October 30, 2019; Austin Statesman
In July, NPQ covered the resignation of the first-ever executive director of the brand-new Austin Sobering Center:
Sometimes you have to wonder at the personality types that voluntarily take on some of the peachy positions we offer in this sector. Let’s stipulate that many of our organizations work on so-called “wicked problems”—like alcoholism, for instance, which some consider a disease and others consider a moral failing—and must negotiate among many stakeholders as a matter of course, probably holding both points of view. (And funders are a whole second job altogether.) Anyway…Rhonda Patrick is leaving her position as executive director of the Austin Sobering Center after 16 months on the job and only 11 months following its full opening to the public as a 24/7 facility.
We went on to discuss the impossible demands of the job, including the building’s construction from the repurposed shell of a former morgue. The executive was treated to some of the joys of nonprofit life, including late payments on major contracts and a public lecture by a funding body a few months in about how it wasn’t moving fast enough toward self-sufficiency. That body has a representative on the board.
Anyway, the first director’s replacement (albeit interim) has stepped down after only four months in the job. Robin Peyson cites “organizational growth challenges”—those apparently being the board’s micromanaging ways.
The board is a collection of representatives from interested partner institutions, so if all went as could be predicted, that must have been a kind of daily terror. Board member Kathie Tovo, for instance, is a member of the city council which is a funder (to the tune of $1.8 million a year) of the facility, as is the county which provides the building. She is now on the search committee—ready to go another round with some poor unsuspecting individual.
“The job was huge,” says board member and Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez. “Not having any previous work with the committee or institutional knowledge, it’s tough to just walk in and then try to immediately take over.”
The fact that we can imagine all the dynamics so clearly from the excellent local reporting of the organization’s short history may mean we have been around this sector way too long. We have seen these patterns play out for years, albeit not often with such rapidity so soon after opening.
So now we must put on an organization development, hat though admittedly from afar.
This organization has a founding board—that is, it was created by a group of interested parties, at least some of whom now have representatives on the board. The micromanaging tendencies would flow from that. Trying to do reasonable business as the executive with the funding groups from which board members come can set up a parent-child relationship with ambiguous rules unless self-discipline and mutual respect could be enforced, which does not seem to be likely with this mix.
Still, it’s also true that a recent external evaluation found that the center was “clearly fulfilling its mission statement by providing safe sobering and connection to treatment and recovery resources for publicly intoxicated individuals in Austin and Travis County.” Public intoxication arrests have declined since the center opened, and it is serving, as hoped, as a bridge to treatment.
“The Sobering Center,” the evaluation concluded, “has already made a substantial impact on the Austin-Travis County community.”
Perhaps it is well past time for the organization to adopt more independent governance. Time for interested people who are neither founders nor funders to take over as the organization’s directors, before repeating a cycle that adds so much undue stress to an already stress-filled executive role and makes it impossible to fulfill.—Ruth McCambridge