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May 18, 2022
Jeff Szymanski Has Been Going Nonstop Since Becoming ED
Jeff Szymanski
Jeff Szymanski: Fundraising is a lot more fun than I expected.
I got interested in cognitive behavior therapy in graduate school, and went to work at McLean Hospital in Belmont. It provided broad exposure to patients and types of psychopathology, as well as inpatient, outpatient, residential, and broad based training.

I learned that I enjoyed working with patients and borderline patients in particular, which is a difficult group to work with.

After working at the May Counseling Center in Norwood for about five years, becoming assistant director, I learned of an opening at the OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] Institute at McLean. I wasn’t an OCD specialist, but I had lot of experience with out-of-control patients. This was an opportunity to see how a system worked.

I started as a staff psychologist and was promoted to director of psychological services with the idea of developing programs. It involved improving staff training, changing job descriptions to deliver better care, working with social work staff to include more family therapy in their work. We upgraded and updated the group therapy program and expanded the volunteer program and outreach to universities looking for practicum placements for their students. It went back to work I did at grad school, incorporating quality control measures, figuring out what part of the program was helpful and what was not helpful.

In 2007, the board of the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation decided to move it from New Haven to Boston. None of the staff wanted to relocate so there was 100% turnover. The program director of the OCD Institute was on the foundation’s board and recommended me for executive director. The board felt that my professional background was a good fit, but was concerned that I didn’t have business, HR, or a fundraising background. They took something of a leap of faith and hired me in 2008, and told me they’d evaluate me on my ability to grow the organization.

The foundation had been losing money and membership had flat lined. The board asked me to go through every piece of the organization and re-do it. It’s been nonstop ever since.

We rebranded under a new name, to become the International OCD Foundation. The original name didn’t describe us since obsessive/compulsive behavior is a debilitating psychological disorder, which is more than just being obsessive or compulsive. It also occurs around the world.

One of the first things we did was streamline the foundation’s affiliate groups. There were nine when I came in, all operating under different agreements. We now have one agreement and a plan to establish four to eight new affiliates across the country. Each includes people who have OCD, their family members, and professionals, who together establish a local foundation.

We also increased training programs to help therapists learn to treat OCD. Instead of flying a team to different parts of the country, we now send one person to places which have a small cadre of OCD experts.

We’re reaching out a lot more. We’re doing more direct marketing and getting in newspapers and radio shows. During the last year we overhauled our website to make it more user friendly, and now have a Facebook and YouTube page. We reformatted our quarterly newsletter, which gets sent to 7,000 people.

Fundraising taught me a lot. When I started, I asked myself, “I have to raise money?” But I learned it isn’t about begging for money. It’s about inviting people to be part of the mission of the organization. When people tell you what a difference you’ve made, you can talk to them about giving back. It’s a lot more fun than I expected.

Our annual conference is our marquee event. It’s where the community gets together, and it’s amazing to see people connecting. We restructured it to include specific programs for families, in addition to professional tracks, and people can now register electronically. Attendance more than doubled in the last two years; we’re expecting 1,300 to 1,400 people in Washington, DC, in July.

I employ a cabinet philosophy where I say, “Here’s a problem. I want everyone’s input.” I want an assertive staff to push back on ideas so that we pick the best option. As a leader your job is not to have the best option, but to solicit the best ideas from your people. Then, you make the final decision – to take the heat when something goes wrong and to give credit to your staff when people say good things.

As told to Peter Lowy, January 2010.
Learn more about the International OCD Foundation, based in Boston, by clicking here.
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