Duane Casares infuses a healthy culture into Directions for Youth & Families


One of Duane Casares’ pet peeves is the phrase: That’s not my job.

“It’s all our jobs to keep the whole machine moving forward. And sometimes that means taking a critical analysis of ourselves and how we function in order to improve that,” says the CEO of Directions for Youth & Families.

Culture is something all organizations need to focus on, but it’s critical in nonprofits that serve high-risk populations.

“I tell people all of the time, ‘Look, we walk in and out of people’s lives — and far be it for any of us to create more damage than was there before we walked in,’” he says.

Casares, who started at the mental and behavioral health services provider in 1990, first emphasized building a strong culture and healthy environment as a clinical director. Since he became CEO, that conviction has grown.

DFYF, which offers 18 resiliency oriented-trauma programs, employs 140 people who mostly work with inner city kids.

Not only does the nonprofit train its people to maintain a boundary to avoid burn out, a supportive culture is vital for the organization’s efficiency and effectiveness.

“In the human service field — particularly with the people we work with, when you’re talking about people who are survivors of sexual abuse, when you talk about people who are raised in homes with domestic violence — there is innocence loss in the work that we do,” Casares says.

“So it is critical that we create a supportive environment for our workers, because they are the tools that we use to move in and out of the lives of those we serve.”

Support, not surveillance

Casares left DFYF to work on his doctorate, and he was surprised at the turnover when he returned. He also noticed “the walking wounded” — employees who were consistently critical, while not offering solutions.

“But here’s what really got me about them,” he says. “If they were so dissatisfied — some of these were long-term employees — if it was such a bad place, then why are you still working here?”
It wasn’t a healthy, supportive environment.

Although the most important person for DFYF is the people it serves, the second most important is the front-line worker, he says. So, the job of every person in all departments and levels of management is to support them.

“We have to move away from surveillance. We’ve got to move to support,” Casares says.

A two-way door

Casares has been a corporate trainer so he has lots of experience with different management philosophies and company cultures.

He’s heard business leaders say: I don’t know why my employees didn’t come see me; I have an open-door policy.

“And I think, well, with that attitude, who would walk in that door?” Casares says.

You need an environment where employees feel that they can come to you, be heard, and if the issues are valid they will be addressed.

An open-door policy goes two ways, he says. You have to get off of your seat and walk to where your workers are.

“We’re very good with formal lines of communication — emails, policy and procedures, rules and regulations,” Casares says of DFYF. “Where I don’t think we’re very good is the informal communication. And the informal communication actually gives you the pulse.”

Some organizations put out suggestion boxes in order to improve the communication. And while that’s a first step, he says ultimately you want a culture where problems aren’t anonymous and issues are discussed openly.

Honesty is the best policy

Casares also judges the effectiveness of an organization by its policy and procedure manual. Does it have Tom and Sue rules? A rule was created because Tom did X one time and Sue did Y so a new policy ensures no one else does it again.

“What you’ve done is create rules so that there’s now new hoops that everybody else in the organization has to jump through because of Tom and Sue,” he says. “I have a novel idea: Why don’t we just deal with Tom and Sue?”

Casares thinks it’s lazy to add policies that govern everybody’s job. The manual isn’t the manager — you are.

“I have a rule here that if you create a new form, you need to get rid of the old one,” he says. “We’re not going to keep piling these things on to workers, even in issues of policies and procedures.”

No one likes giving negative feedback (or receiving it), so be honest and respectful. Don’t let a problem linger on and hope it fixes itself.

Casares says you can tell someone that in this situation, his or her attributes aren’t the best fit. Once both sides recognize it’s not working, then together they can find something better.

It’s hard to implement a supportive culture — with open communication, where discipline isn’t confused with punishment and the importance of leadership is seen at every level, he says. But once it’s in place, new hires with bad habits find themselves falling into line. It self cleans.

The healthier environment is better for your managers, your employees and most importantly your clients.

“That’s really what started this whole journey — because we owe it to the people we serve,” Casares says. “And because they are not widgets, because they are not objects, because they are individuals, and as individuals many variables come into play — we have to make sure we pay attention to this.”