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Pat Lawler

Leading a High Performing Nonprofit: An Interview with Pat Lawler

In today’s SPat Lawlerocial Velocity interview I’m talking with Pat Lawler. Pat is the CEO of Youth Villages, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully. Youth Villages is often heralded as a model for high performing nonprofit organizations. In 2006, Lawler was recognized as one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report.

You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: In 34 years of your tenure at Youth Villages you’ve grown the organization from serving 25 youth to now serving 22,000 families. Very few nonprofits are able to grow to that level, let alone sustain it. What are the factors that make nonprofit growth attainable and what holds more nonprofits back from achieving it?

Pat: First, an organization must have a clear mission and defined values. When we started Youth Villages, we knew who we were. We didn’t just want to respond to RFPs; we wanted to do what was best for kids. No more of the status quo, instead we used our expertise and created best practices. We built our leadership team and our culture around a clear mission and set of values. Our culture is a big part of who we are and what we’ve done over the years. We’ve also been willing to change directions. We’re willing to do different things based on the needs of kids and families. At one time, we only provided residential treatment services, but now residential services comprise only about 35 percent of our work. Don’t anticipate the future, create it.

As an organization, we were also careful not to grow too fast. We were constantly assessing what was best and reevaluating. We also implemented a feedback system to learn what was working and what was not so we could improve our outcomes.

It’s easy for nonprofits, especially those focused on social services, to make decisions with our hearts instead of our heads, but we must still maintain a strong focus on the business aspect of our work. After we got through our first 12-13 years, when we were just trying to survive as an organization, we began thinking about strengthening our financial reserves because we were responsible for more children and families, as well as our staff and their families. So we really started trying to build a stronger financial foundation that would help us successfully transition through turbulent times.

Nell: Often when a nonprofit becomes very large finding on-going sustainable funding sources can be difficult. The majority of your funding comes from state contracts. Is government the ultimate answer to long-term funding for large nonprofits? Or are there other ways?

Pat: It depends, but in general, I think it’s important for organizations to have a diverse set of funders to achieve maximum stability. Having at least three or four funding sources and a relative balance among those sources is a good way to go. If government is a major funding source, you want to make sure that’s diversified among different programs, geographies, etc. and not all one contract.

Nell: Youth Villages is also unusual in that you have a robust performance management system and are considered one of the leading nonprofits in the country in that arena. Why did you make the decision many years back to invest in performance management and what do you think the return on that investment has been?

Pat: Youth Villages’ goal has always been to provide the best services for children and families. That’s one of the reasons why we started collecting data, using measurement, benchmarking and total quality improvement. It was all about getting better outcomes for kids. We didn’t realize how valuable our data could be until the mid-‘90s when some of our state funding was at risk. Using our data, we were able to convince the state to spend money for in-home services and develop a continuum of care — because we had really good data to show them what worked and how much more cost-effective it was. Throughout the years, we started trying to convince other states and funders. A few were pretty enthusiastic about our data and outcomes. When the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation met with us nine years ago, they were very interested in our data and outcomes, and that was the first indication that the private sector was becoming interested in doing what works.

Even today, we’re asking ourselves where is the best place to put our resources, and more often, we’re finding it’s better to serve a larger number of children through community-based services rather than in a residential setting. You can make such a greater impact in the community serving a large number of youth, rather than serving a small number with the greatest needs. We’re trying to do both. But we’re asking ourselves what’s the biggest return on our investment so we can have the greatest impact on our community?

Nell: Funders and nonprofits themselves are often reluctant to invest in nonprofit leadership development. How do we solve this need and how did you grow your leadership skills over the course of your career? What role do you think funders should or could play in leadership development for the sector?

Pat: I read a lot, and I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have worked with great boards of directors and mentors to shape my leadership skills. At Youth Villages, we have an outstanding leadership team filled with better leaders than I am. Together, we make a strong team. Any of us independently might not be as good. I know I wouldn’t be at all. At all levels of this organization, we have very bright people and that is what makes the difference here.

If I had to start over at the beginning, rather than asking foundations for money for programs and services, I would have asked for funds to put toward business planning, professional coaches, leadership development and communications to help with the things I didn’t know about. I’d have asked for money to help build a stronger organization, while at the same time maybe a little money for programs and services. I believe it’s a waste of money for governments, foundations or anyone to spend money on an organization that doesn’t have the necessary skills, organizational structure, leadership and business planning to achieve the goals of their program. It just makes no sense.

From the time an organization is created, I think they have to ask the questions: Do we have the right people in place? Do we have the right business plan and strategy to execute? Do we have the support of the community and board of directors? I firmly believe every foundation should put a significant portion of their funding toward strengthening the organization versus funding some programs and services. If you don’t have the right people in place to execute the strategy then it’s not going to happen. It’s also important for foundations to give organizations time. It takes time for leaders to develop, they get better as they encounter and overcome problems, and it’s important to stick with those organizations for extended periods of time.

Photo Credit: Youth Villages

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