'America's Best Leader' Used Eric Reis's Lean Startup Before It Existed

06/17/2014 01:24 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2014

Recently, I sat down with Founder and CEO of Youth Villages Patrick Lawler to discuss, in great depth, the evolution and promise of social innovation in the foster care system. Patrick Lawler has been working to help vulnerable youth and families since 1973. In 2006, Lawler was recognized as one of "America's Best Leaders" by U.S. News & World Report in conjunction with the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Harvard Business School also produced a case study highlighting Youth Villages' innovative treatment program in 2009.

Below is an excerpt from our interview on how he intuitively used Eric Reis's Lean Startup during the early days of his organization. I am sharing this to illustrate that some nonprofits can, must, and should pivot to become more effective.

Marquis Cabrera: I do my homework. I watched a Harvard Kennedy School interview of you, and you spoke about how you pivoted as an organization and changed your original approach. What influenced you to change and what made you feel that this would best serve foster children?

Pat Lawler: From 1980 to 1993, we were primarily a residential treatment organization. We had two treatment campuses and provided for 80 kids (40 boys and 40 girls on each campus). Our belief system during that thirteen-year period was: communities were bad, families were abusive and neglectful, and these young people could not return to the root of all their problems - their families.

From 1986 to 1993, we started collecting outcome data, just when the kids left our program. We would call a year later check on them, and during those days, we believed that we were in the business of raising other people's children. We found that when we returned young people back to the community, whether it was one year or five years, their behaviors became a reflection of the people they hung out with.

Because we didn't build a sustainable family and support system for that person when they returned home, everything we had taught them and all of the gains they had made had disappeared in a matter of months in most cases. As a result, we started asking ourselves how to do this better to give young people a greater chance of success when they leave our campuses. Our goal was not only to give young people a great experience in residential services, but also to give young people a better life.

We started to do a lot of research and found a model being developed at the University of South Carolina Medical School, called multisystematic therapy. We learned a lot about their intensive in-home work and developed our own intercept intensive model. Their original system helped us to better serve the juvenile justice population in the child welfare system.

Early on, we had amazing results. We saw that the seemingly broken, irreparable families really did want and love their children, but sometimes did not have the support systems in place to manage their lives and care for them. The majority of people that came into their homes were demanding and threatening, but we entered with open arms and minds. We explained that we wanted to get to know them and help them keep or get their child back and live successfully.

And that's exactly what we did.

The intensive program had counselors working with four to five families each for about 4 to 6 months. We began to see a lot of success: children at home were staying home, children in residential were going home faster, and all children were having much better long-term outcomes. We went from a 50% 1-year post discharge success rate to more than 80% in a matter of a few years. And when I say success, I mean they are still home living with their families, in-school or working, and they are not in trouble with the law, in addition to some other factors.

From 1993 to 1995, we had an epiphany of sorts and decided to start all over. We valued the ability of families to raise their children the best they could. We re-wrote every policy, procedure, and job description and even changed the design of our buildings. We changed everything that we were doing to reinforce the ideas that children could return home as quickly as possible and we could prevent them from ever being removed. We believed and still believe that the child welfare system is a terrible place for a child to be raised. It is understandable that in many cases [foster care] has to be a temporary placement, but it is certainly not a permanent solution.