Michael Piper is leaving his role as executive director of The Arc of Southwest Washington due to medical issues. His last day will be July 1, and the nonprofit’s board of directors looks to fill the vacancy next month.
Piper said his condition, a blood disorder, is made worse by stress, so his doctor said to pursue work that’s less stressful.
“This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life,” said Piper, 66. “Running a nonprofit is really difficult.”
During his three-year tenure, Piper balanced the budget at the financially struggling Vancouver-headquartered organization, which serves people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and their families.
Before he came on board, about half of the staff, including top administrative positions, were eliminated to reduce costs, but the organization was still in debt. In its heyday, The Arc of Southwest Washington had more than 80 employees, Piper said, and reached a low of 28. After what used to be The Arc of Clark County absorbed three similarly struggling sister agencies — in Cowlitz, Skamania and Wahkiakum counties — and renamed itself The Arc of Southwest Washington, things slid toward insolvency. While auditors suggested the nonprofit file for bankruptcy and shut down, the board of directors wanted to make it work.
Piper reorganized staffing, sold off The Arc’s former building on Fourth Plain Boulevard and refinanced the mortgage at its current 18th Street building to help retire debts. Initially, he said he would only help out for a year.
“I’ve fallen in love with the people who do the work,” Piper said. “The clientele are just amazing. It’s a very rewarding, endearing field for the right person.”
He added that the work is increasingly important as autism rates increase.
The next director will have to continue finessing the budget. The job description posted online calls for somebody ideally with a master’s degree in business administration, human services administration or a related field, and experience leading multi-divisional programs.
Board President John Weber said he’d like to hire an executive director who can help the organization focus more on its core mission of advocating for people with disabilities.
The Arc of Southwest Washington is the regional arm of The Arc of the United States, which takes positions on policies and issues impacting people with disabilities.
“It’s being part of that network that is so critical,” Weber said. “This community — whether it understands it or not — needs The Arc.”
He’s been part of the board for over 25 years and has a 36-year-old son with autism, so he’s watched the local Arc consolidate over the years. Most recently, two call center employees and two truck drivers were laid off to lower expenses.
While The Arc of Southwest Washington relies heavily on revenue generated by collecting and distributing used goods, a report developed by a group of students with the Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program at Washington State University Vancouver says that the nonprofit should rely less on that revenue. Over the years, the market for used goods has become less profitable. The Arc of King County and The Arc of Spokane both get most of their funding — and raise millions of dollars more than the Southwest Washington branch — through grants, contracts and other requests for funding, the report said.
“The recent economic times have been hard on nonprofits all over the United States,” Weber said. “We find we need to be a leaner organization.”
Currently, there are 39 employees, about one-third work part-time and most earn a bit over minimum wage.
Piper’s salary was $60,028, according to 990 forms submitted to the IRS, which was significantly less than his predecessor’s salary and less than what he earned at previous jobs. Piper worked as a sustainability coordinator for Clackamas County, Ore., and the city of Vancouver, and before that headed the Clark County Department of Community Services. His training is in public administration, executive management and sustainability.
“Somehow, over the years, I ended up in social services,” Piper said. He’d like to work again in environmental sustainability and has advocated against the proposed Vancouver oil train terminal in his spare time.