By James Preston Allen, Publsher and Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
I interviewed Camilla Townsend a few weeks ago about vision, consensus building and leadership—particularly in light of her work with the Port of Los Angeles High School and the on-dock marine research center, AltaSea.
In my most recent editorial, I wrote about the high turnover of executive directors in the local nonprofit sector, including Angels Gate Cultural Center’s former executive director, Debra Lewis; former San Pedro Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, Betsy Cheek and Port of Los Angeles Executive Director, Geraldine Knatz; and most recently Marymount California University President Michael Brophy.
What each of these organizations has in common is that they are structured as corporate nonprofit organizations. The decision making of the individuals that make up the boards of these nonprofits is, at various times, less than transparent.
Camilla Townsend, on the other hand, strikes me as an example of engaged leadership.
In the past 12 months, Townsend was drafted twice to navigate nonprofits in some state of crisis. The first was POLAHS after the homegrown charter school was rocked by teachers organizing for labor representation this past fall, and student demonstrations staged amid financial impropriety allegations against Executive Director Jim Cross.
The second was when Townsend was tapped to become the chairwoman of the board of directors of AltaSea after Rachel Etherington, the chief executive officer, unexpectedly stepped down on April 28—to the surprise of almost everyone.
That Townsend was tapped to act as a first responder for a nonprofit in crisis—a fixer, of sorts—is what made me want to interview her about vision and leadership.
I said as much to her when we met over a late breakfast recently at Think Café.
“I like the word, ‘Once again, brought in to save the day.’ I think that should be my subtitle,” Townsend said jokingly, adding, “I don’t ever save the day by myself. It’s always a great team of people.”
Still, there has to be leadership. POLAHS Executive Director Jim Cross was forced to resign, and many parents during and after the turmoil were asking—justifiably or not—for the head of Jayme Wilson, the president of the POLAHS Board of Trustees.
In the case of AltaSea, Etherington’s name was drawn from a high-profile search that looked across the pond to the United Kingdom.
“There has to be leadership,” Townsend said. “What’s similar about the two projects is that even though one is relatively new and the other one is now 10 years old, they were both, in business terms, startup projects.
“As you know, I’m an educator, and even though I had the opportunity to do a lot of innovative things in education, it’s a little different kind of animal in the business world. And, even the charter high school—even though it’s education—it’s truly a business venture.”
Startup vs. Governance
Townsend’s career spans nearly 50 years. Her résumé and accolades are long—too long to be listed here. For the past 27 years she has served as the executive director of the charitable education-focused Max H. Gluck Foundation, which gives millions of dollars every year toward education and arts outreach initiatives from kindergarten through 12th grade and at the university level.
“Even though POLAHS is an educational institution, it’s different [from AltaSea] in that it’s an independent setup, and it has to be looked at like a startup business or a startup organization,” Townsend explained.
Townsend noted that the ways in which the two organizations are similar as business ventures is that both experience a maturation process that requires them to operate differently as they grow.
“When you have a startup organization, you operate one way to get it off the ground… and then it kind of comes to a point where it moves from a startup organization to a sustaining organization,” Townsend explained. “Sometimes, that transition is critical in an organization, because if it doesn’t happen, you’re setting yourself up for another kind of failure. It’s just like growing up. It’s just life.”
Townsend said POLAHS outgrew its startup phase two or three years ago.
“What was relevant and very much needed in the first…eight years or seven years…the project was not in the same kind of need in terms of building a building…getting permits, etc,” she explained. “It was time now to say, ‘Hey, it’s here now. This is good. We really need to look at enhancing the basic education program and moving forward now to make sure we’re in sync with the educational needs of students.’ So, in that sense, that’s changing—that transition happens.”
Regardless of whether a business venture is in the startup phase or the growth phase, transparency is rarely a strong suit for an organization structured as a nonprofit. Townsend noted that this structuring of the POLAHS and AltaSea was intentional.
“AltaSea has no choice because they are not a public entity. They are a private nonprofit corporation—whereas POLAHS is a public entity because it uses public funds.”
Townsend said the lack of transparency in POLAHS’ case had posed a particular problem, forcing the 10-year-old institution to incorporate a recordkeeping system that complies with California’s open-access “sunshine laws.”
Despite being a private entity, Townsend admitted that AltaSea’s pursuit of public dollars from the port and other sources inspires calls for transparency.
“How that will manifest itself…and how that happens, remains to be seen,” she said. “But AltaSea—even though they’re not a public non-profit right now—are doing everything they can to be transparent in spite of that fact that they don’t have to have Brown Act-ed meetings.”
In lieu of open board meetings, Townsend noted that the AltaSea Communications Director Pat Means is making a number of moves to further community involvement and community engagement initiatives for AltaSea.
Learning, Growing and Gaining Experience
Though Townsend has been repeatedly called to fix critical issues at various civic organizations in town, she denies being some sort of guru. She says she’s just been learning as she goes along.
“This is a huge learning experience for me,” she said.” I don’t claim to be coming in here with these two projects with any superior knowledge about anything. My life has always been, ‘Keep trying new things. And, if need be, come in to try to fix things that are good, but are having a struggle.’
“If you were to ask me 10 years ago, ‘What would you be doing,’ I would have said you’re out of your mind. But in the last 10 years, things have evolved—ever since I retired from education.”
Townsend officially retired from education in 2002, after serving as the principal of Harbor Adult School for 11 years. In 1999, Townsend was appointed to the Los Angeles Commission for Children, Youth and Families by Mayor Richard Riordan. In 2001, she was appointed to the Board of Harbor Commissioners by Mayor James Hahn. From 2006 to 2011, Townsend served as president of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce.
“I love it because I really am excited when people want to try new things and do new things that are better for the community,” she said. “I love this community, obviously, and I love Los Angeles—I’m an L.A. girl… I am drawn to these kinds of things rather than things that are just continuing to run and do whatever they do. I’m drawn to the outside-the-box type of things—the visionary thinking.”
I pointed out that she was also present and involved in the very beginnings of POLAHS and AltaSea, during the design phase of these nonprofit organizations.
“Helping to design the project… is the part I love the most,” she said. “When you pull all these people together, who buy into a vision, [who] love the vision, [who] have a passion for it and they all bring different expertise to the project, [this] is really exciting.”
Townsend credits her background in theater for this view of organization building—not from the perspective of an actor, but that of a director.
“I was a director; I was not an actress; I was not anything else,” she said. “To me, bringing all this talent together to create a work of art in the theater was what I loved the most. And this is no different. Even being principal of the school is really no different than that.”
I wondered aloud if having the same cast members playing roles on multiple boards could make for a stale and restrictive environment for these nonprofit organizations.
“I don’t think of the board so much as I think of the people who are basically running and making the organization or making the project work,” she said.
“Boards are a good thing. Part of POLAHS’ challenge was—over the years—that the board had to learn a lot and move forward, and a lot of it had to do with who was on the board. It has to do with how the board operates and how well the staff understands that the board is their boss.”
Townsend draws a distinction between management and members of a board of trustees or directors. When she is talking about staff, she’s talking about management staff.
She noted that in the case of POLAHS, the original leadership that was a part of the charter school’s startup wound up being the same people who ended up on the board—the same people who are on a lot of boards in San Pedro.
“We have learned a lesson this year at POLAHS,” Townsend said, “A big, huge lesson about board oversight and a board really taking responsibility seriously.”
Townsend’s takeaway from POLAHS’ recent troubles is that organizations have to be able to adapt.
“Remember, I am not an expert on this business of boards and governance,” she said. “I’ve experienced a lot of it. But part of the deal here with POLAHS was that it came to a point where it was time to revisit the management structure of the school for good reasons—nothing bad—all good.
“That was sort of difficult because the board didn’t quite see why that had to happen, nor did the top management staff,” she said.
The Down and Dirty
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get Townsend to assign blame for the school’s inability to adapt fast enough.
To recap, Executive Director Jim Cross, was placed on paid leave for the second and final time in February following a closed meeting amid renewed allegations of financial impropriety.
Conflict between Cross and Principal Tom Scotti (who is a relative of District 15 Councilman Joe Buscaino), lack of financial transparency, teacher input on school site spending, and the appearance of cronyism were the dominant issues. An audit of the school’s finances was conducted and ultimately cleared Cross of wrongdoing, though the actual audit report was not released.
During his tenure, Cross reportedly used personal funds for school expenditures, even as he used school funds for personal expenditures. Following the audit, he was called to reimburse the school the paltry amount of misspent funds and the school was to reimburse him for purchases made on behalf of the school from his personal funds.
Townsend noted that the people involved in the school’s startup got involved because they loved the school.
“The board did not provide proper oversight of the management staff,” Townsend said. “They didn’t take that role as seriously as they should have. Not that they didn’t care or anything. Nobody pointed out to them that your job as a board of trustees for a charter school is no different than being the board of education for LA Unified School District.”
The people that sit on the nonprofit boards of directors are typically people whose professional experience, expertise, professional networks and often wealth could be leveraged to further the long-term goals of the nonprofit.
As a result, it’s not uncommon to find the same people occupying multiple boards. Sometimes, this phenomenon can be pronounced in places like San Pedro where there are about 50 nonprofit organizations with an elite few individuals or families occupying three to five boards of directors.
In settings such as these, in which there’s so little diversity and so great a difference in wealth and power among members, the normal tendencies to avert conflict within a governing board is multiplied exponentially.
Townsend agreed with my belief that resolution can’t come without conflict. When it became clear that Cross wasn’t going to return to POLAHS, she began mentoring and grooming Scotti to occupy the POLAHS chief executive role that now combines the powers of principal and executive director.
“We knew POLAHS was settled and it was going to be OK…I had decided…for the last six months while we were trying to work out this deal with Jim [Cross]…I was going to focus on making sure everything stayed good at this school,” Townsend said. “So, I just became Tom’s mentor and I was at school almost every day helping everybody feel good and move forward and continue to do all the good things they were doing.
“I needed to re-establish and prove to the board that Tom, who is a great principal, can run this show. Because sometimes business people on boards think that a principal doesn’t know anything about business,” she said. “Well, it’s probably very true with many principals in the City of LA because they don’t have to handle a lot of that…the school district handles it. But when we get our administrator’s credentials, we are trained in school law, we are trained in school business, you know, and code…So a principal should understand the skills or what’s needed to do that.”
Townsend noted that the power imparted to the roles of both principal and executive director was a decision made intentionally by the founders of POLAHS and that played a role in the well-documented friction between Scotti and Cross.
“We saw this coming,” Townsend said. “It wasn’t a problem in the beginning because the executive director had millions of things to do regarding the building of the facility.
“Tom focused on the instructional program and building that program and that would fund her for the first few years. But then, as you move forward, it has to come together, because the education program needs to drive the budget not the other way around. Even though you have limited funds from the state, you say, ‘OK, here’s how much we have in the education program. What is needed and how best can we spend that money? You know, so that wasn’t really happening.”
AltaSea and Changing Leadership
Townsend became chairwoman of the board at AltaSea following the departure of Etherington, right after much of the hard work at POLAHS was concluded in May. Townsend it wasn’t a good fit, despite Etherington’s stellar credentials.
“You start with belief in the project,” Townsend said. “But in order to do that, you have to have money… you really need somebody that can really get out there and be the visionary and excite the people to give money to the project.
“You have both elements. Sometimes you can find a person who’s good at both, but rarely. Two years ago…there was no board. There was an advisory encampment.” The advisory board just formed a year-and-a-half ago. “When that happened…they hired a firm…That’s what they wanted, to fulfill both obligations.
“I think what happened was—because Rachel is an extremely dynamic, energetic woman, she’s very bright, extremely articulate both verbally and in writing, and she’s devoted to the environment…I think that’s what probably motivated them thinking of the day-to-day operations running of that too, and that she could get out there and raise the money… I had all hopes that she could,” Townsend said.
Before Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Knatz resigned, she bequeathed a 50-year lease to AltaSea, pledging a total of $210 million to be matched by a legal minimum of $408 million. AltaSea was to raise $549 million by 2019. A quarter of that money—$139 million—was to be raised by 2017.
With $54 million in hand from the port and matching funds commitments elsewhere, the change in leadership comes at a critical juncture. Townsend, however, believes the challenges are the same as they were when AltaSea was formed.
“Yes, $100 million is a lot of money,” Townsend said. “However, it takes a while, first of all to generate the connections to roll the money out. So, for a year, that’s been going on.
“You just don’t go out there…They need to learn about the project. They’ve never heard about it before. And it’s a lot of the people who are in this world who are in philanthropy…That’s where the money’s going to come from. We don’t have it here in San Pedro.”
Townsend noted that philanthropists must be shown that something is happening on the site, even while money is being raised to actually build the project.
She explained that AltaSea has been working on an interim use plan that does exactly that, by laying out what is going to be built, how it will be used and who will use it during the development of the marine science hub.
When the interim plan has reached a critical milestone, Townsend said the community will get to provide comment on the plan before it moves forward.
The recent news that aerospace manufacturer SpaceX is partnering with AltaSea to base its rocket and spacecraft retrival operations in the Harbor Area might just be the milestone they are waiting for.