When she left her job with the Society of Organized Services in the 1990s, Renate Sutherland told her co-workers that she would be back one day as the executive director.
Sutherland made good on that promise 12 years later, when she became the society’s current executive director in April, 2008.
On Friday, Sutherland will step away from SOS for the second time when she retires as director.
“It was a combination of things,” she said of her decision to retire following a decade in the position. “Certainly, 10 years with an organization is a long time. In a leadership position, there’s always a chance that you’ll get stale or you’ll start to do things because you’ve always done them and I didn’t want to do that.”
Sutherland said she started with SOS as a single mom in the 1990s. She was working in Nanaimo but was looking for a job closer to home, so she applied for a job as a receptionist at SOS.
Sutherland said it didn’t take long for her to realize SOS was the place for her.
“I think within about my first year and a half, I knew that this was the place for me. SOS was very supportive of me when I was here and really encouraged my growth. I started as receptionist and moved to the volunteer drive program and assistant bookkeeper, and then I became the first co-ordinator of volunteers here,” Sutherland said.
“When I left, I was very cheeky and said to the people, ‘I’m coming back. I need to go away. I need to learn a lot. I know I’ve got a lot of growth to have happen, but I think one day I want to come back here and I want to come back as the executive director.’”
It took 12 years, but Sutherland made that successful return to SOS.
“I spent a lot of time with people who I saw and felt were really successful in the non-profit world and learned as much as I could. And then, when the opportunity came and I felt I was ready, I applied for the position,” she said. In the years she was gone from SOS, Sutherland said, there was a lot of growth within the organization.
“When I left in the ’90s, our thrift shop was still attached to this building… It was much smaller. We didn’t have any of the child, youth and family centre services; they didn’t exist,” she said. “When I came back, that was one of the first things I said was, ‘That’s a big change.’”
After spending 12 years away from the SOS, Sutherland said, she had to learn about the “new SOS” such as understanding the changes in the organization, what services SOS provides and how it works in the community.
After a decade as the society’s executive director, Sutherland said, she’s going to miss working with the board of directors, volunteers, community members, other organizations and staff.
One of those staff members is Susanna Newton, who has worked with Sutherland for the past 10 years and for a time in the ’90s. Newton is the current assistant executive director, and will be taking Sutherland’s place as executive director.
Sutherland said she’s confident she’s leaving the role of executive director in the hands of someone she “believes in wholeheartedly.”
“The advantage to that is Susanna has held many different positions within the organization, so that gives her a really good understanding of the front-line work, what it takes to be doing that front-line work,” Sutherland said.
Newton, who has worked for SOS for nearly 25 years, said she has worked in the non-profit industry even longer. Before coming to work at SOS, Newton said, she worked in a housing society in England. Since working for SOS, she has served as co-ordinator, secretary (which isn’t a job at SOS anymore), and has most recently been working as assistant executive director.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with five different executive directors during my time here, so I have learned a lot from those individuals. And SOS has always enabled me that growth in my position,” Newton said.