Hillary Rubesin | Crain's Raleigh Durham

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Hillary Rubesin


The Art Therapy Institute (ATI) is an organization of mental health professionals dedicated to the healing power of the arts. Carrboro, North Carolina-based ATI provides clinical art therapy services to diverse populations, empowering clients to develop their identities through the art-making process. ATI also offers training to allied professionals and seeks to raise awareness in the general community about its profession and the benefits of arts-based therapy.

The Mistake:

Putting clients ahead of the agency and yourself.

I think the age-old adage that you can’t successfully take care of others unless you take care of yourself first is really true. It’s especially true in the nonprofit world, because we often put our clients first. We put our hearts out there and we’re doing this work because we believe in the cause. And because of that, sometimes we sacrifice administrative issues, or fundraising or marketing, just to put all of our efforts behind the clients or the cause.

At our nonprofit, this all came to a head a little over three years ago, when we experienced the devastating and unexpected loss of one of our founders and directors. We were really forced to figure out what we were going to do moving forward without her. When she died, it really shifted everything and we had to figure out how to shift, as well. We had been focusing so much solely on taking care of clients. We’ve been operating with eight to 10 therapists and interns and we see more than 500 clients a week. The majority of our clients live below the poverty line and we never, ever turn away a client based on a lack of resources.

We were just not taking care of ourselves. We were operating on a model where the agency wasn’t taking any overhead costs from the clinicians. We were essentially working for free as administrative staff who were only being paid for client work. Clearly, this was not sustainable.

This was really hard for me to address because I’ve always struggled with the idea of self-care. I thought it was a luxury and kind of selfish. I had always focused on giving everything to our work and our clients.

We were all experiencing burnout, which is very common for people in nonprofits.

The Lesson:

We ultimately decided that we had to take a little overhead cost from the clinicians so that we could continue to serve our clients. We decided to give the leadership salaries so that they can spend some time fundraising and marketing and doing all the things you need to do to be a successful nonprofit. By doing that we’ve been able to stay afloat and grow.

Now, we’re dealing with state and federal funding being cut. Most of the funding cut was to our newcomers’ program, which was for immigrants and refugees coming in to the country. This led to another mistake we often make, which is not knowing how and when to ask for help. A lot of our funding sources are not stable right now, so we reached out to other people who have more experience than us.

We’re really excited that we’re partnering with a local nonprofit incubator, YouthWorx, in Carrboro, that focuses on helping small nonprofits in marketing and fundraising and all those other things I didn’t get in my formal therapy schooling. Hopefully we can continue to grow, because my heart remains with the clients that we serve.

Hillary Rubesin is on Twitter at @hillaryrubesin.