When the recovery housing community speaks of “structure and accountability,” they sometimes refer to governance. All recovery residences are founded on a social model recovery philosophy, which believes that residents and/or other peers must play meaningful roles in governance. This can formally look like democratically elected officers, a resident committee, an advisory council, or a Board of Directors. In formal, there are numerous ways that a recovery residence can promote a participatory process, which are methods used to achieve active participation by all members of a group in a decision-making process.

You may have heard the term “governance,” referring to the Board of Directors of either a for-profit or nonprofit organization. While that is perfectly accurate, we are using the term here to discuss the broader concept. Governance is about setting and enforcing boundaries. These are the rights, rules, and decision-making procedures that direct actors (e.g., residents or staff) along a desired path. All recovery residences use a mixture of:

  • External governance refers to an external entity (owner, operator, administrator, or board) providing oversight of a resident or a community. To various degrees, all recovery residences have external governance, but this cannot be the only type of governance they utilize. External governance is easier to see, meaning outsiders may not recognize the community-driven or person-driven governance components of a recovery residence. Note, some forms of external governance tend to undermine social model recovery. We often see this when program developers or staff draw from their experience in patriarchal, clinical, and criminal justice settings. In the short run, these “top-down” approaches may seem necessary, but they can be experienced in a way that blocks growth or long-term outcomes.
  • Community-driven governance refers to members of a community developing and/or enforcing boundaries, rules, or decisions within or on behalf of the community. Community-driven governance happens within the boundaries of external governance. Social model recovery philosophy expects external governance structures to cultivate community-driven governance. The result is a cultural shift amongst residents “Us vs. Them” “Our community.” In some cases, the external governance structure creates a process to consider and adopt ideas generated through community-driven governance.
  • Person-driven governance refers to an individual setting and enforcing boundaries for themselves. Both external governance and community-driven governance should nurture person-driven governance to build human recovery capital and self-efficacy. Within the social model, individuals are rewarded with more responsibility as they advance in their recovery.

The governance mixture and methods can significantly differ across Levels of Support; for example:

  • Level I’s are democratically run, but they must adhere to a structure that is externally governed. They often receive technical assistance to develop skills and uphold fidelity.
  • Level II’s utilize a House Manager or senior resident(s) to facilitate community-driven governance within the external governance structure. As the culture of the house matures, the community-driven governance more effectively maintains the external boundaries. Until the culture matures, a recovery residence may “seed” the house with senior residents and/or utilize alumni or honorary alumni to foster community-driven governance. Once the culture is mature, the community can become very effective at voting on decisions or proposing actions or rules that can be approved, negotiated, or vetoed by a higher authority. Advisory committees are also common.
  • Level III’s and IV’s also utilize a House Manager to facilitate community-driven governance within the external boundaries. When the average length of stay is short, Level IIIs and IVs cannot solely rely on residents to lead community governance, which is why alumni, mentors, and/or peer advisory committees are heavily leveraged in this role. In any case, residents should be engaged in a participatory process to learn vital skills.


The governance body of a recovery residence should reflect the population it serves. That might look like a percentage of governance members identifying as persons in recovery. But not all persons in recovery are the same, so other characteristics and life experiences should be considered. Who services in governance roles can help recovery residences be more diverse, inclusive, and equitable. For example, the governance body of a women’s recovery home should have at least some women members. If a recovery home wants to become more culturally responsive to a particular race, a community representative should serve in a governance role.

Skills Development

Just because someone represents the community or is in recovery does not mean they have governance skills. Creating a peer “seat at the table” without supporting their skills development could result in “tokenism,” which is an ingenuine effort meant to give the appearance of inclusion or empowerment.

  • Orientation More than welcoming new members, it is important to orient them to their governance role. An orientation process or manual can include bylaws, mission, vision and values, organizational chart, roles, responsibilities, strategic plans, and previous meeting minutes.
  • Ongoing skills development As with core competency, governance knowledge, skills, and abilities are developed and reinforced over time. Governance members may benefit from person-driven skills development plans and mentorship. They may choose to focus on Robert’s Rules of Order this month and advocacy next year.

Membership and Skills Mix

The governing body benefits from having diverse knowledge, skills, and abilities. Someone not in recovery may be recruited or contracted for their expertise in the law, accounting, or fundraising. Likewise, governing bodies may seek out technical assistance around recovery housing best practices.

Succession planning

Every governance member should plan for their replacement. That may look like them mentoring others around a particular skill set or recruiting talent.