(Marin Independent Journal (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 07--The leadership is changing at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael after a reorganization of the nonprofit and subsequent layoffs prompted supporters to push for new management.
Christine Benniger, 61, has been appointed CEO of the organization, which pairs visually impaired people with trained guide dogs at its offices in San Rafael and Boring, Ore. She will officially take over April 7. Interim president and CEO Bob Burke will help her make the transition, the organization said in a press release.
Benniger had retired in 2010 from her previous job as the executive director of the Humane Society in Silicon Valley, where she worked for 17 years. But she said her passion for animals led her to apply for the Guide Dogs position. She also previously worked as an auditor with Arthur Andersen & Co., and spent 15 years with Hewlett Packard Corp.
She said she saw how powerful the human-animal bond can be in her time at the Humane Society, and wants to help build those bonds as part of the Guide Dogs organization.
"To me it's the human-animal bond on steroids, it's just amazing what happens. That connection between the individual and their guide -- it's not only opening the world up to them, but it's that companionship," Benniger said.
She replaces former CEO Paul Lopez, who resigned in July 2013 to pursue other career opportunities, according to the organization. Lopez, a veteran of the eye care industry, was tapped to lead the nonprofit beginning in January 2012. But Lopez's leadership style didn't sit well with some of the nonprofit's supporters, and his move to lay off eight employees and ask two others to take an early retirement in March 2013 drew criticism. Lopez could not be reached for comment.
"It was just the hugest shock in my life when they laid off the individuals they did. It was just such a breach of trust. It was heartbreaking," said five-time Guide Dogs graduate Sheila Styron, of Kansas City, Mo. "If you can imagine the trust we need to put into the relationship with our guide dogs, that trust extends to the employees."
Michael Hingson, of Novato, vice president of the National Association of Guide Dog Users, agreed. Hingson is well-known for surviving the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 with his guide dog Roselle, who helped him navigate 78 flights of stairs.
"What they really did was they broke the trust with consumers," Hingson said. "It's scary what happened last year. They made some serious mistakes."
Styron started a MoveOn.org petition asking for new leadership last year, gathering more than 530 electronic signatures, and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Alumni Association Board of Directors passed a resolution of no confidence in the nonprofit's senior management in April 2013.
Petitioners and the board were upset that longtime employees were let go as a result of the nonprofit's effort to develop a new telephone support center meant to better serve the nonprofit's more than 2,170 active graduates and their canines.
Half of the field representatives, responsible for graduates and about 50 instructors, were laid off and the remaining six took on more clients, including nearly 400 people who didn't have a dedicated field representative before. Instead of calling a field representative with a question, inquiries are funneled through the call center and sometimes answered by one of the six center staffers.
Jeff Senge, of San Clemente, was chair of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Alumni Association Board of Directors when the staffing changes were made. He said he has no animosity toward Lopez, but believes recent leadership hasn't understood the nonprofit's culture and has taken a corporate approach to the organization.
"Whether it was through Lopez's decisions or him executing the wills of the Board of Directors, this took place and it seemed as though there was a disconnect between understanding the trust and confidence the community had in the organization," Senge said. "The people terminated were regarded as longtime family members."
While Guide Dogs has maintained it's trying to increase efficiency with the call center and subsequent layoffs, others have said the model needs to be changed.
"Each field representative has a much larger case load and that's something I hope personally they'll take a look at," Styron said.
Benniger said it's too early for her to make any decisions on how the organization should be run, but she said she's aware of the issues with previous management.
"I need to get my feet on the ground and understand its culture," Benniger said. "Right now probably the most important thing is we heal from the past and start working together well. We've got to move forward past that hurt."
It's going to take some time for that to happen, and Hingson said it's important Benniger not only understand dogs, but blindness and the blind community -- something he said the organization hasn't done well in the past few years.
"Guide Dogs hasn't really been nearly as aggressive at understanding the team relationship and aspects of blindness," Hingson said. "The animal part of it the school knows, but many people still don't understand what blind people need."
Benniger said she's interested in connecting more with the blind community.
"Long-term, it's really looking at how we can reach a greater population. How do we tap into the younger folks who are visually impaired? We haven't done as great a job in that area yet," Benniger said.