Guest Blog: Having A Mental Illness Or Being A Care-Giver Doesn’t Necessarily Make You A Good NAMI Board Member


(7-24-17) Turmoil over this year’s NAMI election and its “big tent” vs “small tent” debate are still reverberating and have caused a former board member to offer his thoughts about how the nation’s largest, grassroots mental health organization should be run.)

NAMI Leadership – A Thought Going Forward

by  Graham L. Champion (Board member 2009-2010)  

NAMI has just concluded its national convention in Washington, DC, during which, five new members of the 16-member board of directors were elected. The run up to this year’s election was one of the most divisive and contentious in recent memory. A tenant of NAMI Board elections is that the candidates refrain from active campaigning both directly and also through the use of surrogates.

That tenant went out the window this year.

A spirited debate is normally a very good thing when members of NAMI are considering who will lead the organization. However, the debate should focus on issues and philosophy and not become personal. Personal attacks have a way of carrying forward and taint the important work the Board should be focusing on.

Having served on NAMI’s National Board several years ago (albeit for a short time), I want to offer some perspective and suggestions for the consideration of NAMI’s Membership and more specifically for NAMI’s Board of Directors. NAMI should in my humble opinion consider the following changes.

NAMI’s Board should be a policy Board and not a management Board.

NAMI is a national organization with a large membership and a relatively large budget. Part-time, volunteer Board Members need to let the professional staff do the jobs they were hired to do without day-to-day interference. Micromanagement does not serve the organization well. The Board needs to set policy and not be involved in the day-to-day execution and management of the organization. If the staff is not getting the job done – that the Board expects – in a timely and professional manner, then it should replace the ineffective staff. If the Board (or an individual Board Member) wants to be involved in the day-to-day process they should resign from the Board and apply for a job. No manager can do an effective job if he/she is constantly being second guessed by a committee (Board).

NAMI should establish a nomination committee.

NAMI’s policy of requiring a majority of its Board to have  “lived experience” with mental illness or have been a “direct caregiver” is commendable. Having local or state affiliates nominate individuals for consideration of the NAMI Membership for election to NAMI’s Board is also commendable. With that said, NAMI should consider one additional step in the nomination process that is common in many, if not most, regional and national organizations. Currently there is no formal process in place to evaluate what the personal or professional qualifications of the nominees are. In order to effectively govern a national advocacy organization there is a dire need to have Board Members who possess qualifications and experience in direct advocacy, finance, non-profit governance, fundraising and member education among other attributes. NAMI should consider establishing a Nominating Committee comprised of former Board Members to vet the nominations from the Membership to ensure that there is a balanced slate of candidates who possess the needed experience to effectively govern NAMI.

As much as some might disagree, having a lived experience with mental illness is simply not sufficient to qualify someone to serve on NAMI’s National Board. The question should be asked “Would you/anyone entrust a multi-million dollar business’ governance to someone with no particular business experience simply because they want to serve on the Board?” This would also facilitate a more geographically balanced Board. Efforts should be made to lessen the possibility of multiple Board Members coming from the same state.

The Nominating Committee could be comprised of 4-5 former NAMI National Presidents or other Board Members who have served in a position on the Executive Committee of NAMI’s Board. The Nominating Committee should strive to nominate a sufficient number of candidates to give the Membership a representative group from which to choose so as not to limit unnecessarily the options available to NAMI’s Members.

NAMI must be open to new ideas.

Things might be different today than when I served on NAMI’s Board but the mindset of “we have never done it that way before” must be abandoned. NAMI’s Board must be open to new ideas, policies and procedures. Having a more experientially diverse Board will lead to a more spirited debate among the Members of the Board.

NAMI has a long and proud heritage and does many very beneficial things for people living with a mental illness – either personally or as a direct caregiver – and that heritage needs to be nurtured not destroyed because of philosophical differences. NAMI’s staff is dedicated, professional and passionate. They need to know that their Board possesses all of the same traits. It has been said that there is no limit to what can be accomplished if you do not worry about who gets the credit. If people living with mental illness are served in a positive manner the credit belongs to every Member of NAMI.


Graham L. Champion has been associated with NAMI since before 2000 and has served on the Boards of NAMI Montgomery, Alabama, NAMI Alabama and NAMI National at one time or another as well as having served on NAMI’s Mind of America Board. He can be reached at


(Guest blogs are the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Pete Earley’s opinion. Rather the blogs are posted to encourage different points of view.) 
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.