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Big board creates big opportunities

October 1, 2009
by Randy Stith, PhD
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Colorado center taps group's energy, diversity of opinion

More than 30 years ago, I inherited one of the largest boards of directors of any nonprofit organization in the country. The 33-member board represents the diverse group of 31 citizens who founded Aurora Mental Health Center (AMHC) in 1975 plus two later additions that brought the total to 33. Working with such a large board can either be seen as a difficult challenge or as a management opportunity. I see it as the latter. Board members serve the Center with a common purpose: The goal is to focus that energy.

The board of directors determined, long before I was hired, to make each of its committees responsible for examining, researching and analyzing issues in their domain as well as communicating and clarifying their problems to other members of the board. These committees include Budget and Finance; Community Relations/Legislation; Facilities; Development; Human Resources; Nominating and Training; and Program and Planning. Staff members are involved only as a resource. Our full board meetings are very short because the committees do the real work. Most board meetings start at 5:30 p.m. and are over by 8 p.m.

Although I had been advised against taking this position, I accepted the job with AMHC largely because I was impressed by the deliberate, systematic and objective way their board went about its business. (I was coming from an organization with 15 board members that struggled to reach a quorum.) I am proud to say that, in our history since 1975, we have never failed to reach a quorum-ever!

Making Big Work

I strongly believe in the 80/20 rule when it comes to boards, employees, or anything else: You can rely on about 20 percent of the board to do 80 percent of the work. But on the board, it's not always the same 20 percent. And 20 percent of my board is almost always going to be larger than the quorum of many other boards.

For one, we have more board retreats than almost any other board, but it's our board orientation that is unique. Two weeks post-election, new members have a day of orientation that is all about hiring me. Hiring and firing an executive director is the single most important job a board must do and although the board hired me 31 years ago, I need to be sure that the current board would want to hire me today.

New members need to know that they can talk to me about the mission and about whether I am following their beliefs or not. So we go through my biography, my resume, my theory on families and psychopathology. I am very candid. I share my prejudices and my biases and get them to understand that I work for the board. Basically, I have to sell them on me!

A large board also makes it difficult for any one person or group to gain control or lead a project contrary to ACMS' mission. It may also be more difficult to sell an idea to a large board.

Future Plans

The rate of change in mental healthcare has become geometric. Very little long-range planning will hold up any longer than 12 months. That is the nature of mental healthcare today and is a real concern for our board of directors. I know that the size and strength of our board will enable us to meet and address these and whatever other challenges we are confronted with, and do so to the benefit of our organization, our clients, and our community.

Randy Stith, PhD, is Executive Director and CEO, Aurora Mental Health Center, Aurora, Colorado. For further information, contact Dr. Stith at or visit Behavioral Healthcare 2009 October;29(9):24