Working in any mental health organization is technically challenging and requires an emotional investment. Focusing on the mission can be challenging. Darrell Burnham is the CEO of Coast Mental Health, a community-based mental health organization in British Columbia. He talks about how he manages to stay connected with the mission while working with the staff and board. He shares that he’s been able to accomplish these goals by always coming back to the organization’s mission. For anyone vying to be a CEO, Darrell suggests understanding the full context of the work by taking time to do so. This includes meeting everyone involved in the organization, particularly the staff, family members, and people being served.
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Mission, Focus, and Engagement with Darrell Burnham
On our show, we have Darrell Burnham, who is the CEO of Coast Mental Health. We’re going to spend our time talking about his connection to the mission, the importance that mission plays in the community and his longevity with the organization which I think is an example for all of us in the social profit sector. Welcome to the show, Darrell.
Darrell, for a couple of people who don’t live in Vancouver and who don’t know the work of Coast, tell us a little bit about Coast Mental Health and the role you play in the community.
We’re a community-based mental health organization that was started in the very early ‘70s, just as the major psychiatric hospital in Vancouver was starting the process of closing down. People with mental illness who left the hospital environment ended up in the community. A group of well-meaning volunteers got together and formed the society to help people in the community to live better. It ended up building green housing and drop-in services. As we have evolved, we became more sophisticated. We do way more housing, way more community support services, and we focus a lot on education and employment. We’ve grown a lot since the early ‘70s as the need has grown.
Where are you at in terms of size and number of people that you’re housing?
We’re housing over 1,250 at the moment, around 45 or so different sites around the lower mainland. We have two large social service centers in Vancouver and some programs that are provincial that are more of niche programs like a financial trust program. We have about 700 staff and a lot of things going that are quite exciting.Evaluate opportunities that come forward whether it’s consistent with your mission. Click To Tweet
I would imagine with that growth that the partnerships that Coast has, have changed over the number of years. What have you seen in terms of the conversations you’re having with different levels of government, other organizations and agencies?
The system has changed and evolved. We’ve seen several versions of regionalization come and go in the mental health field. Certainly, the people that I started with have all retired for some reason. They don’t stick with it the same way. The system is complicated, stretched and more sophisticated than it was years ago. Those things all change the context. We’ve tried to be very close to our mission and purpose. We try not to have too much mission drift which can be a problem with nonprofits. They can drift to the money, lose their heart and soul as an organization.
How have you done that?
Part of this is a very clear philosophy of care support called the psychosocial rehab or a recovery-based approach with clients. We keep that focus, be very clear with what we do and do well. Certainly, supported housing has been an area we do well, supported employment, education and creating contexts that engage clients so that they can feel included and that they can grow as people. For example, we’ve got a very large peer support program that hires clients who actually help others. It’s been a real unique way of driving our mission but also people helping themselves by helping others. A lot of different services fit into that core and that purpose. We’ve been able to create some scale so that we are a bit more effective, efficient and scale in size. We’ve focused on quality. I would say for the last few years, it’s been an important issue and all in a way that’s going to drive value for our clients. If they’re involved in our service, they know they’re going to get value, benefit from it and for funders, donors or partners. If they’re going to work with Coast, they know that they’ll get valuable support and they’ll be able to fulfill their missions as well. Those are very key parts of what we do.
One of the things that’s hard to do in the sector, and you put your finger right on it, is for organizations to say, “No, that’s not within our mandate. That’s not what we’re going to do.” How have you maintained that discipline at Coast?
We evaluate opportunities that come forward and there are several things we’re looking at. The first thing, is it consistent with our mission? Is it consistent with our current strategy? For example, until 2003, we were only in Vancouver as an agency. Around 2003, we said this is limiting and there’s need out beyond the walls of Boundary Road and the rest of the city of Vancouver. We strategically looked at opportunities that would be large enough to be viable more remotely, also work within our core skills and strengths. Probably 40% of everything we’ve done since 2003 has been outside the city of Vancouver. That’s where those parts are strategic but still fulfilling our mission and purpose. Creating a more critical mass of our own skill and abilities. We’ve also developed systems to support the 45 sites. We certainly have a remote Skype meetings all over the place, we’ve developed our internet, other things that can connect our staff and support sites that are a bit more remote.
Are there times, looking back over the last number of years, where you’ve said no to funders?
We’re selective at what we do and we look at resources. For example, we’ve looked at opportunities outside the lower mainland. We haven’t found anything that we think we can do and add value in a cost-effective way just because of the cost of supporting that. There are opportunities on the island, and in different parts of the province, that we said no to because we didn’t think it was going to be financially viable, which is another part of the equation when we’re looking at something new. Can we do it in a way that we don’t have to make profits, but we don’t want to be bleeding?
What are the conversations at the board level when there are opportunities like that, say to go to Vancouver Island and it doesn’t make sense? Is the board supportive of those discussions? Are they involved in those decisions?
I would say one of the concerns of the board is the speed of our growth. They’re also looking at, “Are we stretching too far?” We don’t want to grow to the point that we lose quality. We want to make sure if we grow, we actually add to our infrastructure, to be effective but also we maintain a level of quality that we anticipate. That will be one of the big things that the board is looking at. Is this growth too fast? They do evaluate it and some opportunities are turned down because it may be a good opportunity, but it’s not the right time.
How have you kept the board engaged enough in the operations of the organization to be able to effectively contribute to those discussions and decisions?
There are a couple of things. I don’t know if it’s unique to Coast, but we have had a policy ever since I’ve been here and it’s probably clearer now than it was in 1987. Roughly a third of our board are people with lived experience of mental illness either as clients in the agency, which used to be clinical clients, people with mental illness or family members. That keeps us grounded in our discussions in terms of the needs, the issues and the currency of the issues facing the organization. That voice is very strong at our board table and it’s a compelling issue. People who start engaging and visiting sites, meeting clients, seeing people who are moving forward in recovery, in my opinion is very exciting.Some opportunities may be good, but it's not the right time. Click To Tweet
When I’m having a bad day, I go to one of our service sites and hang out with the clients for a day and I feel better. You can see people are starting to respond and their lives are getting better. They’re getting their needs met. It’s very inspiring and so the board does that as well. We’ve set term limits on our boards to actually facilitate turnover because some people would stay longer because of the engagement factor. We transition board directors into different types of volunteers but we try to have a healthy turnover on the board to make sure it’s fresh.
My next question was going to be about how do you maintain longevity. We have danced around the fact that your tenure is in its 33rd year. How do you keep your passion, your energy up for leading an organization that is doing this important work over such an extended period of time?
It’s a good question. In the years before I came to Coast and got my MBA, I did have an interest in management and in strategy. Since we’ve been, I have used all parts of my brain. We do a lot of strategic planning and we’ve generally had three or four-year rolling plans certainly for the last years which have been very clear. We have a list of goals that we’re working on constantly. That focuses our energy. In 2018, we opened five different facilities. We’re actually doing things. You can see the impact of the work you do. We have a wonderful team of staff, volunteers, directors and even our partners, we’re working with some very exciting projects. The work itself is technically challenging. It’s emotionally invested. You have no trouble getting yourself up to be motivated for the day and feeling needed.
One of the challenges I know a lot of people in the social profit sector, particularly in organizations that service delivery like Coast, one of the things people struggle with can be issues related to burnout. How have you managed to avoid that yourself and what advice would you give to others?
Balance in life is important, family and exercise. I realized when I’m not doing well, I look at my lifestyle and I’m not getting outside enough, I’m not taking care of my body and your mind follows. I do think that balance is important. In my career, I have worked fairly long hours but I’ve tried to keep the weekends to myself. I try not to go in Saturday or Sundays if I can. I do it rarely but it’s been one of my mantras even when my kids were young and the family was young that we might do fourteen hours here and there. If I can get a couple of days to refresh, that helps me get through the week and get ready for the next week. Each person’s going to be different but you need to be in touch with your feelings. It’s something that we would do with our clients in terms of how they manage their life, stress and issues of the day. Realize that you can stand up, walk around and even engage with different people. It’s very practical things, I’ve been doing that and some of the years I’m better at it than others. This year I’m better than I was last year.
That’s all any of us can ask as it relates to anything. Over your time, how has the board changed and the conversations you’re having around that board table?
Growth changes the difference. When I started in 1987, we’re relatively a large organization but compared to where we are, less than a tenth of the size. The board was more hands-on on different areas of the operations. It was a blended board from a Carver model which is pure policy to an operational board, where people are picking up the tools to help out in different projects. We had a real engaged board at that level. We’re way more on the pendulum too, more of the Carver style, although I think I liked the idea of directors getting their hands dirty, getting close to the work we do and being close enough to judge the value of the work. It also helps us as we move forward and also provide technical advice we need.
We have certainly a board matrix and at times we’re doing a lot of development. It’s good to have lawyers and people from the development field or business people on it, but we also need people from the mental health field who can provide that value as well as experience. The blend on the board has always been there even when I started. That’s actually been a real critical successful factor from having people with lived experience to having high technical skills. What we’ve done from time to time depending on our strategy, we may have skewed the board a little bit to people with specific technical skills for what we think the next five years will need.
How have you maintained that balance between the operational board that knows the inner workings of the organization and that Carver model more focused on the policy?
Sometimes we cross lines here and there, we are not always fully balanced but we have done a lot of governance reviews. Every once in a while, we’ll bring in a consultant or even do it ourselves to have a governance review to look at how we can fulfill our work. When I started, we had one legal entity, now we have three, including the society which employees me or the foundation which raises the money that I like to spend. The social enterprise, which is actually fostering the development of businesses that support our clients. That in itself, the boundaries between those three organizations, we’ve spent quite a bit of time in the last four or five years making sure it’s clear, who does what, how and make sure we’re on the same page and not getting in the way of each other. That work’s been done. I think it’s just being aware of it and moving forward. I’m not a fan of the Carver model for charitable nonprofits. It may be good for many others but again, if we’re a charity, we need all hands on deck at times.
It can be so difficult when the Carver model asks board members to be there with their governance hat on, then to take that off and become a volunteer as a volunteer fundraiser for the organization often in the same conversation. That’s difficult for most organizations and most individuals to manage. If we’re asking board members to do something we think is very difficult and hard, they’re less likely to do it with 100% of their energy. It does get in the way of their commitment to the mission that they’re there to serve and the organizations there to serve. You mentioned fundraising there. Let’s talk a little bit about that. Those who know Coast Mental Health may know what first and foremost through the Courage To Come Back Awards which finished its 21st year. Tell us a little bit more about how that project got started and what it meant to the organization as it’s grown.
My first job as an Executive Director goes back to the ‘70s. The number one job item on your job description, they don’t say it but it’s implicit, is to find money to help us do the work you do. Find the money. Normally, would go through grants or other sources but you’re also looking for ways to raise money through philanthropy. It took me over ten years at Coast to find one of the best ways, which was the Courage To Come Back Awards. That meant we did a lot of failed attempts at events. The Courage Awards is an odd event because most events take a ton of energy and they don’t make a lot of money. They may publicize, they do but they really don’t. If you look at the energy, everything and the cost of the event itself, they often have a fairly short life, maybe a four or a five-year life where it arcs and then clearly had its time. With the Courage To Come Back Awards, we were in the mid-‘90s and going through the financial crisis of the day. This time it was federal government restraint and they were pulling money from social services across Canada including Coast. We’re looking at ways that we could find or replace the funding.Take the time to understand the full context of the work. Meet your staff and the people you're serving. Click To Tweet
We did a big brainstorming and had about 50 different ideas on a wall. Our consultant of the day said, “There’s an event called The Courage To Come Back Awards. You should look at it because it honors people with mental illness, other types of adversity and celebrates their achievements, which is very consistent with your mission. It seems to be doing well in Toronto.” We went and looked at the 50 items and we looked at the Courage event and found out that there was one happening in Toronto in the fall of ‘96. About four or five of us including three directors, three board members flew to Toronto to take it in and just say, “What’s this going to be like?” We’re blown away. It was run at that time by the Clark Institute for Mental Health and had 1,000 people. It was spectacular. The impact, the celebration and obviously it was an effective fundraiser for the Clarke Institute at the time. At that time, we talked to the people who actually had started it in Pittsburgh and went back to Vancouver and said, “Do you think we can bother to try to do this?”
We quickly made that decision and started an arrangement. It took three years essentially from the fall of 1996 to April of 1999 to get our first event off and it did raise a lot of money. It was a lovely event. It pursued our mission, but it was something we could build on. It’s just been building and snowballing. The twentieth year was our largest ever with 1,800 people and we’re worried that we’ll have a fallback. It was the twentieth anniversary, we’re in 21st. We had 1,700 people and raised a large amount of money. It continues to be an inspiring event. It’s telling the right types of stories to the public. It exposes us as a quality organization but also our purpose and mission.
Frankly, one of the best things Courage has done is that we have always outsourced the decision making of who is going to be the recipient. Every year, we have at least 80 volunteers from all sectors including leaders of the industry and others involved in the selection process. In the process of making the selection, they learn a lot about these social issues, some very complex issues with addiction, residential schools or neglect, mental illness, all the elements. It’s actually been a great opportunity for people to learn and understand from a compassion base what it takes to move forward in life once you have faced these types of adversity. It worked well with our mission.
I was going to say, one of the most impressive things about the event itself is how closely connected it is to the mission of your organization. That contributes a lot to its longevity and the fact that people are willing to support it year after year.
It didn’t start that way and I would say people were saying, “This is a neat event but who is Coast? Why are they doing this?” Even our staff said, how does this relate to what we do? That was in the first couple of years. They didn’t know. They do see it as a celebration. It’s more of a celebration of mental health, mental health services and the needs but also recovery, which I think is the most powerful part of that as well.
One of the things I’m noticing when I’m asking questions about longevity or why fundraising works or how you keep the conversation with the board going, your first reaction is to always come back to the mission of your organization. Is that a discipline that you’ve learned or is that a commitment that you keep? Tell us about how you keep that front of mind.
I don’t know how I keep it front of mind. It is in front of mind. It is the most important thing you do and it’s probably a principle within myself that I do see organizations drift away from their mission. They end up being a completely different organization. They may even be very fine, but then they lost their mission and purpose. Maybe it comes from my years. I was the Executive Director of an organization. It was a multi-service agency in the suburb of Vancouver. It had 30 different programs and there was an infinite scope of its mission, to essentially provide and respond to social needs in this geographic area. It was so diverse that it couldn’t go deep into the work and any avenue of their interest.
When I came to the Coast, it’s about mental health recovery. It’s about setting the foundation for recovery for people with housing or jobs, with community supports. It was simple but focused. I love that because then you can deep dive into that and actually work that. That’s been part of the reason why I think it’s very clear for us to keep mission focus week. We tweak the words from time to time as you did when you didn’t have retreats every four or five years. It’s essentially the mission, it’s the same as when I started. When I started in the organization, it had gone through some political crises, other crisis, leadership crises but it had good bones in terms of it had a strong sense of purpose and mission. It had some elements of service that were really important for the community. You can just build on that strength and move forward.
That’s great advice to anybody who is a CEO or somebody that wants to become a CEO. Speaking of advice, what advice would you have for someone who is either about to start the CEO position or was in their first couple of years?
Take the opportunity to enact the environment, to get down and dirty with staff, to go meet with partners, get out of the organization. Meet with people you would be related with. Take the time to understand the full context of the work. Meet your staff, meet the people you’re serving, meet family members. In our case, we’ve had all these key stakeholders. Build that network up and also that sense of the context you’re operating within. From that, look at where is the niche, where’s your core competency that will allow you to move forward in that context. Until you understand the environment you’re working in, you can’t make a really good focus decision on how you want to move forward.
There’s a lot that you’ve given us in terms of thinking about how to approach leadership in the social profit sector and to learn from how you’ve done the great work there at Coast. There are three that I want to highlight for our audience. One is your advice to engage the board in the operations to build their commitment to the mission. If they know what happens on a day-to-day basis, they are more committed. You also mentioned that it required strict enforcement of term limits because people didn’t want to leave the board, which I guess is a good problem to have.
The second was keeping the sense of purpose and mission in front of mind that allows you to go deep into the work you’re trying to do. What you mentioned a couple of times, that scope creep has led a number of organizations astray and I can think of a list of them in my own mind. Over your tenure at Coast, you have managed to keep that intense focus on your mission, which is an impressive example. The final thing that you offered was to maintain our own like longevity as leaders in the sector. Sometimes it makes sense just to get up and take a walk. Thank you so much for being on the Discovery Pod, Darrell. I look forward to future conversations.
Thank you, Doug.
About Coast Mental Health
A Vancouver based non-profit, we know that people living with mental challenges can thrive in our communities if they are given the right resources: housing, support services, and employment and education opportunities. Our approach is client-focused and community-based.
The people we serve – our clients – take the lead in their recovery, working side-by-side with Coast’s team to set goals and decide which services and programs will best help them meet these goals. They also play a key role in the overall success of the organization, whether as peer support workers, members and volunteers at our Clubhouse or Resource Centre, or part of our governance board or Planning & Partnership committee.