3 min Read
May 13, 2010

Caring through wallpaper (and other adventures in space)

Recently my primary care doctor referred me to a specialist for a routine test. When I got to the specialist’s office for a pre-test consultation, I felt uncomfortable: the waiting room was cramped, the receptionists were surly, and the grey office walls were full of taped-up signs that like, “You’ll be held responsible personally for all copays,” and other generally aggressive statements. There were no smiling nurses, no soothing fish tanks, no pictures of vacation destinations- nothing that hinted, particularly, of humanity at all. The doctor was nice enough but rather perfunctory. This place was all business- and frankly, it was a downer.

As I walked out of the office, I thought without hesitation that I’d find another doctor to do the test. Why? Because nothing about my experience there made me feel this doctor was a caring professional I’d want to have treat me- or even administer tests to me. In that office, patients are patients- not people- and there’s something diminishing about that. Don’t get me wrong- I didn’t need fancy wallpaper or a pedicure while I waited to see the doctor to feel good about it- just a smile, or perhaps a “Have a nice day.”

It reminded me of a social service organization where I once attended a meeting. The organization’s large building was lit badly, had peeling paint on the walls, featured lots of taped up notices, and generally felt grungy. Some of the problems were probably due to underfunding, but others were more the result of neglect and lack of respect for the space itself. Both the staff and clients I met there seemed cranky- and it was easy to see how uninspiring it was to spend any time in that place, no matter how great their services might be.

By contrast, I recently toured the cancer center at Northern Westchester Hospital, a new client of Big Duck’s. Smiling receptionists greeted everyone who walked through the door, interesting art hung on the walls, rooms were nicely lit, walls had been painted in soothing earth-toned colors, mellow music played in the background, and there was even an art therapy station where patients sit and color or paint while they wait for their appointments.

A corner of the caregiver’s room at Northern Westchester Hospital- a place designed to provide comfort and support

A corner of the caregiver's room at Northern Westchester Hospital- a place designed to provide comfort and support

Inside the women’s imaging center at Northern Westchester you can make yourself a cup of coffee. And if you’re admitted as a patient, you can request chicken soup (or whatever else you fancy), and they’ll bring it up to your room, no matter what time you want it. You can change the art on the wall of your room. You can get acupuncture! The list goes on and on. What’s clear is that Northern Westchester values not only the quality of the medical care they provide (the top-tier doctors there are a given), but also the quality of the patient’s overall experience. Their leadership realizes that experience can be impacted by any number of variables- not just the doctors who treat you.

In the for-profit world, these experiences (positive and negative) are called “customer service,” and there’s often a staff person responsible for overseeing and monitoring them, but in most nonprofits there’s no obvious parallel term or role. Some organizations treat clients, members, donors, and other audiences with highest regard, while others don’t. When they do, it’s often because this type of thoughtfulness and care for all aspects of an individual’s experience are reflective of their values, and they understand in-person experiences that can deeply affect how people feel. In fact, I’ve been in some spectacularly underfunded organizations that have creatively used found objects for furniture, client-produced artwork on the walls, and other free or low-cost items to create spaces that are truly inspirational. It sets a tone that communicates a lot about how the organization approaches their work and feels about the people it serves.

Investing in the in-person experiences your clients, members, donors, volunteers, and even staff have when they enter your facility is time and money well spent. You’d be happier walking down a hallway with a mural painted on it then a drab grey wall, wouldn’t you? Or being greeted by someone who looks you in the eye and smiles? Yes, it requires an investment of time and, in some cases, money that many organizations feel they can’t make. But when you factor in the greater staff retention, better possible outcomes, and general sense of enthusiasm that a welcoming, caring space generates, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t time well-spent.