November 6, 2008

Boys Town: Clarifying Decision-Making Roles Between Headquarters and Sites

Boys Town’s decision-making approach had served it well in the past, but the process had become cumbersome and posed a threat to the successful implementation of its new strategy. To move forward, Boys Town used RAPID®, a tool that helped the nonprofit clarify decision-making roles between headquarters and sites, and meet the goals of its new strategy.

By: Kirk Kramer

Boys Town was founded in 1917 by Father Flanagan, who wanted to provide a better home and future for boys that had been orphaned, abandoned, or abused. Famous for saying, “There is no such thing as a bad boy,” Flanagan campaigned against eugenics and set up residential homes, the first located in Omaha, Nebraska. The 1938 movie “Boys Town” told the story to the world. It was a history to be proud of.

Over the years, the nonprofit continued to flourish, opening sites that offered a variety of programs in fourteen states plus the District of Columbia. And by 2006, Boys Town was a $200 million organization with a broad range of offerings. It was helping more than 51,000 youth annually through direct services including health care and family-focused programs designed to enable children to continue living at home, or to return to their homes. It was assisting another 1.5 million children through its national hotline and outreach and training programs. It was also operating a research hospital.

Boys Town also had a new CEO, Fr. Steven Boes. Eager to take the nonprofit’s impact to a whole new level, Fr. Boes formed a planning team made up of key managers to conduct a “root and branch” strategic review of the entire organization. The process, completed between January and June of 2007, included assessing the trends in child welfare nationwide and in key states, interviewing site leaders and staff at Boys Town sites across the country, performing a detailed analysis of the organization and its economics and benchmarking against select peers.

Considered against the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. child welfare system and the services offered by other providers, the review’s findings showed how Boys Town could shore up some of the weaknesses of the system while serving more children and families. By linking its broad array of offerings and adding more in-home support where the need was greatest, Boys Town could improve service continuity and leverage available dollars to double the number of youth it served. The findings also revealed opportunities for Boys Town to increase its health care program outreach and improve its ability to influence policies affecting child welfare both at the state and national levels.

“Sites had been telling us for years that the business of child care was changing,” Fr. Boes explained, “but we had not listened as well as we could have.” The review ensured that site directors’ voices were heard; the new, five-year strategic plan that emerged from the process recognized those voices. (The appendix summarizes the rationale behind Boys Town’s strategic plan.)

Managers and staff across the organization supported the new plan. “Our site directors saw their input into the plan,” Fr. Boes said. “They were a part of the decision; the strategy was not developed in a smoke-filled back room.” But there was also widespread recognition that in order for implementation to be successful, Boys Town needed to be faster on its feet, particularly with regard to decision making that affected youth care services.

Boys Town’s traditional, centralized approach to decision making had served the organization well in the past, but it had become increasingly slow and cumbersome. While centralized decision making had not compromised service quality, it did compromise the goal to serve more children and economic decisions supportive of that goal. Implementing the new strategy successfully would require more speed, more decisiveness, and less caution. More decisions needed to be made closer to the source of the action and the outcome.

Diagnosing the Decision-Making Problem

Fr. Boes’ first step toward transforming decision making at Boys Town was to understand the scale and true nature of the problem. With the help of Bridgespan, he ran an organization diagnostic: a structured survey of his key managers involved in youth care at the national headquarters and at the sites. The diagnostic probed how leaders throughout Boys Town thought the organization was working from a variety of angles: leadership, decision making and structure, people, work processes, and culture.

The results were generally positive, demonstrating real strengths in leadership, people, program effectiveness, and culture. However, they also confirmed that managers throughout Boys Town, particularly those at youth care sites, felt left out of important decisions that directly affected them. In some ways sites are quite independent; for example, many are wholly-owned 501(c)3 entities with local boards and are engaged in local fundraising. On the other hand, many decisions had to be made by a small number of people at the organization’s national headquarters.

For example, as Barb Vollmer, a member of the planning team, explained: “If you looked at our processes for any actions with people, such as a merit increase or hiring, in all cases every approval went all the way up to the associate executive director at national headquarters. If a youth care worker was hired in Las Vegas, national had to sign off on it.”

One youth care manager was unclear if he could even order himself a new desk, Fr. Boes recalled. “He said, ‘I have a clunky metal desk, and want a wooden desk, and you tell me I can’t?’” Fr. Boes wanted to be able to say, “Here is your budget. You work out what to spend on a wooden desk and do it!”

There was also ambiguity across the organization around who could decide what, even for decisions that seemed as though they rightly belonged at the national level. Youth care leaders would bring questions and decisions to national managers, but not get timely answers. At national, people wanted to be responsive but were unsure who had the final say. Consequently, they would include more people to be on the safe side, delaying the process.

“Culturally,” Fr. Boes observed, “my goal was to break down silos between home-campus thinking and site thinking.” He wanted to push decision making down to the right level, to give managers at all sites the freedom they needed. He also wanted to develop guidelines to clarify when national needed to be involved (and in what capacity) and when it didn’t.

Using a Tool Called RAPID

Fr. Boes picked a tool called RAPID(SM)[1], which was originally developed by Bain & Company as part of its decision-driven organization work, to help the organization transform decision making. RAPID works by helping organizations “map” all of the activities that must take place for a decision to be made well and within an appropriate time frame. An organization can use RAPID to diagnose the source of a decision-making problem by mapping out how difficult decisions are being made, or to create a plan for how decisions should be made going forward.

“RAPID” is an acronym for the roles or activities that participants can take on in the decision-making process. (The name also captures a key benefit of the tool—the ability to make decisions more swiftly. However, it is important not to rush the process; decision making is simply easier when roles are clear.)

Each letter stands for a specific role or activity; but participants can have more than one role or activity assigned to them, depending on the context of the decision and the size of the group. The order of the letters is not important, but the acronym “R-A-P-I-D” is a device to remember these roles. In fact, the reality is iterative, although the roles and activities are likely to appear in the following order during any decision-making process:

The R is for recommend. The recommender initiates the decision-making process. A recommender is the go-to person who participates in the process from start to finish, ensures that others understand what they need to do and keeps things moving until a decision has been made.

I stands for input. An “I” stakeholder must be consulted before a decision can be made. Although an “I” has the right to be heard, she or he has no vote or veto power. Including someone as an “I” says that an organization values her or his opinion.

A stands for agree. An “A” stakeholder must agree to, or approve, the recommendation. An “A” stakeholder is essentially an “I,” but with a more powerful vote (such as a CFO, who needs to approve financial decisions before they can be made final). Generally, the more “As” who are involved in a decision, the more time a decision takes, particularly if they are not involved early on in the decision-making process to ensure that their concerns are addressed in the recommendation.

D stands for decide. A “D” stakeholder has final authority and is the only stakeholder who can commit the organization to action, such as hiring someone, spending money, or making a legally binding agreement. Generally, the “D” role is held by one person. But a board of directors in which each member has voting power can be a collective “D” as well. (Ultimately, if the committee chair is a true “D,” it’s better to be explicit up front.)

P stands for perform. Once a decision has been made, “Ps” carry it out. Often, those who are “Ps” are also “Is.”

Fr. Boes then appointed Barb Vollmer as project leader of the RAPID initiative. “Barb’s position before was ‘program auditor’ and therefore seen as neutral,” he explained. As Vollmer later reflected, “Being a neutral person allowed me to get honest information from all groups. I had no ulterior agenda.”

Vollmer began by sharing materials that explained how RAPID would work to functional leaders at the national headquarters, regional directors (who worked at the national headquarters as liaisons between youth care providers and national), and a representative group of youth care executive directors (from sites). In the first few months, she explained, there were about 17 people involved in the process. This group discussed the tool at a high level, then brainstormed about what Boys Town’s key decisions were, and how those decisions might be sorted and organized into categories.

With decision making mapped in broad strokes, Vollmer then organized a series of smaller group meetings with each department, such as site leadership, finance, HR, and PR, in order to generate information, talk through some of the key decisions, and ask if they were the right ones to talk about. “People were hungry to give input,” Vollmer said. “It was important to agree on what we really needed to think through. It was also important for us to talk about how the decisions we were identifying would fit with the roles and positions in the organization. It took many hours to really work through this process.”

Sometimes Vollmer met with individuals, not groups, to encourage people to speak up. “In a group, the loudest gets heard and no one else,” she explained. “People were really open and candid.”

Over the course of three months, Vollmer kept widening the circle, until the entire Boys Town management team was involved. “I met with the head of every department. All leadership had a voice. Everyone who had some decision-making was involved.”

The process was orderly, but not always smooth. As Vollmer put it, “There were often differences of opinions that needed to be worked through resulting in several meetings with some groups. It was also threatening for people who were having Ds taken away. Some became Is where they had been Ds. There was a lot of concern about ‘How will I know what is happening if I don’t have the D?’ But, as she noted, “The language that comes with RAPID was helpful. It’s neutral and makes it less personal. It gave staff a language for talking about decision roles, and helped them feel comfortable having open discussions about how they thought decisions should be made.” The distinct roles delineated by RAPID also helped. For example, as Vollmer said, “Once we clarified the ‘I’ role, that it was a required communication loop, people were much more comfortable.”

Five months into the process, Vollmer was ready to propose a corporate decision matrix to the top 100 managers at Boys Town. Essentially, the matrix codified the various categories of decisions made at Boys Town and determined which positions would have authority for each. It covered decisions ranging from HR-related decisions, budgets and signing authority, to organizational policies, program components and development, property acquisition, bank loans, contracts, and legal issues. Vollmer also proposed a set of accompanying guidelines to help decision makers determine when a given decision would need to be referred upward, to the next level of authority. For example, if a decision resided outside of a youth care site’s budget, the executive director at that site would need to move the “D” up a level, to the national headquarters. Similarly, youth care executive director decisions pertaining to direct reports, such as disciplinary actions, would require approval from the director’s supervisor at national.

If a decision was going to affect the entire organization, such as the addition of a new model component, then the VP of the respective functional department would have the D, regardless of where the decision point originated. Hiring for “expert” positions, such as legal counsel or a site development director would always need an “A” from the corresponding “expert” corporate department. And if a decision could encumber financial or legal liability for the organization, such as property acquisition or contracts larger than $25 thousand or longer than 12 months, the appropriate corporate department would be involved.

The response was largely positive across the organization; as Fr. Boes reflected, the newfound clarity “was more important to them than almost anything else. Some asked ‘Is this for real?’” Only a few groups had questions or disagreed with any portion of the matrix. But Vollmer and the planning team had anticipated that there would be at least a few hard-to-resolve conflicts. “We set up the matrix such that if there were differences of opinions Fr. Boes would make the final call.” As it turned out, he never had to cast a tie-breaking vote. The group decided who should decide by discussion and consensus. Vollmer said, “People did a good job of looking at these decisions from other people’s perspectives.”

Based on the input gathered during this vetting process, Vollmer created a final version of the document. As she said, “We probably made a dozen drafts while evolving the matrix to its current state.” But, she cautions, there may never be a “final” version. As Boys Town continues to implement its strategic plan, the organization’s leaders are also continuing to re-examine and revise Boys Town’s structure to support the plan. This evolution means that the decision matrix must also evolve. For example, in late summer 2008, Boys Town reorganized its youth care structure, replacing the regional director position at the national headquarters with program fidelity directors and functional managers. This reorganization reflects the realization that youth care site leaders need direct access to functional specialists at the national level. Accordingly, that means shifting some of the RAPID roles.

Even in a “final” state, Vollmer noted, the matrix will always leave a lot to the discretion of youth care directors. “You don’t have to write down every decision, because rules emerge after a while. What you’re doing with RAPID is capturing the concept, so people can understand that this kind of decision falls in that category. I get calls periodically asking for clarification. But for the most part decisions get made by the new rules.”


Fr. Boes believes that using RAPID has had benefits beyond decision-making processes; it has encouraged a bias to action in Boys Town’s culture. In part, he said, the new energy ties back to the input that youth care directors had in formulating the organization’s new strategy. But it also reflects the input they had in creating the decision matrix: “The site directors had an experience of changing the culture nationally, and they wanted to do this locally in their organizations. ‘Doing a RAPID’ has become part of our language.”

In effect, Fr. Boes said, “We pulled the thorn out of the lion’s paw. We had some lions out there who never got to reap the benefits of their own strengths. Boys Town used to bail people out when they missed budgets. Now we don’t. We say ‘Here’s your budget, you manage it.’ We had some lions out there who were making their budgets, doing good work, and every time they did, they had to give the meat away to someone weaker. That no longer happens.”

RAPID has also given Fr. Boes new insight into what constitutes a good staffing fit for Boys Town, given the demands of the new strategy. “This was a difficult realization, but one of the things the RAPID tool did for us was to show us the future capabilities our executives need to be successful, and some clear gaps emerged.”

Finally, RAPID has helped Boys Town tackle some of the toughest decisions an organization must face. “We closed three sites when we realized they didn’t have the potential to help achieve our strategy. We will re-invest those resources at other sites where we can help even more children,” Fr. Boes said. “Having a good plan and having the RAPID structure to push decision-making to the right level made the decisions to close these sites and reinvest in others much easier.” Ultimately, Fr. Boes reflected, “RAPID has allowed us to set up the structure that will allow the strategic plan to succeed.”

Take-away Lessons
Fr. Boes and Barb Vollmer offer three insights for other organizations planning to use a decision-making tool such as RAPID:
  • “Make sure the organization’s leaders are on top of this. If that’s not the case, don’t even begin. You would just create hope and then crush it. You would lose morale.”
  • “You will find that you will have some people who cannot do this. If there’s not that strength of will to implement, it’s pointless. Are you willing to face that? If you use RAPID well, there will be personnel implications that are hard to ignore.”
  • “Transforming decision making is not a quick process. You really have to be committed. It can be a challenge to get staff to trust that things really are different than in the past.”

Appendix: Boys Town's Strategic Direction

In the early stages of their strategic planning process, the members of Boys Town’s planning team evaluated their own organization, and also considered the national context in which Boys Town operates. The team observed several significant characteristics of the U.S. child welfare system:

  • Troubled youth are not necessarily placed with the right service initially.
  • Once a child is placed, it is difficult to move the child to different level of service unless there is a crisis (e.g. a suicide attempt).
  • Different providers offer different services and use different approaches, many of which are not evidence-based.
  • The system does not always address a child’s medical needs, even though these are sometimes the cause of, or a contributing factor to, behavioral problems.
  • From a funder point of view, far too many youth are removed from their homes and placed in expensive treatment for too long.

Given this context, and Boys Town’s mission and strengths, the team determined that Boys Town should strive to:

  • Work with system administrators to ensure proper assessment up front so that children receive appropriate care.
  • Keep children at home with their families whenever possible—by providing in-home services involving the at-risk child, the family, and others who are important to the child (e.g. teachers, etc.). This action would help prevent the situation from getting worse and the child being removed from the family (and placed in a more intensive and more expensive and lengthy service).
  • Remove children from their home only when absolutely necessary but set as a goal to work children back to the family environment as rapidly as possible, and ensure that families are prepared when a child is re-introduced into the family home.
  • Add services at many Boys Town sites so that the organization can offer a continuum of evidence-based services wherever it operates—from highly intensive residential treatment to less-intensive family services or outpatient treatment, including medical care. Boys Town needs to be able to move children easily from one service to another as needed, with family involved at every stage.
  • Influence local policy makers—convincing them that an integrated continuum of care is better for youth and also better economically, and also convincing them that Boys Town needs flexibility to move children in their care up/down the continuum as appropriate.
  • Grow each Boys Town location—so that it is large enough to provide the full set of services, and also large enough to be a major player in the city and state in which it is located, so that Boys Town leaders have a place at the table and are heard on child care policy.

Ultimately, Boys Town’s intended impact is to improve outcomes for the child and family, lowering costs for funders (typically government) over time. The organization also seeks to double the number of youth it will serve by the end of the five-year period addressed in the plan.

Importantly, Boys Town’s plan allows the organization to build on Fr. Flanagan’s founding philosophy. As Boys Town CEO Fr. Boes put it, “Father Flanagan taught us that there is no such thing as a bad boy. Today, we want to teach people that there is no such thing as a bad family. It’s hard in this culture. We get lots of kids [entering Boys Town programs] with damage inflicted by adult caregivers. Seventy percent of the girls come in abused. Twenty percent of the boys have been abused, many while in the system before coming to Boys Town. But our kids love their families and most parents love their kids. What Boys Town needs to do is harness the power of that family love and focus on it by teaching families new skills.”

[1] RAPID® is a registered trademark of Bain & Company, Inc. The article entitled “RAPID Decision Making: What it is, why we like it, and how to get the most out of it ” provides more detail about this tool.
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