How Laura Sovine is turning Austin Recovery around

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Laura Sovine by John Cuba Lewis

Now more than ever, the world needs more Laura Sovines.

The recently appointed executive director of Austin Recovery has long been an ambitious advocate for increasing addiction-recovery services and reducing the number of people with mental health issues in our jails, and her work leading Austin Recovery earned her an Austin Under 40 Award nomination this past spring.

“In just under a year, she has steered this organization with the acumen of a business executive and the heart of a social worker,” said Erika Nguyen, Austin Recovery’s director of development. “Laura’s dedication to ethical leadership and thoughtful budgeting led to a reduction of over $650,000 in expenses.”

But with a master’s degree in social work and a clinical background, Sovine says she didn’t expect to become a nonprofit executive. “I was a very reluctant leader,” she said. “I didn’t go to school for administration, I went to school to become a therapist. I got into leadership inadvertently.”

Sovine says it was her professors at UT-Austin who saw leadership in her. She remembers being told in graduate school that she would be supervising people before she knew it, and sure enough she started supervising other students immediately. “I just took to it really easily, probably because I started by caring about them and developing a relationship. That’s clinical work, that’s social work. So I ended up in leadership positions really fast.”

Her first executive leadership role was with the Crime Prevention Institute in 2006. Sovine says she remembers finding out she’d been selected to be the new executive director when the then-executive director sat her down with a new organizational chart… with her name in the E.D. slot. “She just said I was the right person to represent the mission.” Under her leadership, Crime Prevention Institute won a Ring of Honor award from the Mental Health Association of Texas and a Non-Profit Excellence Award from Greenlights for Nonprofit Success.

Sovine says she constantly reached out to peers and mentors for advice as a new leader, with most telling her to focus on the relationships, an area where she felt comfortable.

“One of my mentors, David Springer, used to tell me all the time, ‘Use your clinical skills in fundraising.’ The first time I ever sat down with a donor, I was really nervous. But there is a term in social work: ‘professional use of self’ where you really bring who you are to the table in working with clients. So that’s how I approached it. I asked that donor, ‘What would this look like for you to be a donor?’ – an open ended clinical question – and they said, ‘Well, I like your style, how about I send you a check for $5,000 per quarter.’ I was stunned!”

Springer, now director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy, said, “She’s intentional about tapping into the strengths of people around her. She’s philosophically a servant-leader. She brings authenticity. She’s tireless. And she has a high level of emotional intelligence — able to cut to the quick with a compassionate mode of communication.”

Sovine first came to Austin Recovery as director of operations last year. Austin Recovery had been struggling with a recovery of its own, -with the retirement of then-president Father Bill Wigmore in 2011, then a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful merger with the Council on Recovery Houston that led to a separation in 2016. “Anybody who’s been at Austin Recovery longer than five years has seen three changes in leadership and three layoffs,” said Sovine.

To create a sense of stability and trust with the staff and donors, Sovine says she fell back on what she knew. “It’s really just integrity. It’s that simple. It’s not about crafting some kind of special messaging. We have the same quality programs that we’ve always had.

“I’m not really interested in smoke and mirrors,” she continued. “It comes down to cutting expenses and trying to present the most successful and affordable model possible, while completely being transparent with the staff, board and donors. I think when working in environment like substance abuse treatment, we have to have a culture of trust. The staff has to feel nurtured and developed so they can do the same with our clients. There are mistakes that were made in the past, but this is how I want to move forward.”

Learn more at Austin Recovery

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