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Consumer Participation on Boards

This page discusses the role and responsibilities of boards of directors and describes how consumers of mental health services can participate as board members in the planning and operation of mental health agencies and health organizations.

The community mental health sector values and encourages participation by consumers in planning and developing mental health services.

In A Framework for Support, the Canadian Mental Health Association calls consumer participation a priority for the mental health system. Indeed, the Government of Ontario requires mental health agencies funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to involve former clients and family members on their boards of directors. The ministry says that

Members of the Board of Directors should represent a cross-section of the community, such as health care professionals, former clients of mental health and/or addiction services, families, law enforcement personnel, community leaders, and different ethno-racial and language groups in the community.

Members should also bring to the Board specific skills and expertise required to guide a mental health and/or addiction agency, including financial expertise, knowledge of the community, communication skills, legal skills and, if appropriate, fund raising capabilities. (“Operating Manual for Mental Health Services and Addiction Treatment Services,” 11)

What are the benefits of consumers participating on boards?

“A Framework for Support” says that “Consumers live with mental illness and know it more intimately than scientists or professionals who lack direct experience. As consumers, they know it from the inside. Their knowledge ranges from the immediate reality of symptoms to the impact of mental illness on their lives in the community” (“A Framework for Support,” 13). Board members who have this knowledge, along with direct experience of receiving mental health services, bring a unique and invaluable perspective to the planning process.

Boards that are open to different consumer experiences and perspectives are able to

  • tap into a variety of viewpoints
  • send a message that the organization is serious about involving consumers as equal partners

By striving to have more than one consumer representative, boards can increase peer support among all consumer board members and ensure a variety of consumer perspectives.

In addition to their knowledge of mental illness and the mental health system, consumers may bring to the board a range of other skills, such as financial or legal expertise.

What are the benefits for consumers?

Involvement in boards and committees can have a positive effect on personal empowerment and recovery. Consumers can develop leadership and decision-making skills and increase their knowledge of how an organization is run and of the mental health system as a whole.

Other benefits can include improvements in

  • self-esteem
  • quality of life
  • confidence
  • job skills
  • community engagement

What are the responsibilities of a nonprofit board?

The board of directors is legally and financially responsible and accountable for all aspects of the agency’s operations. The board is the main decision-making structure for most mental health and other health organizations, including hospitals and community health agencies, and members are guided by bylaws or operating rules that govern the activities of an organization.

The board makes strategic decisions about policies, programs, services and finances of the organization.

Some of the key responsibilities of the board include

  • setting the direction for the organization through a vision and mission statement
  • developing and reviewing the organization’s policies
  • strategic planning
  • recruiting and evaluating the senior staff, such as the executive director or chief executive officer
  • ensuring the organization has enough funds to operate its programs
  • enhancing public standing and image
  • ensuring that the organization is accountable
  • ecruiting and orienting new board members
  • establishing committees of the board as required

What are the duties of a board member?

The broad duties of a board member are to act in the best interests of the agency through duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duties towards members. Industry Canada’s Primer for Directors of Not-For-Profit Corporations: Rights, Duties, and Practices covers these topics in detail.

The specific duties of board members can include

  • becoming familiar with their legal, fiscal and ethical responsibilities as board members
  • committing to the mission and values of the organization
  • complying with corporate bylaws
  • preparing for, attending and participating in board meetings
  • working as a team member and supporting board decisions
  • declaring conflict of interest
  • keeping internal affairs confidential
  • monitoring the performance of the organization
  • participating in hiring, evaluating and releasing the senior staff
  • keeping informed about issues relevant to the organization
  • participating in the recruitment of new board members

What are committees of the board?

Committees are made up of board members who have expertise or interest in dealing with specific issues. While working in a small group, the committee makes suggestions and recommendations to the rest of the board for approval.

Committees of the board can include

  • executive
  • finance
  • fundraising
  • human resources
  • nominating
  • other committees depending on the needs of the organization

What makes a good board?

A good board should

  • clearly state what is expected of each board member
  • outline each board member’s legal and financial responsibilities
  • provide education, training and information opportunities for board members

Assigning a seasoned board member to act as a mentor can help a new board member learn about the board experience.

How do boards recruit members?

Different boards use different ways to recruit, keep and support quality board members. Different boards may look for different qualities in board candidates. The number of members required for the board will be determined by the organization’s bylaws. Some organizations state in their bylaws a minimum number or percentage of board members who must be consumers.

Board recruiters may look for individuals who

  • have specialized skills, experiences or knowledge, such as financial management, legal expertise, government relations or fundraising
  • are self-identified consumers
  • represent diverse geographical or cultural communities
  • have values that reflect the organization’s statement of purpose
  • are involved in the community at large, not just the mental health community
  • recognize the need for cooperation, compromise and collaboration

How can consumers make their board involvement a positive experience?

Consumers’ board involvement is more likely to be a positive experience if they choose a board that values the input of consumers and wants them to participate meaningfully, and they keep up strong ties to advocacy and support networks.

How can consumers find a board to serve on?

The Canadian Mental Health Association has 32 branches and one provincial office in Ontario. Each agency has its own volunteer board of directors. Contact information is available at www.ontario.cmha.ca/branches.

Mental Health Service Information Ontario lists more than 300 agencies across the province. Many of those agencies welcome consumers on their boards of directors. See www.mhsio.on.ca to locate organizations in your area.

The Ontario Peer Development Initiative is a provincial organization that supports Consumer/Survivor Initiatives, which are organizations run for and by people with mental illnesses. More information about OPDI is available at www.opdi.org.

BoardMatch introduces registered charities and not-for-profit organizations to volunteers who want to serve as board members. More information is available at www.boardmatch.org.