Longtime executive director Ned Robinson-Lynch has abruptly resigned from Martha's Vineyard Community Services in the midst of a searching reappraisal by the agency of its operations and organization. Change now looms large at Community Services, one of the oldest and broadest human services organizations on the Vineyard.
Mr. Robinson-Lynch, credited by many with rescuing the agency from the threat of bankruptcy 16 years ago, notified Community Services president Fain Hackney of his decision early last week. He formally announced his decision to the board of directors at a special board meeting last Thursday night.
In the fiscal year ending June 2003, the most recent year for which the agency's public tax document filing is available, Community Services paid Mr. Robinson-Lynch $103,144.
This week the board named Rick DeTucci, who has been heading the Island Counseling Center, as interim director. Mr. Robinson-Lynch will stay on as a consultant for the next two months to help in the transition and will be paid at his regular salary. The board plans to launch a national search for a successor.
Mr. Robinson-Lynch said this week that he plans to join his wife in a private Vineyard-based consulting firm. After 16 years at Community Services, and with his children graduating from high school and college, he said the time for change is right. "It's really a good time for me," he said.
Mr. Hackney said the board is convinced that Community Services - faced with rising financial losses, organizational questions and weakening public support - needs to revise its operations.
While he said Mr. Robinson-Lynch and other managers bear some responsibility, Mr. Hackney also said the board must carry a good measure of blame for the current problems.
"There's plenty of blame to go around. The board is not as engaged as it should have been. We weren't setting the policy and agenda as we should have been," Mr. Hackney told the Gazette this week.
"The agency is not in trouble, but it needs to change significantly," he said. Mr. Hackney said Community Services can no longer count on its large endowment as a safety net for its losses, and he said the agency also needs to better explore economies of scale for its five social services programs.
Vice president Susan Wasserman said the board also needs to reverse what she called damage to social capital caused by community perceptions that the agency was not willing to collaborate with other groups.
In its most recent fiscal year, Community Services reported an operating loss of $1.1 million on an operating budget of about $5 million. The loss was offset by $946,000 in gifts, including $578,000 from the signature Possible Dreams auction, held every August.
Founded 44 years ago and widely known as the Island's blue-collar social services agency, Community Services operates five programs: Early Childhood Education, Island Counseling Center, Island Community Resources, Visiting Nurse Service and Women's Support Services. Housed in a complex across from the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, Community Services has 110 employees.
Mr. Robinson-Lynch notified Mr. Hackney of his intended resignation on Feb. 1, one morning after the board met with two representatives from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. The board contracted with the Heller School last year for a comprehensive management study. In an interim report issued Jan. 31, the Heller School declared that Community Services must change the status quo, calling the old umbrella social services agency "both intact and endangered."
Mr. Hackney described the Thursday night board meeting as emotional.
"It was tough. The board was sad to see him go," he said.
Mr. Hackney and Ms. Wasserman said the board did not ask Mr. Robinson-Lynch to resign, nor did it ask him to stay on.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Mr. Robinson-Lynch downplayed the role that the Heller study played in his decision to leave. "Things are doing very well at the agency [and there is] calm and relative peace," he said.
But he acknowledged that the organization now wants to reinvent itself. "You want somebody to come in and implement those changes. I'm ready to move on," he said.
Mr. Robinson-Lynch said problems at Community Services in recent years can be tracked to a number of factors, including falling government reimbursements for services and slowing growth in private charitable giving.
"There has not been enough money to do all the things you need to do, want to do, should do," he said.
Also, he said, costs have risen on the Island over the past 10 years, and people earning human-service salaries have found it increasingly difficult to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. The agency also has been obligated to meet the cost of unfunded care that it provides to the community, he said.
Mr. Hackney and Ms. Wasserman said they were pleased with the appointment of Mr. DeTucci as an interim executive director. "We want to move forward," Ms. Wasserman said. "This is not a place-hold. We want to keep going as we move through a national search process."
Mr. Hackney said the Heller School did not recommend that Mr. Robinson-Lynch resign.
"The Heller School didn't come in and say, ‘Get rid of him,' " he said.
But he admitted that the Heller School study was prompted by an increasing awareness of problems inside the agency, including low morale, high employee turnover in the counseling center and the divisive conflict two years ago when counseling center employees and visiting nurses formed a labor union.
Ms. Wasserman said it all added up to "a body blow."
Mr. Hackney agreed.
"[Union contract negotiations] were a tough time for the agency. Over time, not enough business was being done at the agency. I think the negotiations were too adversarial, too protracted. We had a very generous attorney who gave his time, but he was a tough negotiator. There were hard feelings on both sides," he said.
Some who are close to Community Services say that a culture of secrecy and poor communication had pervaded the organization under the leadership of Mr. Robinson-Lynch, but Mr. Hackney disputed the notion.
"We don't agree with that," he said.
Mr. Hackney and Ms. Wasserman said the board plans to make a written report to the community when the Heller study is completed this spring.