Should NAMI Have Done More To Keep Successful CEO Mary Giliberti?

(5-3-19) “We burned her out!” Dr. James Hayes, a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness board of directors, told me when I asked why Mary Giliberti abruptly resigned last month as NAMI’s CEO.

NAMI Board Chair Adrienne Kennedy explained that Ms. Giliberti has three children at home. “She is a private person who wants to spend more time with them and the constant travel proved to be too much.”

“Bottom line, Mary gave her heart and soul to NAMI,” added Ron Honberg,  who retired last month as NAMI’s Senior Policy Advisor after 30 years with the organization. “I will always value her leadership for that reason.  She worked 24/7 on making the world a better place for people with mental illness.”

Finally, a current NAMI staffer told me,  “She was always the first in the building and last to leave at night. She spent hours on airplanes visiting out members in their states and was known for taking time from her schedule to work our hotline because she wanted to hear what callers were saying.”

In her official resignation announcement, Ms. Giliberti stated: “With NAMI’s growth over the last five years has come long hours and much travel. As I look at my children as they are finishing middle and high school next year, I have decided that the time has come to devote more time to them.”

Because Ms. Giliberti spent so much time visiting affiliates, she was well-known and popular. Now those members are wondering if NAMI’s board should have done more to keep her.

NAMI’s growth during her five year tenure, that began in January 2014, has been phenomenal. A nearly 75% increase in its funding base, turning it into a $17 million organization!

Number of advocacy contacts with government leaders2016: 85,922. 2017: 166,704

Number of participants attending courses, sessions, workshops:  2015: 252,014  2016: 264, 980 2017: 321,878

Number of Facebook followers: 2016: 244,496 2017: 270,158

I have worked alongside Ms. Giliberti on the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Committee (ISMICC) and have witnessed first-hand how dedicated and effective the Harvard University and Yale Law School grad can be. She rallied the non-federal members of ISMICC in support of Assistant Secretary Dr.Elinore  McCance-Katz’s successful internal campaign at SAMHSA to allow states to seek waivers around the IMD exclusion, which denies Medicaid reimbursement to any facility larger than 16 beds.

The sudden announcement of her resignation has raised questions about board management. She left immediately on resigning. She left after releasing a video earlier this year about NAMI’s future. She left without waiting to help break in a new CEO.

There have been whispers that the tremendous growth at NAMI caused management problems in its national office. While Ms. Gilberti was on the road, dissatisfaction at headquarters reportedly swelled.  Infighting. Disagreements about direction. Equity issues. Jockeying for power. Not surprising with a staff that mushroomed to some 70 employees. Last December, Giliberti’s hand-chosen chief operating officer resigned.

Ms. Giliberti’s resignation also has renewed questions about the effectiveness of NAMI’s board. Some would like to change NAMI’s election process. Currently, any member who gets a local chapter to back them can seek election to the board. That inclusivity now is being questioned because of NAMI’s astounding growth. Should candidates be required to have a rudimentary understanding of budgets or prior management experience? How aware is the board about what is happening in affiliates and the national office?

NAMI board members serve three year terms with a maximum or two terms. The board meets quarterly. These four meetings used to last three days, but recently were cut to day-and-a-half sessions. Are four truncated face-to-face board meetings a year enough for members to jell or give the board much of an institutional history?

NAMI, which was founded in 1979 by Harriet Shetler and Beverly Young in Madison, Wisconsin,  now has 1000 affiliates in 50 states.

NAMI will hold its 2019 NAMI National Convention June 19-22 in Seattle. Traditionally, it hosts an open forum on the first day of its conference where members can quiz board members.

Given Ms. Giliberti’s popularity and success, I imagine NAMI’s board will be asked what steps it will be taking to prevent the new CEO from being “burned out.”



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.