but literally nationwide. I don’t think there would be another agency like it in the nation. But I’m sure people probably have some concerns about it. If you’re basically talking about coming together or merging, are people’s jobs going to be safe?

Monta Knudson: Through this process, the idea here is definitely people over profit, so the idea isn’t to cut positions, to save money, or to downsize. Really, the idea here is to become strategic in what we do and to create opportunity within the organizations. So part of this process is to explore how the two organizations would come together and what that would look like. But at the end of the day, direct service is direct service. All of our programs are functioning and all of them will still need to continue to function.

Janie Gullickson: There is no duplication of programs or services. Even administratively, we actually fill gaps that each organization needs, and so it just seems to make a lot of sense to increase our impact, our reach, and our political voice. There’s a multitude of reasons.

Eric Martin: Well, that’s just incredible. You know, like I said, a lot of the staff might be nervous about a merger like this, because they would be concerned about things like “Will I lose my job? Will there be duplication or overlap of services?”, but it sounds like you’re not really seeing that. And you have programs that are up and running and you can’t really cut staff in those programs. If you guys did merge, though, would it become Bridges to Change? Or would it become MHAAO? Which one will it become?

Janie Gullickson: So, that’s a great question, and those are things to be explored through this formal process that’s going to take about three or four months. There will be a steering committee made up of board members and senior leadership and some line staff, task forces, and there will be a branding task force.

Eric Martin: So you’re going to have staff that are participating in this whole process. So it’s not all just happening in the administrative and board levels.

Monta Knudson: No, not at all. There’s going to be line staff at the highest level of the steering committee. There will be line staff in the ad hoc groups as well, and then it will be important for us to have a feedback loop via surveys, so staff can give confidential feedback to what’s going on, and also other ways for folks to leave comments and concerns through Dropbox and other places like that. So we want to have staff involved at all levels. I also want to say that this isn’t an idea of an acquisition or a merger, like Bridges to Change is taking MHAAO over, this is more of a true partnership. Janie and I and our teams and ou boards and our teams have talked about this, about really trying to figure out who we are and who we want to be, and bringing both organizations together, talking about our cultures, our differences, and creating something even better, and we’re super excited about that.

Eric Martin: That’s amazing! You know, a lot of ppl are going to say, Why? Why are we doing this? If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Both organizations are doing very well right now. CCO 2.0 contracts are coming out and it looks like the state is going to up the desire and need and expectation of the CCOs to use mentors, so if you were going to list off three big reasons why you’re going to do this, what are the top three reasons?

Janie Gullickson: I’d say one of the great reasons is the nonprofit sector itself. There is a glut of nonprofits almost, to where funders and contractors from the federal, county, city, state, and foundation level are asking nonprofit organizations that they fund to collaborate intentionally, to partner on proposals and programs and projects, because the funding ask is getting so stretched thin.

Eric Martin: I’ve seen that. So in years past, because I’ve been around for 34 years now, grant applications didn’t use to ask that. They would say what are the services you’re going to provide, give us a budget. But now, all of the grant applications say who are you partnering with? Who are your partners? What are they going to do, what are you going to do? And it’s gotten so complicated because like you said, there are so many nonprofits. So that’s a good reason!

Monta Knudson: I also feel that from an administrative standpoint, we’re both providing great services because of our line staff that are out there doing the work, but we have to keep the dollars moving in, we have to create structures that make sense for the organizations and I think in coming together, we’re going to be able to do that in a more sophisticated way that’s going to strengthen us so that we can continue to provide more services, and that will also give us a greater voice at the table when it comes to policies around peer services, policies about recovery-oriented systems of care, so as a larger organization, it does create a greater reach into those areas of policy, and we want to be at the table, and we want to drive those policies. That’s going to benefit our folks, the way that we feel that should be done. When I say “we,” I’m talking about the peer community.

Eric Martin: So that’s really true. Most of the peer programs are relatively small compared to the mega behavioral health programs. And so a lot of times the peer programs are sort of the small program at the table with a smaller voice. This will be incredible because in your programs, nearly all of your staff are folks in recover, so if your organizations came together, that would be a huge staff, where most of the staff in the agency are in recovery, and there really isn’t anything like that in Oregon or in America, where there’s a big agency where everyone is in recovery. That’s so exciting and so incredible that an organizationcould exist like that and it’s a model for the rest of the country, and will give us a voice at the table like we’ve never had before.

Monta Knudson: And because of those two areas that we talked about, we’re going to be able to drive and deliver services that are meaningful and that are impactful to the folks that are waiting to be served. And that’s really what it’s about. It’s about that mission, but to do that, to really fulfill the mission, you know, we always have more mission than budget, so this gives us a place to become stronger administratively so that we can have more budget to fulfill more mission.

Eric Martin: And you guys will have mental health services, you’ll have addiction services, you’ll have forensic peer services, child welfare peer services, you’ll have the whole gamut of services that you offer, and emergency room peer services, but under the new Coordinated Care contracts, they’re looking for an expansion in primary care, and so this will potentially coming together will enable you to potentially lead the way in that effort for peer services to move into primary care.

Monta Knudson: I think one of the other concerns out there is what about the other peer-run organizations. Because we thought about what is the community going to think about it.

Eric Martin: That’s true because will some of the smaller programs feel threatened by this?

Monta Knudson: I think that’s going to be a feeling that’s going to be out there. Our response to that, which Janie talked a lot about, is technical support. We’re already supporting some other organizations, but how do we do that in a more intentional way to make sure that they’re getting their needs met, and we’re mentoring them and helping them raise up their organizations as well. So we really want to be intentional about supporting the other organizations.

Eric Martin: Right, so your program will serve as a model in moving the system more toward peer services, not away from it. And I know that Monta has done a ton of technical support with programs through MAAPS. And Janie is doing technical support all over the place in the Pacific. So, this is a mission that you guys are driven not to take over peer services, but literally just to expand them?

Janie Gullickson: And be supportive of smaller organizations that maybe need just that extra little push, maybe some policies and procedures we can share or, as they grow and expand with this CCO 2.0 like you were mentioning, there’s going to be enough work for everyone. And so to show how we don’t have to compete with each other but how we can collaborate and support each other I think that’s also an exciting opportunity.

Monta Knudson: I think our next steps are to form a steering committee and like we said in the beginning, and some ad hoc groups, bringing both organizations into this, so right now this exploration is to sort out should we do this. And we’re going to be looking at all the areas. We’re going to want our organizations and our stakeholders and our funders to be getting information to us so that we know areas that are going to be a challenge. Things like merging cultures, what does that look like? If this moves forward in a merger direction, there’s a lot of strategic thought and change management that needs to go into it, and we’re going to need everyone from both organizations and our community partners to support us around getting that done in a way that makes sense and is successful.

Eric Martin: So it sounds like you guys have put a lot of thought into this, a lot of work, and you want to be thoughtful about that process so that it’s a process of inclusion and people won’t feel fragmented. So you want everybody to join in. And it sounds like with the branding committee, it’s entirely possible that an employee of MHAAO or BTC might actually come up with a new name.

Monta Knudson: Yeah, exactly! We want everyone’s voice at the table to help us think through this process and what it means. What does it mean financially? What does it mean strategically? What does it mean from a service structure. So we have to be thinking a lot of different ways about this process. We’re super excited, Janie and I are super excited, our boards are there and are like “Let’s talk about it.” And Janie and I are like, “Ok, let’s talk about it.”

Janie Gullickson: And to create a formal process because we’re nonprofit organizations. You hear about this in the corporate world all the time and it’s not necessarily a positive thing, but this is a newer process for nonprofits, especially when they’re both strong organizations, and so we want to share that process with all the staff. I think this is a learning opportunity and a growth opportunity, no matter what the outcome. We have intentionally partnered in many ways. We are co-training each other’s staff and working on culture and peer services and even clinical services from the peer-centric lens. Like, what are the services that we’ve wanted to see in mental health and substance use disorder treatment that we haven’t been getting. And so sky’s the limit, really.

Monta Knudson: We appreciate you talking us through this. You are the peer guru. We didn’t want to put out a memo saying that we’re talking about a merger, it’s just so impersonal, it doesn’t answer any questions. There’s going to be tons of questions once this goes live, so we’ll work together between our organizations and set up listening sessions, and all the questions that are asked are going to be answered within these work groups, so we don’t have a lot of answers, we just know where we’re at. We’re just hoping that our organizations would support us through this process of exploring it and want to ease any anxieties around these things.

Eric Martin: This video itself exemplifies the spirit of peer work because most organizations make these decisios behind closed doors at the highest level, and once it’s done, they announce it to all the staff, so the fact that you guys are opening it up, letting all the staff know in advance that you’re talking about it, that you’re communicating about it, to solicit their input really exemplifies the spirit of peer services and peer work, so good job guys.

Monta  Knudson: And I think at the end of the day, if we don’t have staff’s support, we can’t make it work. And that’s why this part is so important, because we have to have our team members on our team, or else there’s no team. Team work makes the dream work!

Janie Gullickson: And it’s one big old family, so everybody gets a seat at the table

Kaity McCraw