Don Feeney, former research and planning director at the Minnesota State Lottery and a board member of Northstar and the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), received the prestigious Monsignor Joseph Dunne Lifetime Award for Advocacy at the NCPG’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon last month. The award is given in recognition of career dedication to improving the lives of problem gamblers and their families through advocacy, research, training or public awareness.
NL: You have been involved in problem gambling for many years. How did you get started?
DF: In 1993, George Andersen, who was director of the Minnesota Lottery, called me into his office and told me that he believed problem gambling was going to be a big issue for the lottery industry. At the time, most lottery directors were either denying that the problem existed or were denying that lotteries had anything to do with it. George knew better, and he told me that he wanted me to become the industry expert, to read what I needed to read, go to the meetings I needed to go to, and meet the people I needed to meet. I am forever grateful to George for that assignment.
Working with Lance Holthusen and Roger Svendsen to start the Northstar Alliance was a big thing. Again, that was George’s idea. He knew Minnesota needed a credible voice to advocate on the issue or it would be left to those who wanted to use the problem gambler to further their own interests on one side or the other.
NL: In addition to being on the board of the National Council on Problem Gambling you also served as the organization’s president. What was that experience like?
DF: First, it was an incredible honor. I was the first (and so far only) person connected with the gambling industry to be elected to that position, and it was quite controversial at the time—I wasn’t elected until the third ballot. I worked hard to put those fears to rest and was re-elected unanimously. But it was also a time when because of the Great Recession a number of the Council’s major donors had to cut back on their contributions. I’m really proud that between great work by the board and the staff we were able to get through that period without major cutbacks in staff or programming. I learned a lot about management and about the entirety of the problem gambling field beyond my areas of research and public policy.
NL: What do you feel are the biggest obstacles facing those who work in the area of problem gambling, whether in prevention, treatment, research or advocacy?
DF: First, the lack of funding nationwide, particularly at the federal level. Research isn’t something that can be adequately done at the state level, nor should it be primarily financed by industry. But Congress and the federal bureaucracy has taken the position that the federal government should have nothing to do with gambling, despite the immense sum of money coming to the federal government from taxes on the gambling industry. Second, there is still a lack of communication between researchers, policy makers and treatment professionals. We’ve learned a tremendous amount in the last several years, but it’s been very slow to trickle down to those who actually treat problem gamblers.
NL: Are there any key trends happening now that you think will impact the field for the next 5-10 years?
DF: The biggest new trend is the emergence of new forms of gambling that don’t meet the strict legal definition of gambling and are therefore operating without regulation. These include social games, fantasy sports, e-sports and other games that either include an element of skill or have non-traditional costs of entry or rewards. We know these games are potentially addictive, and that the addiction looks like, walks like, and quacks like a gambling addiction, but if someone doesn’t think that what they do is gambling, will they seek help from a gambling counselor, or, for that matter, from anyone? A related issue is that our treatment, prevention and recovery programs were designed either by or for baby boomers, but millennials and generation Z gamble in different ways, communicate in different ways, grew up with a different set of cultural expectations, and expect to receive services in different ways.
NL: Your peers in the world of problem gambling recognized you this summer when you received the National Council’s highest honor, the Monsignor Joseph Dunne Lifetime Award for Advocacy. Can you tell us a little about that award’s history and how it felt to be chosen for such a high honor?
DF: I’m not the expert on the award’s history, except to say that Monsignor Dunne was the founder of the National Council. He was a New York City police chaplain who saw gambling addiction on the police force and was able to get officers into Gambler’s Anonymous. He realized that gamblers needed an advocacy organization and so started the National Council in 1972. I never had the opportunity to meet the Monsignor, but am truly honored to receive an award named after him. I learned I was receiving the award about a week before the annual conference, and from then through the awards ceremony and beyond I was walking on air. It’s something that I just never envisioned happening.
By the way, I’m the second Minnesotan to receive the award. Roger Svendsen won it in 1999. And Sandy Brustuen won the Custer Lifetime Award for Direct Service in 2012.
NL: You have retired from your position with the Minnesota Lottery. Will you continue to be involved in the problem gambling field in some capacity in the coming years?
DF: Yes, I hope so. Since retiring, I’ve been elected president of the Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance and have represented the National Council at the recent North American lottery conference.
NL: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
DF: The best part of my involvement has been getting to know some really amazing people. I had the opportunity to be mentored by some of the founders of the problem gambling field who never looked down on me as someone “from the industry.” In particular, several folks from Minnesota—Roger Svensen, Randy Stinchfield and Ken Winters—were kind enough to take me under their wings and introduce me to some of the leading lights worldwide. I am truly in their debt.