NAMI 2007 Convention: Interview with Lynn Borton
This is number four in a series of seven blogs made possible by the encouragement and financial support of The HealthCentral Network. All represent interviews with senior officers of NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] or other luminaries that attended the NAMI 2007 annual convention. These interviews cover a wide range of topics that should be of interest to everyone that is involved in one fashion or another with mental health issues.
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Lynn Borton is the Chief Operating Officer of NAMI. She first joined the organization over 20 years ago and has served in a wide variety of roles including program planning and development. Among many other things, she has been involved in NAMI's strategic planning process since 2001 and was the driving force behind their new 2007 - 2010 strategic plan. Previously, Ms. Borton was with the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston.
During my corporate career, among other things, I often had the ultimate responsibility for a multi-national strategic planning function. I know first hand how critical a strategic plan is to building and sustaining a successful, dynamic organization. The strategic planning process requires unfettered brainstorming, defining a clear vision or mission, assessing strengths and weaknesses accurately (including those of competitors), setting quantifiable goals and related strategies, establishing action plans with time lines, assigning responsibilities for the completion of these, as well as budgeting for and obtaining essential resources of all types as needed. It is also important to prepare contingency plans with specific trigger points that will set these alternate approaches in motion. Equally important, it requires building alignment at all levels of the organization to successfully implement the plan and realize the vision. Ironically, if everyone in a dynamic organization is truly engaged, a good strategic plan is never "completed;" it continues to undergo change to meet an ever changing environment.
Given all the above, I was naturally quite curious about the strategic planning process at NAMI, a non-profit, grass roots organization which encompasses fifty largely autonomous state organizations, over 1,100 local affiliates and 220,000 members, an organization in which most of the work is done by unpaid volunteers. In my experience, I never had to tackle the development of a strategic plan with such a wide range of constituents, each with their own ideas, desires, needs, and problems.
To find out more about it, I was fortunate to talk with Ms. Borton. In her role as NAMI's Chief Operating Officer, Lynn wears several hats and, as noted above, was instrumental in developing the organization's new three-year strategic plan, which was released earlier this year. Through an intensive and comprehensive planning process, NAMI has established ambitious goals and has made the commitment to move from being a good, solid organization to one that is truly great. Their strategic plan defines "great" to mean that..." NAMI will deliver superior performance that makes a distinctive impact over a long period of time".
I learned that five goals were selected that, if achieved, will transform NAMI from a good organization into a truly great one. Over the next three years, these goals will be the focus of the organization. Importantly, each goal can be accomplished equally well at the national, state, and local levels. The goals are: (1) NAMI is a dynamic, well-run organization that seeks and engages a diverse and growing membership, (2) NAMI is financially secure and independent, (3) NAMI is the dominant force in serious mental illness advocacy, (4) NAMI is the leader in crafting and implementing state-of-the art education and information, and (5) NAMI is building and incorporating the largest consumer movement in the country. Strategies have been developed to achieve these goals and realize the organization's vision.
I asked Lynn about the process of developing the plan.
"We began the planning process in the spring of 2006 with convening the strategic planning group, which involves the national board and some national representatives from the advisory councils, and then half a dozen leaders from some of the un-staffed affiliates because the real work at NAMI is done by volunteers. It's not done by staff at the national level. It's not done by staff at the state level or larger affiliates. It's really done by volunteers at mostly small affiliates. So we wanted to be sure that voice had a very strong representation within the planning group... They were a tremendous reality check throughout the process. It was great. I really insisted they be involved and it was a really good thing that I did. It was important."
"Then we had an active listening phase through the rest of the spring which involved Town House calls, listening sessions at the [NAMI annual] convention, surveying, and meeting with each of the advisory councils. And we collected all sorts of data that we had access to from the National office. Then we brought all of that together for a planning retreat in August of last year. It was a tremendous undertaking and it was really a very humbling task because the information you give to people when they're going to be making decisions really is important. And the way that you cast that information is important."
During this process, Lynn got by on various levels of sleep.
"Once we had the strategic planning group come together, we had a very intense several days retreat, out of which came stacks and stacks of flip charts. It was my task to take it and build it into something that was recognizable to the group...something cohesive and articulate. It was on a very tight time frame. We wanted to give the staff time to align it with the budget process...and we wanted to make decisions based on impact assessment and the feasibility of what we talked about. That gave us a little bit of a window and put the plan into a cycle so that it's exactly aligned with our fiscal year and the budget process."
I know from experience that to successfully implement a strategic plan you have to get everybody in the same boat, rowing in the same direction. This had to have been very difficult with 50 state organizations and 1,100 local affiliates.
"The thing that's wonderful about NAMI," Lynn said, "is this entrepreneurial spirit. It's not lock-step. And I can't tell the affiliates or the states what to do. And that's a good thing because then if they're doing what you are hoping they're doing, that's so much more validating and so much more valuable than people just doing what they're told."
It was clear that putting the NAMI plan together took a concerted and sustained effort over many months.
"It's a big undertaking, but if you do it right, it's actually less work than the alternatives. If you're doing it right, you're always doing it. It's never really done. So it's not a static thing. It's fun to be involved."
One line from NAMI's strategic plan struck me as particularly insightful: "We are as strong as our smallest support group and we dedicate ourselves to strengthening the entire NAMI family". For me, NAMI has become a second family...one that has helped sustain me over the years. It is obvious that in NAMI Lynn shares this powerful sense of family.
"Years ago the conventions were always held over the 4th of July weekend...It felt like a 4th of July family reunion every year. And that's how I describe the first NAMI convention I ever went to. I came back from it and said it was like a family reunion. People were reunited in a way that was pleasing and exciting to them. There was a tremendous sense of community and commonality and sharing history, and it's just family."
At this, the 2007 NAMI Convention, I noticed as I had at all previous, everyone seemed to have a smile on their face. That's one of the criterion I cited in a previous blog (The Unconventional Convention) that is one of the hallmarks of every NAMI Convention I have attended. People are happy and are having fun. They are there with old friends, and are making new friends, who share the same burden.
"I think it feels very safe to people," Lynn said. "So many things and so many places don't feel safe to NAMI folks, so it feels good. I come away from the convention physically exhausted but absolutely energized because it is a family reunion with all of that passion, all of that determination, and all of the success. Success often comes in small things. But you have to savor those victories just as much as the headlines. Then it's fun."
In closing my discussion with Lynn, I cited my experience working for a large shipping company. We owned sixty supertankers that were so large and with so much momentum when fully loaded, that it took 10 miles to turn them and 8 miles to stop them even with engines in full reverse. It's analogous to steering a huge organization like NAMI. To most people, it would be overwhelming.
"Our planning retreat was held at the Maritime Museum in Baltimore," Lynn said. It's full of models of ships and posters. We had all sorts of things that evolved about turning the NAMI ship and recognizing what a Herculean effort it is to try and turn a ship. It only works if you keep steering."
In closing this blog, I find myself filled with confidence and smiling about NAMI and its future. The "NAMI Ship" has excellent, experienced officers that have charted a course toward ever greater service to all affected by mental illness, as well as society as a whole.