Many a graduate student and frustrated agency clinician have approached me to find out how they too can open a small not for profit counseling agency. They typically have an idealistic view of how it will be and what it will look like. I myself pictured a small office, humble beginnings, not a lot of work but time to keep up on my art and reading while continuing to pay the bills and write professionally. I was right about the humble beginnings to be sure but forget the time for art, reading and leisure; you start a practice especially one like I did with only a few thousand dollars from a personal loan, no sponsors, no backers or major donors and you can be sure to learn the meaning of work. In response to requests, here is a small snapshot of my work week; your results may vary. As the Executive and Clinical Director and currently only fulltime staff member/ clinician I wear many a hat. I perform 30-45 therapeutic hour sessions per week, oversee the finances, meet with the board, plan for growth, write the forms, develop the systems and write many of the brochures that are given to clients on topics such as “an Introduction to the ABC’s of REBT,” “Stress Management Techniques for Individuals and Organizations,” as well as a small host of other topics. Oh, I also built and maintain the website without having a clue as to how they worked prior to purchasing the domain (it has served us well since 2005 even though it is far from state of the art or flashy- in fact I have had a dvd of me from TV that I have been trying to upload for over a year with no success). I do all the prescreening interviews and schedule appointments. I also do the assessments, treatment planning etc. for all my clients and oversee the work of any intern that may be working. So far, this is all to be expected, it is all routine, nothing out of the ordinary from most clinicians I am sure, with the exception I suppose of needing to worry about how to pay the rent, employees, etc. Beyond the 60 or so hours spent on these tasks, a director of such a program may expect other duties as well. A broken toilet, heating or cooling issue; well, there is no budget for that so on the off hours you may find yourself making those repairs. Since we opened I have gutted walls, sound deadened them, welded handrails, landscaped, removed ice dams, repaired leaks, fixed the furnace, changed the breaks on the company car, painted, installed windows, changed doors and repaired computers. I have made countless dump runs, the local hardware knows me by name and I have the scars to prove that I have not performed all my handyman duties with style or grace, but I usually get the job done right. The time comes in most small practices to expand, being a not for profit without access to funds and one that does not take government funds and does a lot of pro bono or reduced fee work, we need to do things on the cheap without sacrificing quality. This has taken years of work but I am proud to say that as Director we have no lines of credit with any bank, no bank mortgages etc. In fact, the new expansion of what will be a Therapeutic Farm is being done the old fashioned way; the seller will be holding the mortgage. This will be our first real debt since 2005. So on top of the normal duties I have been working with the town zoning officer, I will be attending hearings and paying fees in hopes of getting a special use permit for the land. I have personally spread thousands of pounds of stone, assisted in planting hundreds of trees, insulated, run electric, built walls, installed and taped sheet rock, doors etc. on the project. Sometimes I lose track of the days, but I am inching further to making this dream a reality, even without a budget or the ability to hire contractors. My pay is less than any doctor I know, actually it is less than many graduate level folks I know and that is without considering that they work 35-40 compared to my 60-100 hours per week. There is not a lot of glamour, no fame and no fortune. It is not a job that will amaze the kids at the career day event, if you are even asked to participate. Oh, did I mention that I have no benefits or safety net? Good times! Ok, for the one or two of you who are still reading this, let me tell you about the great parts of starting a not for profit. I get to make a real difference not only with my clients but in my community. I have the ability to do therapy that way I feel it needs to be done without having to worry if my boss wants to use a cookie cutter approach to therapy where every person has to follow the same model. I have the background that allows me to work with many client populations so no two sessions are ever alike (I like to call that the snowflake approach to counseling). I am allowed to decorate my office any way I want to; gone are the days of cold white walls and no art other than HR approved corporate images with messages like “hang in there” or “Unity- working together gets things done.” Don’t get me wrong, I am not against inspirational sayings but I want my office to have some flavor. I also got to live a dream, I love my job and though the long hours and the overall pay are not great, I do this by choice. I would not do it any other way (well, okay, if I could, it would do it well funded, but that is all I would change). So you see, there are many reasons to not open a small not for profit but there are just as many reasons why you should. My humble suggestion to all who are considering it is to simply look into your heart and ask yourself why you are thinking about doing it in the first place. If money, fame, or similar reasons are on your short list, it is likely not for you. If making a difference, making an impact and making lasting change are at the top, it may be worth taking a shot. If based on feedback there is an interest in discussing how to write bylaws and design a not for profit are of interest, I will cover those topics in the near future.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).