Following the Founder is Not Always Easy

August 3, 2018; Austin Chronicle

When she took over the office of executive director/president of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) in 2016, Mimi Marziani was replacing the founder of the organization, Jim Harrington, who had served for more than 25 years. The Austin Chronicle reports that the leadership of the Austin-based TCRP has decided to shut down the organization’s satellite office in El Paso, which Harrington established in 2005. While the decision was financially driven, it was also meant to be part of a new strategy for TCRP. However, it’s left many people unhappy—including Harrington. Is this new direction a break from the organization’s founding principles, or an evolution legitimately based on new ideas and changing circumstances?

TCRP’s organizational mission is, “We are Texas lawyers for Texas communities, boldly serving the movement for equality and justice in and out of the courts.” Part of that work right now is in reuniting families split up by immigration officials as they tried to cross the border into the United States. (Here’s one story, from the Arizona Republic, in which TCRP helps reunite a father with his daughter using DNA testing.) Another area of focus is voting rights; as described in the Houston Chronicle, TCRP released a study demonstrating that the vast majority of Texas high schools are not complying with the state law requiring them to supply voter registration forms to students.

Harrington and Marziani’s debate over TCRP’s future has been covered in NPQ before. Indeed, it would seem the two leaders could not be more different in style. In the article from last September, Larry Kaplan addresses the reasons given for TCRP’s loss of a major grant from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. As Kaplan points out, this was a cautionary tale of relying too heavily on a single donor, especially when that donor is part of the very system you are trying to disrupt. Harrington said they lost the funds because of movement away from grassroots involvement. Marziani said it was because they were pushing back against people in power in Texas, including the Republican-controlled state supreme court, which nominates all the board directors for the foundation.

The Austin Chronicle points out that Harrington’s commitment to grassroots activism is matched by a doggedness that’s made him known as “a pain in the ass.” TCRP was founded after Harrington split from the local Texas Civil Liberties Union, where he had been serving as legal director. The split wasn’t amicable; among other things, Harrington wanted to fight on the ground for civil rights, not for overarching civil liberties.

As Harrington stepped aside at TCRP, community leaders recruited Marziani to take his place. Her background is quite different; she received her law degree from NYU, where she served as counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. (Currently, she serves on NYU’s Board of Trustees.) More recently, she was the legal director for Battleground Texas and has been a professor at the Texas School of Law since 2015.

As she took the reins of TCRP, Marziani engaged the organization in what they described as an inclusive, thorough, and transparent strategic planning process. It is apparently the organization’s first-ever strategic plan and offers direction through 2020. There is an acknowledged change in direction included in the plan, which can be found here. The change is in the idea of using the law to fight against injustice and demanding accountability from those in power, not just representing persons and groups in the courts. The focus has shifted to statewide litigation from on-the-ground legal aid.

The strategic plan also focuses heavily on TCRP’s infrastructure, promoting a more traditional nonprofit approach to a theory of change and measurement of impact. That seems like an organizational shift from the “growth” lifecycle stage to one of “maturity.”

Financial concerns drove the closing of the El Paso office; the loss of a major donor and the seeming inability to adequately staff the local office are significant. However, it also reflects the philosophical shift to emphasize statewide litigation. With a new leader come new ways of thinking, and in such cases, there is often a backlash from those who had been loyal to the founder and his or her ideas. Is that reaction simply “founderism” or “founder’s syndrome,” or is it a legitimate reaction to the loss of a needed community resource? Maybe it is a little of both. One thing Marziani and Harrington have in common, though, is the drive to break with the past and do it their own way.

This, by the way, is not always a good thing if it creates an organization that swings between one extreme and another. The board should be there to moderate those swings so that this kind of founder versus successor dynamic does not become framed as a personal fight based on style and force of will. —Rob Meiksins