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TROSA: A Unique Path to Sustainability

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Kristin Pearson

The term “sustainability” can have many meanings. The National Council of Nonprofits defines sustainability, as it relates to organizations, as the ability to sustain oneself over the long term, perpetuating an organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.   

Award-winning Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, Inc. (TROSA) is touted for its sustainability and innovative approach to multi-year residential recovery programming. TROSA is a modified therapeutic community, providing comprehensive long-term treatment for men and women battling substance use disorders. Through a structured program of free recovery services, which include housing, meals, health care, vocational training, counseling, leadership development, education opportunities, life skill classes, and more, our goal is to help men and women lead healthy, sober, and productive lives.

Founded in 1994 by Kevin McDonald, a graduate of a similar residential recovery program, TROSA has far surpassed its decidedly humble beginnings. McDonald started with a dilapidated, abandoned Durham school building and $18,000 in start-up funds. In the twenty-three years since its founding, TROSA has grown by leaps and bounds in both the services it provides and in the numbers of individuals it serves. It now costs over $15 Million to run TROSA’s annual program operations, which serve a daily average of 500 men and women in recovery. 

In recent years, a combination of societal factors – the general breakdown of social stigma to finding treatment; the acknowledgement of substance use disorder as a multi-faceted public health issue; and the national opioid epidemic – has led to TROSA’s steady growth, which took a dramatic rise between the years 2010 and 2015. In that short five year time span, TROSA experienced a 50% growth in its daily average resident population, from serving 350 to 500 individuals each day.

Such growth is inspiring and encouraging, but with periods of rapid growth there is always the need to temper expansion with staying true to one’s core tenets. As a model program, TROSA is often hosting visitors – including colleagues in the recovery field, and students in nonprofit management classes – who have come to see its operations first-hand. TROSA is a complex organization but we have sustained our success and upheld the quality of care for our residents by staying true to our mission in the face of rapid growth.

Vocational training has always been a cornerstone of our program. Often when talking about TROSA’s sustainability, individuals make reference to the unique funding model TROSA has employed since its inception. TROSA is seen as a model of social enterprise, operating several successful social ventures and a robust in-kind department, all run and managed by residents vocationally training in various departments. Our social enterprises include TROSA Moving and Storage, TROSA Lawn Care, TROSA Thrift Store (housed in a former Walmart in Durham), and seasonal TROSA Holiday Tree Lots, which sells Christmas trees and wreaths. Over 70% of funds needed for TROSA’s annual operating budget are derived from our vocational training programs. 

Vocational training not only helps keep our programs cost-free for residents, but is an important part of TROSA’s therapeutic program, as residents gain marketable skills. We serve our most vulnerable citizens, who experience many barriers to employment: 90% of our residents do not have health insurance; 85% have been previously incarcerated; 40% are homeless when entering TROSA; 25% do not have a high school diploma or GED; and many have a dual diagnosis of a mental illness and substance use disorder. Our social enterprises help residents gain both technical skills and critical soft skills for future employment in the community. Stable employment builds confidence, repairs self-worth, instills work ethic, and is a predictor of sustained sobriety. Paired with classes and coaching on how to write résumés, interview, and communicate with others, we ensure that our program graduates leave TROSA with sought-after skills and jobs in the community – all while helping to run and sustain our program services.

Another unique path to our sustainability – and one that may not be as easily quantifiable – is actively involving our clients (our residents) in our mission. Collaboration with community is a strong factor to a successful nonprofit and TROSA enjoys robust and generous partnerships with many community resources that help us provide the best care for our residents; however, also key to collaboration and community involvement is our own volunteerism. Our residents volunteer in the community, helping fellow nonprofits. Empowering those we serve, so that residents may not only learn to heal their own selves, but help others in the process, ensures that the spirit of our work resonates and proliferates.

TROSA invests in our residents and encourages them to rise to leadership roles within TROSA.  As residents progress through their individualized program they are given more responsibility and are expected to be role models and leaders for individuals just beginning their recovery at TROSA. Upon graduating from TROSA, there is a competitive process where those who may want to seek a staff position can apply to our Staff-in-Training vocational track – a structured internship with employment at TROSA as the goal. Today, TROSA has 70 staff members, and 70% are graduates of TROSA or similar therapeutic communities. Graduates of TROSA bring a wealth of knowledge and first-hand experience in caring for those in recovery.

One such staff member is Mike. Mike turned to TROSA in his early 20s and graduated from our program in 2011. Prior to TROSA, he had worked customer service jobs but had never been “in charge.” While vocationally training at TROSA, he was entrusted with keys to buildings, important information, executive scheduling, and supervision of other residents’ vocational training. Mike’s confidence grew: “I learned I could do things, and do things well.” Today, Mike is employed as TROSA’s full-time Program Operations Associate, overseeing the recovery programs for TROSA’s senior residents, teaching leadership development classes for residents, and project-managing new program initiatives for TROSA. Mike shares that one advantage to TROSA’s hiring model is that having a balance of trained licensed clinicians and staff that have “been there” in terms of battling their own substance use disorder is a powerful inspiration.

Sustainability has been built into TROSA’s unique model of recovery since its inception. Our motto is “Each One, Teach One,” and, indeed, our success relies in empowering our residents to lead by example, in every way. TROSA has learned that investing in those you serve, and in deep and meaningful ways, helps not only your clients but your overall organization as well. 


Kristin Pearson is the Director of Development for TROSA. For over ten years, she has helped organizations connect and communicate with champions for good work. A proud New Yorker and adopted New Englander, she moved to North Carolina in 2015 and enjoys daily discoveries of her new home state.

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