Arizona’s largest domestic-violence shelter fired three top executives this week amid declining revenues, a reduction in government grants and the closure of a residence center.
Sojourner Center’s chief executive officer, chief operating officer and chief advancement officer were “relieved of their duties” without explanation Monday as part of what officials called a “management team transition.”
The non-profit’s board of directors also hinted at additional staff cuts in a statement that referenced “a minor restructuring … to more efficiently serve the individuals in our care while providing some cost savings to the organization.”
Sojourner Center officials described the firings as a personnel matter and declined to comment about what prompted the action.
But even as officials promised there would be no immediate changes to programs, services and day-to-day operations, they confirmed Wednesday the non-profit is facing financial difficulties.
“Sojourner Center has experienced a reduction in government funding of several hundreds of thousands of dollars each year over the past few years,” Sojourner spokesman Tom Evans said in an e-mail. “Clearly this trend is something that can’t be sustained indefinitely, and we will review how to best rein in costs over the course of the coming weeks and months to ensure a fiscally responsible approach moving forward.”
Financial records and interviews indicate the center, which opened in 1977 and has helped thousands of women escape abusive relationships, lost $5.9 million in four years without any significant cuts in expenses. Center officials also lost at least $280,000 in federal grants and dropped out of a state domestic-violence coalition last year.
That followed the closure of Sojourner’s Hope Campus in Phoenix, a 100-bed residence shelter housed in a building leased from the city. Sojourner, which planned on rehabilitating the facility, temporarily closed it in 2015 and vacated it in May.
Phoenix officials confirmed Wednesday that Sojourner still owes the city $69,690 in grants it provided for the rehab.
The Arizona Republic, through its Season for Sharing campaign, has donated $20,000 to the organization for each of the past three years.
Sojourner Chief Executive Officer Maria Garay could not be reached for comment this week about her firing. Chief Operating Officer Robert Knechtel and Chief Advancement Officer Teri Hauser also did not return calls seeking comment.
Ousted CEO aimed to extend center’s reach
Garay, who was hired in 2013, was a major proponent of expanding the center’s mission into domestic-violence research as well as prevention. She implemented a five-year plan to extend the center’s influence throughout Arizona.
Among her key projects was a study of traumatic brain injuries. In 2015, the center received a $1 million private grant for the Sojourner BRAIN Program, which sought to create ways to diagnose and treat domestic-violence victims affected by traumatic brain injuries.
It is unclear how many, if any, people have been served through the BRAIN Program. According to the Sojourner website, Knechtel was to direct a pilot study beginning in 2015 and begin screening all participants during their intake process.
Garay helped Sojourner Center establish partnerships with several universities and the Mayo Clinic. The center also began providing services for survivors of human trafficking, launched a Pet Companion Shelter to house pets owned by shelter residents and opened its Child Development Center.
“As one of the largest domestic violence shelters in the United States, we felt it is our responsibility to become a voice for domestic violence outside of Phoenix, regionally and nationally,” Evans said in his statement. “We spent time, energy and resources in that effort to share our knowledge, including a first-ever domestic violence symposium, national speaking engagements, (and) a blog on the Huffington Post.”
Evans acknowledged some of those initiatives “resulted in increased operating costs for the organization and contributed to operating losses” since at least 2011.
“Even with the loss in fundraising, we took a stance that we did not want to close beds or have material workforce reductions if possible,” Evans said. “We wanted to continue to serve as many and employ as many as we could. So, we delayed closing beds and effecting major staff reductions as long as possible.”
Spending took millions from reserve funds
IRS Form 990s, tax returns filed by most non-profits, show that Sojourner has steadily lost money since 2011, racking up millions more in expenses than revenue.
That includes losses of $1.7 million in 2011, $306,000 in 2012, $2 million in 2013 and $1.8 million in 2014. Like income taxes, returns for non-profits are filed for the past year. Its 2016 filings, which would cover 2015, are not yet publicly available.
But Sojourner’s 2014 tax return provides a snapshot of the agency’s struggles. It took in about $4.8 million that year, of which $2.6 million came from government grants. It received another $1.9 million in contributions and donations and $1.1 million in non-cash contributions.
It recorded $6.6 million in expenses, including $3.4 million for salaries and $1.1 million for “in-kind expenses,” $436,538 for “occupancy,” $419,000 for “depreciation,” $401,000 for “food and supplies,” and $103,000 for “communication and network.”
Tax records show expenses averaged about $6.9 million annually from 2011 to 2014. Expenses dropped dramatically in 2012 to $6.2 million from $7.9 million in 2011. But they were up to 6.8 million in 2013.
The non-profit’s biggest expense by far is salaries, which barely fluctuated during the same four years, averaging $3.6 million.
The expenses have cut deep into the non-profit’s reserves, which totaled $15.8 million in 2011 and $11.8 million in 2014.
‘I’m worried. I’m not going to lie’
Sojourner Center is overseen by a volunteer board of directors made up of finance, real-estate, health-care, business and university executives. In a statement on the non-profit’s website, the board promised to “conduct a thorough review of the organization’s programs and initiatives to ensure they are sustainable and consistent with the organization’s core mission.”
The center operates a 32-unit transitional apartment complex for women and children fleeing domestic-violence situations.
It provides child-care services, including early-childhood education, after-school programs, and pediatric and dental care for infants and children.
The board named health-care consultant Carrie Borgen as the agency’s interim executive director this week.
Borgen is the owner of Executive Healthcare Consultant and was regional vice president and general manager of Express Scripts from 2011 to 2004, according to her LinkedIn page. She was unavailable for comment.
Some of Arizona’s leading advocates in the fight against domestic violence say there have been signs for months that Sojourner was having financial or management problems.
“I’m worried. I’m not going to lie,” said Allie Bones, president of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. “We’ve had issues.”
Bones said Sojourner officials last year dropped out of the coalition, which serves as a lobbying and support organization for domestic-violence shelters and programs. She said Sojourner officials appeared to go silent after the closure of the Hope Campus and the loss of federal grants last year.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of communications from (Sojourner),” Bones said.
Sojourner’s former executive director, Connie Phillips, who left in 2013, said she is not surprised by some of the financial issues facing the non-profit.
She said changes in the way government grants are awarded have hit several non-profits hard. That includes last year’s decision by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to defund Sojourner and six other Valley transitional-housing agencies.
Phillips said Sojourner has helped more than 50,000 women and children escape domestic violence and start new lives and called it a wonderful organization.
“I sure hope they get back on their feet,” she said. “I wish them the best.”
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