The CEO of Youth Villages started out getting it all wrong.
Well, not entirely, since Patrick W. Lawler was a natural as a social worker and knew how to connect to troubled youth and help them out. But he couldn’t have been more of a novice when it came to running an organization.
But as often happens with the best entrepreneurs, he learned what it took to get it right.
“While most of our work in the early years was making decisions from our heart, because we’re social workers and that’s what we do,” he says, “we had to learn to make decisions from our head.”
His success in guiding the nonprofit since he started it in 1980 reflects a gift for making decisions from both the heart and the head.
Youth Villages started with a few dozen young people in the early 1980s in Memphis. It is now in 72 locations in 12 states with some 2,800 employees working with more than 22,000 children and families each year; revenue has ballooned to more than $200 million a year. It’s got a strong board, ongoing recognition, and plenty of praise — including by the White House — for innovation and commitment.
Pretty heady stuff that he couldn’t have imagined 43 years ago.
Back then, Bill Key, Lawler’s football coach at Bishop Byrne High School, was also the executive director of Tall Trees Youth Guidance School. He asked Lawler, a graduating 18-year-old, if he wanted to work there. While his buddies were getting ready to study business in college, Lawler thought there was nothing better he could do than live at the facility and work with some of the most troubled kids in the city. “I was drawn to them, maybe because they demanded so much attention,” he says.
In his mid-20s, he was a probation counselor at Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court and was asked by Judge Kenneth A. Turner to close down a failing residential program. Dogwood Village was a mess with no money, its license in peril, and board members quitting. “I went out there and spent a couple of weeks. I asked Judge Turner if he’d let me be responsible for it and try to keep it going. He said I could go ahead and try.”
It could be characterized as enthusiasm triumphing over common sense.
“I had no idea how to get money for a place like that, or what a budget was,” Lawler says. “I didn’t know you had to have a license. I didn’t know what a board of directors was. I knew a little about taking care of kids. I read a quote once that probably described me: ‘I’m not young enough to know everything anymore.’”
He figured it out along the way, though. With 26 young people and nine on staff, and a budget of $150,000, “We owed everybody in town,” he says. “But we finally grew to serve 40 kids and I worked out some of our financial problems and went to the bank to borrow money.”
Lawler says he wasn’t making much traction since he figured a charity was supposed to scramble from day to day, hoping that food would be donated and the occasional used couch show up from a friend.
That started to change in 1983 when Jim Pickle joined the board and convinced Lawler that it didn’t need to be that way. Lawler grew more savvy about running the organization and in 1986 it merged with Memphis Boys Town to become Youth Villages.
It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s that Youth Villages started collecting outcome data to see how the young people fared after leaving the program. It wasn’t encouraging. Lawler said that prompted something of an epiphany in the mid-1990s — that families weren’t the source of the problems, they were the solution.
“We started over from 1994,” he says. “We changed every job description, we even changed one of our values that we believe young people are raised best by their families.”
Youth Villages started working closely with families trying to come up with sustainable solutions for the young people. Its Evidentiary Family Restoration program involves working with the child and family, measuring outcomes, keeping young people in the community and providing accountability. It claims “success rates twice that of traditional services at one-third the cost of traditional care.”
To pull this off requires more than considerable expertise and devotion to young people. “We also spend as much time with state and federal governments to try to reform the system,” Lawler says. “We believe the child welfare system is broken and in order for us to have the greatest impact, there have to be significant reforms.”
He knows he’s asking a lot: “You must build a strong culture, a culture of caring, a culture of commitment, a culture of people who are going to do whatever it takes every day, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, who are really willing to make a sacrifice in their own lives to benefit the lives of others.”
Lawler believes that everyone with a stake in young people should have a commitment to them that is equal to that of his and Youth Villages’ motto: “We don’t give up on kids.”
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