The following is an interview with Alice Lutz (A), CEO of Triangle Family Services, conducted by Meg Buckingham (M), senior marketing & communications officer for the Foundation.

M: Alice, can you tell me a little more about Triangle Family Services, and why our readers should care about your mission?

A: It may not be your crisis, but it is your community. We are a 78 year old, credentialed human service organization, meeting the needs of families in crisis through mental health, financial stability, and family safety – together we build a stronger community by strengthening the family.

People come to us at some of the most difficult, lowest points in their lives. We work on an evidence based model of services centered in case management. To simplify, we don’t teach a person to fish, we teach them to go out and find the water, and be self-sufficient. We provide the tools, resources, education and support that they need – helping them move through their crisis to sustainability for themselves and for our community.

If you aren’t providing sustainable tools teaching people to be self-sufficient, then we as providers are no better than those who stand in main tourist attractions and feed pigeons. Those pigeons need you, you’ve created that. We need to figure out what will break the cycle, the system to provide the sustainable tools to move from crisis to stability. We do that SO well.

M: Do you think that your partnership with the Foundation this year has helped you make a greater impact?

A: Oh my gosh. Well, we were part of the initial partners for the community programs and at first, to be very candid, I was annoyed at the co-hort learning process, telling me what I already know, I didn’t have time for that, etc. But it forced me to be away, to be in conversations, to do my homework, to be present – and what came out of that was not what I would have ever predicted. We got a small grant to do a dashboard system with our data (we have three service areas, 10 programs, different measures, and there is data all over the place). With this small grant, we were able to compete for a large comprehensive solution, a massive grant from another funder, to beef up our server and manage a more robust website. We also got a grant from national funder to upgrade our website and client portal with data driven solutions. Because of this small grant, we were able to work with Wake County Human Services on a huge and valuable vulnerability mapping project. Because I stopped and focused at those meetings, they used our data from the same year on that mapping and we were able to see the stark needs and brought us to a new level of conversation. And it brought us a new grant to look more comprehensively at specific community areas and provide more services for the abuser treatment areas.

That’s all from a small grant of $2,500. I never would have predicted that outcome. The time away from the agency to focus on strategic vision, is one of the most essential pieces of what a leader needs to do. There will always be more need, especially in human services. We are impacting, but there will always be more clients who need us. And until someone says that you as a leader have an obligation to step away and focus on strategy, and gives you permission, you don’t do it. We need to keep our heads clear, and not burn out. Otherwise we can’t provide leadership direction that we need to provide.

Ironically, our community of nonprofits often competes (the “must be nice” mentality), but really what we need to be doing is working together to figure out how we create solutions, because then we strengthen each other. We need to be more kind to each other. The co-hort portion of this grant program helps this along.

M: So, if I’m passionate about programs like yours, and want to get involved, how do I do that?

A: There are several ways to get involved. We look for leaders to be a part of our board and committees and task force and the social change millennial group. They can help on site with abuser treatment and anger management programs. We always need volunteer projects – painting, wrapping presents, outside work – a lot of one off projects. One of the things most difficulty about volunteering is that we provide court appointed services and our level of confidentiality is really high for obvious reasons and so to volunteer you need to commit to 10 hours a month and there is a lot of training, so our volunteers need to be willing to do that.

Something more controversial that we don’t often talk about when people want to do more, is the question – is volunteering about you, so you feel good or so you actually help the client? I’d love to talk more about this with donors, and open the egg up and see what’s inside. Our clients need more than just a single donation or a one off volunteer project – they need to be given the tools to sustain them and us as community providers need to go deeper. We need people to embrace the real need, the overall issue, and dig real deep with us for the long haul.

M:  Alice, go ahead and get on your soapbox for a moment. What would you say is the single biggest issue today that you would like our readers to learn more, get passionate, about? 

Access to adult mental health services that provide case management to keep people healthy and stable has eroded to a tipping point. The recent tragedies, and mass shootings are not about gun control.  It’s about mental health access, and limited funding is available and eroding yearly. We should shiver with the lack of hospital beds, access, and comprehensive services for people with chronic mental health illness. We should be enraged.

Triangle Family Services received a grant through the Capacity Building Partnerships program to streamline the management of program data into a dashboard system integrated into their client portal.  This has allowed for easier monthly documentation of direct services provided to families experiencing crisis, and as a result, the agency has been able to serve additional clients with shorter wait times.  TFS has used the dashboard to work with Wake County to analyze and review current client and services areas, and they’re having conversations with national funders about intake and assessment data processes.  The grant has not only improved the day-to-day operations of the agency, but the project has also helped Triangle Family Services analyze and diversify their funding streams and increased their ability to address critical needs in our community.