9/11 and her daughter’s outrage were the inspiration for Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen to pick up a copy of Nonprofits for Dummies and launch Give an Hour, her Craigslist-style nonprofit that links volunteer mental health service providers with those who need them. Join Dolph and Barbara as they discuss the background and lessons learned in the creation of Give an Hour, as well as newly formed The Campaign to Change Direction, Barbara’s recent project.
(2:27) Give an Hour because Barbara felt the 9/11 tragedy was enough
(6:45) How Barbara used the Craigslist model to build her nonprofit
(12:40) How Give an Hour functions as a 100% virtual nonprofit
(16:04) The transition into a virtual workplace
(19:10) Culture is important!
(20:33) A challenge with the virtual workplace model
(22:10) From ED to CEO/Founder – how Barbara owned her leadership role
(24:54) The Campaign to Change Direction, a collective impact initiative
(26:31) Inner Space: Barbara’s podcast
(29:02) And yes, Barbara practices what she preaches
Give an Hour: https://giveanhour.org/
Barbara’s podcast, Inner Space
Vault of Barbara’s Huffington Post contributions
The Campaign to Change Direction: www.changedirection.org
Barbara’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/barbara-van-dahlen-a298205/
Dolph Goldenburg: Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits™ Podcast. I’m your host, Dolph Goldenberg, and I think most listeners know that we batch record the podcast and so this is the last podcast that we’re recording today and so the loyal listeners know that this is sometimes the podcast where we go a little bit wild and go a little bit off script keeping in line with that. We actually have someone who we were able to get into our lineup earlier this week and I am super excited that we got her, and it’s Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen. She is a psychologist who has doing a lot of things right now. First of all, she is spearheading that Campaign to Change Direction, which is a public health effort to change the culture of mental health, not just in the United States but worldwide. She also is the founder of Give an Hour, which works with service members, veterans, and their families once again around mental health and gun violence and at-risk teens and those types of things.
Now I will share with you that she actually started Give an Hour back in 2005, and it has grown from obviously not existing to having over 7,000 licensed mental health professionals that provided over 277,000 hours of care and support to people in need, and I’m assuming they all probably gave about 30 hours or 40 hours to make that happen. Dr. Van Dahlen also has a very inspirational personal story and I’m not gonna steal her thunder and tell that story. I will tell you that she had a great piece in HuffPo where she kind of described it a little bit. We’re going to link that in the show notes. So, without further ado, it is just so my pleasure to introduce Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen. Barbara, welcome to the podcast.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Thank you, Dolph. It’s delightful to be here as especially as your last guest. I look forward to things getting a little off script. This is great.
Dolph Goldenburg: Yeah. Let me tell you, we are far off script already because I think I add lived way more than I should have on the intro.
Barbara Van Dahlen: I think you did great. Thank you.
Dolph Goldenburg: Well, thank you. I’m thrilled. Share with me Give an Hour’s origin story.
Barbara Van Dahlen: I’m a child psychologist by background and I also am the daughter of a veteran from world war two and my uncle served in Vietnam. My nephew is currently serving in the navy and so I come from a long line of people who served our country or in some cases are still serving. And I was living here in Washington, DC. I moved here from California. I was here, I had a private practice. I was my two young daughters, and then 9/11 happened and it was for all of us. It was almost beyond description, the impact it had. I mean, the era we were in Washington, the Pentagon was attacked down literally in New York where I traveled regularly, horrific images coming to us, and I wanted to help. As a psychologist, I knew I had resources, skills to give to people who were traumatized on that horrible day and I couldn’t find a way to do it easily.
Over that the next several days and weeks, I was helping my clients deal with their reaction to that horrific time. But it bothered me that I wanted to do more, and there really wasn’t a way to do it. Over the next few months, I started to really think more and more about my desire to give back to help. What could that look like? How could I do that? And I started to hear stories over the next few months about, we were going to get into war. We got into the war, started to hear about service members coming home. I’m experiencing post-traumatic stress, losing their families, living out of cars. And I was still thinking about, you know, we’ve got to get ready. We’ve got to get ready to help these men and women who are serving our country, coming back with what later would be called the invisible injuries of war.
That was all in my head. And one day I was driving my mom van around where I live in Bethesda, Maryland, which is right outside of DC. And I had my two daughters in the car with me, and my oldest daughter, who was nine at the time, a saw a homeless veteran on the street. And he was holding a sign that said, “Homeless vet, please help, God bless.” And my daughter erupted with outrage and said, “Mommy, how can we let this happen to these men who served our country?” She didn’t know my dad. My Dad had passed away long before she was born, but she knew about him. She knew his story. And so this child who saw this injustice was calling it out. And so I said right then and there to myself, “I can’t just stand by and watch this happen.” So I drove my mom van, but Barnes and Noble. I pulled the copy of Nonprofits for Dummies. I read it from cover to cover. And a, that was the beginning of given our, I thought, well, if I want to give an hour of my time a week, I’m sure there are other people like me. And that was how I began the organization.
Dolph Goldenburg: Tell me a little bit more. Did you pull anyone else in?
Barbara Van Dahlen: I did a at that time, but so for those of your listeners who don’t know this about mental health professionals, we don’t get a whole lot of training about business. I certainly had zero in terms of nonprofits. I just knew there was a thing, a nonprofit. I didn’t really know the difference. And so that book was incredibly helpful for anyone who wants to start a nonprofit. And I just started working through it, and I started asking people who I knew who were good at other things come and help me. And one of the things I did is I was inspired by Craigslist. So this is back in 2005, and I had this idea that if I could use the Craigslist model… Craigslist was this brilliant idea of matching people who had something to give with people who had something they wanted. And I thought I’ll do that with mental health folks and connect them with men, with people in the military and them and the veteran community who had a mental health need.
So I reached out to one person who I knew from my daughter’s school who was really brilliant around technology. And he said, “Well, let’s post a ad on Craigslist, speaking of craigslist and let’s invite programmers to come out and help build this. So we posted it. I said, come to my house on this day. And about four programmers showed up and gave their time to build the first Give an Hour platform using open source software at that time. I was blown away. This was how they saw their ability to give back and help the men and women who were serving our country. It was amazing. So that’s how we began.
Dolph Goldenburg: I know one of the things that you talk about when you talk about, um, founding your nonprofit is understanding what you do really well and surrounding yourself with people who may be fill in some of the gaps.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Absolutely. Yes. And I think that if I look back at what I’ve learned over the last 15 years, that is absolutely one of the most important lessons. I know what now what I do well, and I know what I don’t do well. And finding people who could fill those gaps, who were good at things like technology, it’s still something that is not my gift, but I value and respect. And so to bring those people in, business leaders people who are good with, you know, finance and thinking about the operation side, I’m good at the vision. I’m good at solving the situation with very simple response, you know, given hour, how do you, how do you turn a complex challenge into something that’s very simple that everyone can understand and do. And I’m a really good, as my husband says, I’m really good at when I believe in something, I’m able to inspire people. But that alone would not get me very far. So finding that team, putting together a board of people who knew things that I didn’t know has been key.
Dolph Goldenburg: I think it is just so important that we’re self-aware about what our strengths are as well as where our strengths are not. And I also think that a lot of us reach a point, I think it often happens around mid-life, but a lot of us reach a point that we’re like, “Okay, I could spend more time getting less weak at the things I’m weak at, or I could just focus on this stuff I do really well and enjoy what I do from this point.”
Barbara Van Dahlen: Yes, absolutely. Another thing that I’ve learned really well is I’ve learned that when I’m hiring for a position inside the organization. People sometimes, you know, they focus on got to hire the person who has the best skills, and you hope that they also kind of are in tune with your philosophy and your perspective. And so, you can make a grid, and you can have people who are really good at the skills, not so good at the philosophy of the company or the organization, or not really good skills, but really great at the philosophy. And what I’ve found is if you can find the people who are best with the skills and best with philosophy, great.
But if I have to pick one over the other, it’s gonna be in line with the philosophy of the organization. Because if you’ve got somebody who’s got great skills, but they are not in sync with you, you’re really destined for a lot of problems, [ain, trouble, whatever. That’s been really critical. You, you need people that, especially in the nonprofit space that are driven by the mission and have great skills, too. But man, you want people that are lined up because this is hard work. It’s great work. It’s the best work I’ve ever done. But, uh, that’s a really important lesson I’ve learned.
Dolph Goldenburg: I could not agree more. It is so easy to teach skills, but you can’t fix fit. Like if someone’s just a bad fit, they’re a bad fit regardless of where they are on the organization, whether they’re your chief executive or they’re your front desk person.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Absolutely. Give an Hour from the beginning, we have been a virtual organization. We were a virtual organization before it was cool to be a virtual organization and we grew into a virtual organization completely organically by need. So I was a single mom raising two little girls and I knew a lot of really brilliant women who were out of the workforce as they were raising their kids. That’s how we knew each other, but they were really skilled, really talented. I said, Hey, I want you to come work with me. I’m building this nonprofit. And they said, “Well that’s great but I’ve got my kids can’t really do that.” And I said, well yeah can you can do it when they’re at school in the evenings. And so we grew up that way. Even more important that you have a good fit because you don’t have the day to day contact with someone that you might in a bricks and mortar place.
Dolph Goldenburg: I wish that Fay who linked us had told me that you are a 100% virtual organization because I have been looking for the last four or five months for a completely remote workforce. That’s a nonprofit organization. I’m really fascinated by that and I want to see what they’re doing. I’m going to have to dive down as well with you for a minute. What technologies and structures have you used so that your workforce is, I hate to say workable, but so that your workforce is workable being 100% remote?
Barbara Van Dahlen: In the beginning we started very low tech. We’ve always done a weekly, we started a weekly staff call and then we moved to biweekly based on, we realized that as we got bigger than some of the teams would meet in the off weeks. Then we moved to Google hangouts and then we moved to zoom and then we’ve moved to whatever the platform is that my team feels is the best for us to use. But every other week we have a staff call or, and now it’s a visual, um, where everybody’s on together. They can see each other. We do retreats periodically where we bring everyone in. That’s, people love it. The team loves it. We’re very focused on using a smartsheets and tools that people can add to and use to be efficient and share their concepts and ideas easily.
We do a lot of teaming around handling challenges that come up. We’re very, very dependent on the team because we don’t see each other. So if I know something that someone else in my team may not have heard, I’m going to make sure that that person gets it. It is as much the culture really as it is the technology that we have developed to make sure it works and it works beautifully. And people sometimes when they come in, they’re a little like reluctant. I gotta tell you this is totally true. Typically it’s more the guys that women are more comfortable because they’re used to, I think stepping in and out of roles, whether it’s raising kids or in their families or whatever. Men often are like, “Whoa, wait dude, I don’t have an office to go to?” And so we tell them, I guess it’s another part to set up your office in your space. Some of our people have chosen to use shared office space. That’s totally fine. Many create a space in their own homes, but we mentor and coach them. Once they’re comfortable, I guarantee you they wouldn’t give it up.
Dolph Goldenburg: Are All of your staff in the DC metro area or all over the country?
Barbara Van Dahlen: All over the country.
Dolph Goldenburg: So how do you manage those retreats? Like how many times a year? What does it look like?
Barbara Van Dahlen: We typically only do them once every couple of years because that’s a big expenditure for us. Sometimes we’ll use an event that maybe we’re hosting in DC to bring everybody in because we have people have to work the event. And so it’s a great opportunity. Sometimes it will be that a couple of years have gone by, and we haven’t had a retreat, and then we’ll go to our board and say, we need a retreat and we’ll ask them to fund the retreat or to add additional funding in so that we’re able to do that. We get clever about how we do it. But we typically only do full retreats with everyone coming every, every couple of years.
Dolph Goldenburg: When I’ve mentioned to you, and part of it is I’m essentially a solo-preneur, but you know, I, I’m, I work in an office in our home, but I’m also on the road 80% of the time. I do know that when I transitioned from when I was an executive director and at that point, I had two offices, one office in two different buildings. So, you know, I had a total of two offices. I went from having two offices to working at home, and it was a little bit of a transition. So how do you help people with that transition?
Barbara Van Dahlen: It’s interesting and as I said, it’s, some people have a harder transition. I think probably, I’m trying to think back over the 15 years. I don’t think we’ve lost any staff because of that. I think that some staff have had a longer time learning it. The mentoring is really important. And for some of our staff that are in the same city, encouraging them to get together periodically really matters. Doing the video like you and I can see each other now for this. That’s really valuable, really important. They get to know each other’s body language and styles, and they share the way they would if they were in an office setting. I gotta tell you once people get in, in sync and get into the hang of it, it, it’s really a non-issue. In fact, I think that’s why they didn’t mention it because it’s really not something that we lead with unless I start thinking about the history because it began that way for us, and people now who come to work for us end up really loving and valuing the flexibility that it gives them.
We’re a very family friendly organization meaning, and if your listeners think about it totally makes sense. We got to walk the walk. We’re all about mental health. If you come to me and you say, you know, my daughter is sick, and I need to take time off today to go take care of her, the answer is absolutely. Make sure things are covered and do it at night. And people, I think what we know too from good research is that people who are working in a virtual space, they in a way take their work more seriously. I have to get done what I need to get done and then I have the flexibility and the luxury to be in my home attending to life. So it works for us.
Dolph Goldenburg: I think it really dramatically increases your talent pool as well. So if you can’t find the person you need in Washington D.C. Where you’re headquartered, you know they might be in Topeka, Kansas or they might be in Los Angeles, California. But when you’re looking for someone, you can look nationally.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Absolutely. And because our organization is Nashville, it’s totally natural for us. There are certain positions we look for by geography or you know, geographic region. If we have a large grant that we’re doing in Texas, we need somebody on the ground in Texas, but if it’s a position that can be like they’re overseeing marketing or they’re overseeing PR or they’re overseeing our website, that can be anybody, anywhere. It really allows us to have that flexibility. I think kind of cool because it’s fresh to people. We’ll bring in perspectives that are an east coast perspective or a California perspective or a Rocky Mountain perspective. It’s very valuable for us.
Dolph Goldenburg: So would that level of flexibility there also has to be, I would imagine, a lot more accountability.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Yes. I, and again, I’ll go back to probably the second most important thing I’ve learned and that is make sure that your culture is firmly established. This is one of the things that we’re working on currently as a management team: making our principals very clear to everyone, helping everyone see how our principals are connected to the work we do every single day, and how what you do helps us drive our values. All of that is so, so important. And I think because we do a pretty darn good job of that, I don’t worry too much about accountability. The director of each team, that’s their job, and they take that on. But we haven’t really, we haven’t had a lot of trouble with that. I think I certainly would say we have probably less difficulty with that than a bricks and mortar. Again, they take this privilege very seriously. If you trust me enough that you are not worried about me getting my job done and you can’t see me and I don’t, you know, punch in every day, they seem to really rise to the occasion, which we think is really wonderful.
Dolph Goldenburg: Nice. Have you, have you had one significant challenge or two significant challenges with a remote workforce?
Barbara Van Dahlen: I would say that the one is that sometimes it’s scary for some people, men more than women. And so we may have not gotten a candidate, you know, to, to sign on the dotted line. He or she may have chosen elsewhere because they were a little uneasy. That happened a couple of times. I can’t really think of another downside other than maybe the staff sometimes will say they wished they could be together more. They like each other, they form relationships and if they’re across the country, they don’t get to see each other; they don’t get to hang out and get to do picnics. So that’s probably the other, the other challenge.
Dolph Goldenburg: Got It. Got It. Although I will say, and this is a decade ago now, I was on a national board and we would have quarterly in person meetings and then we’d meet monthly in between, but we would do our remotely and we all just really came to cherish those quarterly meetings because you know, for the most part we’ve left our homes so we’re not with our families, and we’re really getting to know someone for a two or three day period. And that was just a really powerful experience.
Barbara Van Dahlen: I think that’s right. I think what we see that on our retreats that you see people bonding and, and sometimes people will have never met. They’ve never been maybe on see each other by Skype, but they’ve never been in the same room together and they start noticing things. They bond and it, and it is a very precious time. So it’s special and, and that, that helps people, I think as you said, really value even more the, the shared mission that we have.
Dolph Goldenburg: I understand that you also have a unique leadership journey with Give an Hour.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Do you mean in terms of, of how I started or how it’s evolved?
Dolph Goldenburg: Oh yes. So how it’s evolved and what roles you’ve chosen to play and not play as it’s evolved.
Barbara Van Dahlen: I’m a clinical psychologist. I had a solo practice. People came into my office and then they left and that was it. So when I started the organization and was choosing the title, I chose executive director because that seemed to be, I would look around and go, okay, well that’s, that’s I’m an executive director. And one day a very influential friend who is a very, very successful business person took me aside and said, “We need to change your title. You’re the founder of this organization. You are the visionary of this organization. You can either be a CEO or you can be a President. The executive directors suggest it’s a really, it’s a very well-respected title, but it suggests that you took over and you’re directing something.” It’s different. And that was a really important lesson. And so it was also part of my own, it’s cool you use the word journey. I think it was also the part of me stepping into my role as a leader, as a visionary, kind of owning it and recognizing that I have skills and abilities that are not garden variety. In order to lead well, it’s also important that I own those. That was, that was a good lesson for me to learn.
Dolph Goldenburg: And it’s interesting. I, there’s one organization I’ve worked with and they’ve really struggled cause they have a, a founding executive director and there’ve been times that they’ve played with the idea of referring to the person who, the founding director as opposed to executive director for that very reason because ED implies that you stepped in after somebody else.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Exactly. And which is fine and important. And often executive directors put a huge stamp and change the direction. But if you’re the founder, it’s tells something else to the world, to your donors, to your partners. It’s just an important designation that I completely understand why she was telling me. I was not leveraging everything about me as an asset. And that’s really what we as leaders in this space need to do. You’ve got to leverage everything you’ve got because this is hard work.
Dolph Goldenburg: Now I’ve got to ask you about Campaign to Change Direction. Now is this a program of Give an Hour, or have you decided to start an additional nonprofit?
Barbara Van Dahlen: That is a darn good question. It is an initiative of Give an Hour. It is a public health initiative. It is a collective impact effort. So, we have about 700 organizations that work with us in various ways, but it is our initiative. In some ways it is the umbrella of all that we do. Give an Hour is the direct service component. So it’s an interesting issue in that it’s kind of backwards, if you will. I started Give an Hour first as the public health initiative, which is focused on changing the culture of mental health globally is very broad and very big, but it also grew organically out of what we needed to do next. And I’m okay with that.
Dolph Goldenburg: Yeah, I was just curious. I’m like, wow, is Barbara just a glutton for punishment? She wants to start to nonprofits. Okay.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Yes, I know.
Dolph Goldenburg: But I also understand that you have also started your own podcast.
Barbara Van Dahlen: I have. And that actually grew out of, again, organically. I was asked to be a guest on a Sirius XM program a few years ago. And one of the producers said, I really love your perspective, the work you’re doing. How about if you do a show with us here at Sirius XM? I did a few episodes with them. He then left Sirius XM. And so theory except XM said, well, your producer’s gone, so we love what you’re doing, but we don’t have anybody to fill in. And I said, okay, and I have plenty to do. So I went on about my business. Well, a few months later, the producer reached out to me that I had worked with and he said, “I’m starting a pod, some podcasts, and I would like you to be one of the podcasts that we launched. Would you be willing?”
And I said, absolutely. So now I, um, just finished the first season of Inner Space, which is a wonderful, wonderful experience for me. I get to invite all these amazing people that I meet and bring them on and we have cool conversations about what I care most about with, which is emotional health and wellbeing, what they care about. We’ve had people from the music industry and from Hollywood. I also consult to a television show. We’ve had the creator of the television show, actors, politicians, you name it. They’ve been on the show to talk about what is a part of all of our lives, our emotional health and wellbeing.
Dolph Goldenburg: I love that, and I also have to share with you that much like you, one of the things I love about having a podcast is I get to have amazing conversations with people who I would just not otherwise probably even come into contact with. Today I got to talk to five life changers, world changers. It’s all inspiring.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Oh, you’re very kind. But it is cool. I totally agree and what we’re hearing from people listening, and I’m sure you do too, that people love the opportunity to have that intimate conversation. They learn things, they’re inspired, gives them new ideas to go out and change the world themselves. And that’s what we need more of. We need people out there changing the world because our world is hurting, and we need everybody doing as much as they can.
Dolph Goldenburg: Absolutely. That is a great segue to the Off-the-Map question.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Oh, I love this. Okay, I’m ready.
Dolph Goldenburg: Barbara, you do so much to heal and change the world and to heal and change lives. So you know, you’re a psychologist, you started a nonprofit, which is kind of really started at another nonprofit that will soon become the umbrella here. You’re a podcast or helping people find their own inner space. So this again might be in a hard question, who I hope is not intrusive. What do you do for you?
Barbara Van Dahlen: I love that question. So I’ve done a lot of things for myself over the years. One thing that has been part of my, my self-care has always been something physical. I used to run until my knees started to go. I used to way back when I did, um, you know, aerobics, when aerobics were kind of the thing. did yoga, but I’ve always had something that I do that is intense physically because those endorphins start going and kind of melt away the stress. Now I swim. I swim about a mile three times a week if I can. And the cool thing is I’m listening to music while I swam. So I’ve got really cool, I used to have an iPod that you could, it was an underwater iPod and now there’s a new iteration of that that I use.
That keeps me really centered. The other thing that I do is I meditate not as often anymore as when I first practice, but what I always do is keep myself very mindful. I try to be in the moment with whoever I’m with. I tune into what I’m thinking and feeling and when I’m feeling agitated or distressed or sad, I let that be and then I swim when I can to make sure that I’m, you know, get the whole body thing goals. And so I love that question. Thank you. That makes me very happy. It’s a great thing to focus on.
Dolph Goldenburg: I love the fact that you listen to music when you slim. And when you said that, I really thought, and I think this a couple times a day, we live in such a miraculous time.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Yes.
Dolph Goldenburg: You know, like a hundred years ago, the idea of hearing music in your head when you were underwater people, people would think that there was like that you had like head injury or something like that, right? Yeah. Right. Like this is a problem. This is a real problem. So we just live in such a miraculous time.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Well that’s a very optimistic thought. Remembering that we do live in a miraculous time. There are so many opportunities, there are so many great tools. It should give us all hope. You know that anything out there that’s, that’s frightening, scary, toxic. We can do a lot together. We can solve these big challenges before us. Thank you.
Dolph Goldenburg: I’m right there with you. I feel like never before as a society we had so many solutions in front of us.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Absolutely.
Dolph Goldenburg: We have got to pick them up and use them.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Yes, we got it through them, and we got to talk about him and you, you’re helping us do that. Thank you for the clap.
Dolph Goldenburg: Awesome. Thank you so much Barbara. Again, I am so thrilled that you’ve been with us today. I want to make sure our listeners know all the many ways that they can see, read and hear you. Inner Space is the name of your podcast, and people can get that on their favorite streaming app of choice: iTunes, Stitcher, what you know, whatever. www.giveanhour.org is the organization you started in 2005. If you want to Give an Hour, go to their site. Be part of the solution, and got to www.changedirection.org. Whether you’re a nonprofit advocate or clinician or just someone who cares about mental health in our world, visit www.changedirection.org. Hey Barbara, thank you so much for joining us today.
Barbara Van Dahlen: Thank you, Dolph. Thank you again for the opportunity. I love your questions. I love the conversation and maybe when I build something else I’ll come back.
Dolph Goldenburg: Awesome. I’d love that. Thank you.
Hey listeners, thank you so much for joining us today. If you missed any of Barbara’s URLs or if you want more information about her podcast, we will have links in our show notes at www.successfulnonprofits.com. Head on over there if you missed any of those URLs or if you want to get the link to the podcast. Thank you so much listeners for joining today. This is pretty much our show for the weekend. I hope that you have gained some insight that will help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.