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How Anu Family Services learned their biggest lesson from a shocking setback

Sometimes innovators succeed, but they also have to be prepared for the possibility of failure.

Too many articles written about innovative organizations focus solely on success stories from the business world. These stories often highlight the hottest new app or the sexiest new technology.  But that approach misses a whole trove of innovation that happens outside of the for-profit technology sector. Every day innovators in education, government, and nonprofit sectors seek to become world-class organizations by challenging current assumptions and trying new approaches. Sometimes these innovators will succeed, but they also have to be prepared for the possibility of failure.

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A few months ago I had the opportunity to host a BushCONNECT panel discussion with the executive directors of three amazingly innovative non-profit organizations (see event video). The topic for the panel discussion centered on the role of failure in driving real change and innovation. While each story was unique, a common theme ran throughout. Each organization saw occasional failure as a necessity in driving new, innovative solutions to improve the lives of their constituents and communities. Over the remainder of the year I will bring you each of their stories.

Our first is from Amelia Franck Meyer. For 25 years Amelia has been an innovator in child welfare. For the past 13 years she has served as CEO of Anu Family Services. Amelia and her team are pioneers in creating permanence for youth living in out-of-home care. They strive to be the best at creating permanent foster care connections to loving and stable families. This is the story of how Anu Family Services created a culture of innovation.

 Q1. You mentioned Anu Family Services set out to do foster care placement differently. It’s one thing for a leader to say they want to change the status quo, but how did you engage the rest of your organization to act on this idea?

We conducted an annual leadership retreat in 2006 where everyone read the following books in preparation: “Good to Great by Jim Collins; “Built to Last by Jim Collins; “Good to Great for Social Sectors by Jim Collins; “The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell; and “Mavericks at Work by William C. Taylor.  We then conducted the “Good to Great Organizational Assessment,” which resulted in mutually defining our “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal): “To be the last placement, prior to permanence, for 90 percent of the kids we served.”

We also developed a tree as an internal logo for the idea. We tied the thought of getting kids to permanence to the story of trees in the Boundary Waters. Because these roots cannot grow deeply, they are interconnected with each other for more strength. This was the basis for our idea about connections with our kids. Our kids don’t have deep roots, so they need a web of connections to keep them strong.  We held a kick-off event, rallied, and involved everyone in the organization around this goal. A critical component was developing a “sense of urgency” (from author J. Kotter) by understanding what happens to the youth who leave our care if they were not able to achieve permanency. We had about 38 percent permanency when we started (four out of ten kids). We became obsessed with what happened to the other six kids. That is what drove our passion and urgency for the work.


Q2. You mentioned that in 2006 there was little data published on successful Treatment Foster Care discharge to permanency rates, and how your team wasn’t sure what a good permanency rate was.  Your  rate was 38 percent, but your leadership team decided to shoot for 90 percent. Can you share the story of how you came up with that aggressive goal?

We believe that all youth deserve and can have permanent families, but we know some kids have such significant relational trauma that they might initially need more restrictive care to keep them safe while working to heal that trauma. We estimated about 10 percent of kids couldn’t live safely with a permanent family after leaving our homes, and that they may need a safe place to stay while they worked on their grief, loss, and trauma healing. I am not aware of any data to confirm this assumption, and that was the audacious part of our BHAG. It is built on our foundational view that all children should be raised in families, preferably their own whenever safely possible. We believe that 90 percent of the time  supports can be put in place to make this goal safely possible.

Q3. You knew your organization would have to approach the issue of permanency differently to achieve your goal. You mentioned the team embraced a model of “practice, try, and experiment.” How did the search begin for new ideas or ways to approach this challenge?

We knew we didn’t have these answers internally, so we began to do several things to bring new information into the organization:

  1. We formed a partnership with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare to review the literature, perform organizational audits against what we learned from the literature, run pilots of evidence-informed practices, build new tools, etc.
  2. We searched the country to find out who was doing it better than we were and to take what we could from other promising practices.
  3. We formed partnerships and brought in field experts and authors of models we wanted to use for training and consultation.
  4. We looked to other industries for examples of how to drive innovation at Anu.

Q4. You shared the story of how your team worked on a pilot with the University of Minnesota to use the family search and engagement model as a focus to help increase your permanence placement rate. Unfortunately the “solution” missed a critical issue that resulted in failure. How devastating was this failure on the child and the family? How difficult was it on your team? Did your benefactors weigh in?

In 2008 in order to get more youth to permanence, we began to utilize a model of family search and engagement to identify the individuals our youth had loved and lost through multiple out-of-home placements.  We brought in the author of the model for training and felt very confident that we had found a solution to help our youth who were at risk of aging out with no one.  Although we used great clinical practice and preparation, this pilot was a miserable failure. The youth acted out in violent ways after great meetings with their previously lost relatives. It was terribly disappointing and upsetting to all involved. There was great optimism and hope around this initiative, but it was an epic failure.  Our funders did not weigh in, but we have shared our story widely as a way to talk about our continuous learning culture and process at Anu.

Q5. Where you able to learn from this failure? Did it help point you in a different direction?

Our big learning came from talking to our youth and others about why this process failed. Our youth were rightfully enraged with all of us! They were upset with their families because the youth felt that if their families wanted to see them, it shouldn’t have taken their families so long to find them. They were upset with us because it took us so long to find their families. They were angry they had to call eight different people “mom” in eight  different foster homes over five years. What we came to learn is what we now refer to as our “golden nugget of truth”: Normal, healthy brains turn off their ability to connect after multiple, unresolved losses, especially losses of caregivers.This made it clear that we needed to find ways to heal relational trauma in order for youth to grieve their losses, heal their pain, and again be able to form healthy, stable connections. 


Q6. What best practices have assisted your organization in learning from mistakes or failures?

At Anu Family Services we are dedicated to an in-depth Continuous Quality Improvement process, which has received recognition from our accrediting body, the Council on Accreditation (COA). This process, which involves representatives from all levels of the organization and utilizes some of the Collins’ “Good to Great” principles (such as “confronting the brutal facts” and “performing autopsies without blame”), helps us critically look at our practices and constantly evolve with well-informed leaps of faith.


Q7. What best practices have you found for building a team that is curious and courageous in finding new solutions?

Just as we do not “blame and shame” our youth, we do not “blame and shame” each other.  We ask, “What do we need to know and learn so this doesn’t happen again?” Not, “Whose fault is it?” We are always looking for ways to improve, and we understand that mistakes are part of the process. We use data to tell a story, and we let the data speak without judgment.

We also have a collective sense of urgency that keeps us on the playground trying new things — even when it’s not going well and we just want to take our ball and go home because it’s safer. We also have a high level of trust among our team members. People are supported through their humanness, their mistakes, and their risk-taking. We are committed to doing what is right, not what is easy. We are always using the filter, “Would this be good enough for my own child?”


Q8. Are there any books or resources you would recommend for your executive director peers on building a strong, innovative organization?

Although they are older, they are tried-and-true resources for us:

Through hard work and determination, Anu Family Services has become a world-class foster care organization.  The group’s ability to challenge current assumptions, try new approaches, and learn from its failures has continued to drive its success.  Anu’s average placement to permanence ratio has remained higher than 55 percent for the last six years, and in 2012 the group achieved a 63 percent ratio.  A benchmark ratio of top-performing treatment to foster care agencies is 45 percent, and the national average ranges from 30 to 40 percent.  Anu’s focus on continuous innovation is improving the lives of its constituents and bettering our community.

Amelia Franck Meyer has chosen to make her career about helping others as a leader in the non-profit community but I have no doubt that that she would have been equally successful in leading a for-profit organization.  The accomplishments of Amelia and Anu Family Services are no less innovative than the hottest new app or the sexiest new technology – they too are worthy of our attention and our praise.  A thank you to Amelia and the entire Anu Family Services team!

You can find out more about Anu Family Services from their website at If you would like to learn more about how you can support their foster care mission or inquire about becoming a foster parent, please or

Matt Hunt is the CEO and founder of strategy and innovation consulting firm Stanford & Griggs. With over 20 years of business and technology experience he has a demonstrated excellence in business strategy, innovation, and leadership development with large companies, small companies and non-profit organizations. You can follow Matt on his blog and Twitter@huntm.

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