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Success Story: Increasing Services to the Homeless -

Cape Cod Child Development is a trailblazer in applying Lean Six Sigma to the nonprofit world. Watch this 30 minute success story to learn how Lisa Donovan is helping to increase services available to the homeless population.

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Success Story Transcript

Elisabeth Swan: Hello! And welcome to our Success Story series hosted by My name is Elisabeth Swan and I’m a Managing Partner and Executive Advisor here at

We are very excited to have this offering for our audience because this is where the rubber meets the road. This is where we highlight someone who has actually completed a real project that has been implemented within their organization and we get to share those stories with you.

Today, we are going to highlight a project success story that comes from Cape Cod Child Development.  Cape Cod Child Development is located in Massachusetts on Cape Cod. They take care of Cape Cod and the islands for those of you who never heard of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. That’s part of their area.

Their mission is to provide world-class child and family-focused programs that nurture each child’s full potential. And their vision is taking care of Cape Cod’s children and their families.

About Our Presenter

Our presenter today is Lisa Donovan. And let me tell you a little bit about Lisa before we get started. Lisa is the Director of Family Advocacy here for the past year with Cape Cod Child Development. Before this, she was an investigator of elder abuse. And before that, she investigated child abuse for the Sheriff’s Office. Lisa, clearly a champion of the vulnerable with decades of defending children in need.

I asked Lisa for a little fun fact and she told me she had taught her dog to dance. But he is too big for the dip so that’s an issue. I don’t know where you’re going with that, Lisa. But hopefully, you’ll work with the dog. The two of you will work to overcome this.

Lisa Donovan: Dancing with the K-9s. Well, good morning. Thanks for having me today, Lis. I appreciate it.

Project Charter

Project Name: Increase Homeless Families Receiving Benefits

My project was to increase the homeless families receiving benefits at Cape Cod Child Development. So really my goal was to increase the number of homeless families here from 2 to 10 receiving these benefits by the end of 2018.

Elisabeth Swan: And what was going on at the time that would make it important to increase that level?

Lisa Donovan: Well, we didn’t have a lot of families self-identifying and it was interesting as I went along in this process. This project really, it became more than just a project. It became something that really was very important to me and I took it home with me every single day and I thought about it during my rides to visit with families and visit with our family advocates.

…It became something that really was very important to me and I took it home with me every single day

And what became so important to me was that I realized that I would be driving down on the roads on Cape Cod heading toward my home. And they were roads I’ve driven hundreds of times and I knew them so well. And I’d pull into my driveway and I could hear my dog barking when I got up to the door. I’d open the door and I could look around my home and everything looks familiar to me. And when I get hungry or thirsty, I could open up my refrigerator or open up a cabinet and I could get something to eat or drink anytime I wanted to. When I got tired, I could open up a bureau and not open up a suitcase or a trash bag and I could take out my pajamas and go to sleep in my own bed.

God willing, this will be a constant in my life for so many years but this is what really became so important to me was to ensure that our families had the same opportunities and the same benefits that many of us here at Cape Cod Child Development have.

Elisabeth Swan: It’s really nice. It really brings it home and makes it real about what does it mean to be homeless and the things that you don’t have.


Baseline Data – Self-Identified Homeless Receiving Services

Lisa Donovan: When we started off and I was looking, I didn’t really know where to start this project. And so, I wanted to really see how many people had self-identified and if there was a stumbling block that something was precluding them from being able to identify. So when I first started to look at it, I checked the baseline data and I was realizing that as of June when I began this process, we only had two families that self-identified as homeless. So that’s where my goal came to increase this up until – up to ten until 2018.

Elisabeth Swan: And I know that talking to you, part of your process walk was to actually accompany advocates as they went and visited families.

Lisa Donovan: It was very important for me to see it. We’ve got – right now, I’ve got six family advocates. And what they do is they assist the families with every single thing that they can throughout their entire sojourn here with the Cape Cod Child Development. So they help the families with fuel assistance, with clothing, with food.

But what was really important to me was to find out where they were living. And a lot of our families, if they don’t self-identify, when we go into their home, we can tell by seeing what their home situation is, if they are actually homeless and would qualify for benefits to Cape Cod Child Development in the McKinney-Vento Act. So that was very important for me to go out with the family advocates and actually see firsthand where our families were located.

Elisabeth Swan: And you said part of that, you started noticing that people were not self-identifying as homeless but they actually were living with friends.

Lisa Donovan: Yes, a lot were living with friends and family and not really as a choice of their own, on accord which makes it a little different. But when you’re living with friends and family because you can’t afford any housing, that’s where you would qualify for more benefits as homeless.

So a lot of our families are doubling, tripling up because there’s really a lack of affordable housing on the Cape and the islands. It’s very difficult to find housing. There aren’t a lot of congregate homes, very few shelters, and primarily extraordinarily a few family shelters. So we really only have a couple of those. So it was really important for me to see where our families are.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. A lot of other communities, Cape has become a place where homes, real estate, rentals, being able to purchase a home, the prices keep going up and there’s less and less affordable housing for even people who are not as in need just trying to work.

Lisa Donovan: Exactly. And another concern is this that with the rental situation on the Cape, a lot of it is seasonal. So our families have to leave in the summer time. So where do they go in the summer time? They may have to go to a place like a state park, motels that while they can’t stay there in the winter time because the motels, they don’t qualify as a home.

Our family, they don’t have any places to go so that we would get families in tents in the summer. We’ve got families in parks in the summer. But what do they do in the winter? And then the prices are so astronomically high, that’s why the families often have to double up.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah, and change where they are from month to month. So getting into your analysis.


Lisa Donovan: So getting into my analysis, I wanted to really – one of the first things I really want to look at was our enrollment application. And so, I took a look at it. And honestly, I wasn’t sure if it was a Head Start of which our Cape Cod Child Development is as a Head Start program. So I wasn’t actually sure if the enrollment application was a Head Start regulation or if it was one of our own applications.

So when I found out that it was one of ours. I approached our CEO, Anne Colwell, immediately and said, “Is there any way we could go? How do you feel about me changing this?” She said, “Go for it,” without hesitation. So that was my first step was to look at the enrollment application. And I’ll show you what the previous one looked like in a moment or two.

But in looking at that enrollment application, it really didn’t afford a lot of families the opportunity to self-identify.

But in looking at that enrollment application, it really didn’t afford a lot of families the opportunity to self-identify.

Elisabeth Swan: And that’s an interesting point when it comes down to pieces of the process like what you discovered, there was a form and that question of who owns this? And you guys got a lot of government regulations. You’ve got a lot of policies you have to adhere to. And if it’s unclear, often it is unclear, is this part of a policy?

Lisa Donovan: Exactly.

Elisabeth Swan: And that was such a great question, who owns this form? So I appreciate that.

Original Form

Lisa Donovan: So this is the original form. As you can see at the bottom, the question was, “Am I homeless?” Well, to me, that was – it appeared very invasive. If I were a family, I’m not sure if I would have answered that immediately for myriad of reasons. We have a lot of our families, they don’t want to self-identify. There could be pride. There could be even a confusion about what is homeless? A lot of people don’t even understand what is – we just spoke about, if living with family and friends is actually considered homeless.

So this was the original form, and have you been homeless in the past 12 months? Well, in looking back through a myriad of applications, I was finding that either people weren’t answering this at all or they were just shying off to saying no. So that was something that I really wanted to delve into.

…in looking back through a myriad of applications, I was finding that either people weren’t answering this at all or they were just shying off to saying no.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s interesting. That people didn’t even answer it.

Lisa Donovan: Right. Yeah, completely blank.

Elisabeth Swan: And you don’t know the motivations. And I know you learned a lot by going with the advocates and realizing, wow, they are saying no but they’re really tripling up with a friend here and that’s homeless. And maybe that combination of they don’t even know the definition.

Lisa Donovan: Correct.

Elisabeth Swan: Or pride or as you said, not wanting the information to come out.

Pareto Chart of Types of Residency Status

Lisa Donovan: So when I looked at – this is just a sample of about a hundred families. So I want to break down where most of our families fell in the line of their residency. And I found that the majority are renting but that doesn’t mean that they’re renting on their own. That could mean that two or three, four families are in a home all renting.

We’ve got – at one point, we had one family owning. We had a family in a shelter. And just a couple that would identify as living with the family and friend. And that was my baseline of the two in June who identified as living with family and friends.

Elisabeth Swan: If a number of families were renting in a small space, would you have a designation for that or is that still not considered homeless?

Lisa Donovan: It depends upon the situation. Once again, if they are doing it, if they are choosing to rent because they all want to live together and they are sharing things that they want to share. But if they are living because they have no other place to go and they have to stay there, they may not even be able to be pitching in any money. So I don’t know if the rent is – usually, only one person is on the lease agreement.

Elisabeth Swan: Right.

Lisa Donovan: So I’m not entirely sure actually if the families are saying they are renting, what their contribution to rent is when you go into a home and you see two or three families living there.

Elisabeth Swan: Got it.

Root Cause Hypothesis

Lisa Donovan: So this was where I identified that a lot of people – based on pride, as I said, one constituted being homeless, why people weren’t actually filling out the application itself, there’s a possibility that a lot of problems were finding the kids would be getting their medical exams. And so they weren’t filling – they weren’t able to enroll as quickly. That was one problem that we were having.

And so they weren’t filling – they weren’t able to enroll as quickly. That was one problem that we were having.

And the medical could have been simple as they have relocated here and they don’t have a doctor. So our family advocates need to help them find a doctor or there’s a possibility that they may not be documented. They may not even have the means or any ability to even get to a doctor or how to even begin that process.

So those are some of my root causes for why weren’t people identifying. Was it pride? Was it fear such as the documentation aspect?

Was it pride? Was it fear such as the documentation aspect?

Elisabeth Swan: Right.

Impact Effort Matrix

Lisa Donovan: So some of the things that I wanted to do to impact this process for me was I joined a lot of different agencies or coalitions on the Cape. And actually, I joined one that is off Cape. It’s in the middle of Southeast. And so, it encompasses from Gloucester all the way down to New Bedford.

And I wanted to join this coalition or task force, whatever you like to call it, because I wanted to ensure that if our families had to relocate off Cape, which none of us want them to do, this is where the supports are. This is usually where their family and friends are. As it stands right now, this is where the school is. So we don’t want them to have to relocate but if they don’t have affordable housing and they can’t find any place to stay, they may have to relocate.

So in joining this, I wanted to be able to get some contact names so at least I could point families in the right direction whenever they did or ultimately if they had to move off Cape. I also am part of the housing authorities roundtable in the Cape and I go to some other homeless coalitions as well. So, those are some of the things that I am involved in on the Cape.

I want to change the terminology of the application as I stated. I felt that was just a little too invasive for our families. And I just wanted to ensure that – we have vision statement which is so important. It’s what we’re all about. It’s taking care of Cape Cod’s children and families. I wanted to ensure that that remained so renowned in our community.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s nice.

New Form

Lisa Donovan: So, this is the new form. So as you’ll see down at the bottom, it gives our families now different options in order to answer what their residency is, whether they own rent, live with family, friends, motel, shelter. So this will give them the option.

I’m finding more and more people are now filling this out as opposed to just living it blank. So this is one of the things that I spoke to that I want to change the form and change the terminology and just changing that terminology gives people the – it stops them from feeling labeled.

…it stops them from feeling labeled.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. It’s so interesting that you turned it around. They are no longer having to decide for themselves whether they are homeless or not. And on top of that, you’re getting more of that data you showed earlier where you’re trying to understand, do they own, do they rent, do they live with family and friends, are they in a motel, are they in a shelter.

So you’re getting helpful information about what’s happening on the Cape with families, and that might direct some of what you do in the future. And joining all these organizations, you’ve clearly educated yourself incredibly on what’s going on with the homeless population and what’s happening, what are the trends, what’s going to change.

Elisabeth Swan: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s really important to me to find out where Cape Cod is going. What are their plans for increasing the affordable housing? Do they have plans for future shelters? Were there plans for how many – I don’t know the statistics for when you’re building a new apartment complex. How many need to be affordable? How many units are in the making?

But Habitat for Humanity is another one. They’re in contact with us every time there’s a new home up so we can share that with our families as well. So we have a lot of great partnerships around the Cape who are really trying to help our families who are struggling with this homeless concern.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s great. I can hear kids having a good time right now.

Lisa Donovan: Absolutely, you can. That’s what it’s all about. I wanted to make checklist for our family advocates to ensure strictly for families who did self-identify. So I wanted to ensure that they were getting the assistance that they needed right away from getting to housing authorities, to fill the applications for new housing. I want to find out what they needed for fuel assistance regulations immediately, what specialized funding they needed. In that regard, I’m talking about the quick fix. Maybe there’s a quick fix. It would be like they need a fundraising maybe to pay a past electrical bill or a gas or some just to keep their power on.

I wanted the family advocates really understand and share with our families what their legal rights were such as having a notice so you don’t have to vacate the premises immediately. And so, we now have a housing court on the Cape which is fabulous. So I believe it’s one time a month but prior to that, our families, we go through district court and our judges are very well-versed in criminal and civil matters.

Now, our families will have a judge who is solely dedicated to tenant/landlord disputes and resolution. So this is great. So I wanted to just ensure that our advocates utilize and just went into every single family and we didn’t miss anything with any of our families.

Elisabeth Swan: This is great. So you educated the advocates and created this, basically a checklist for them to make sure that they thought of everything with each family because as you pointed out, sometimes it just really is not affordable housing but what else can you do? And there’s a lot.

Lisa Donovan: Right. There is a lot. There is a lot. We can help them with job applications and we can help them not with just their essential needs such as fuel and food and clothing. But we can help them with English as a second language. There are a lot of things that our family advocates do on a daily basis to ensure our families and our kids here are as healthy as can be.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. The point you made about also, the judges and what people are aware of and not aware of in terms of what people have as a potential advocate. Your background in the criminal justice system is paying off here, isn’t it?

Lisa Donovan: As much. And plus, our families know that they have – at least when they go to court, there’s always an attorney of the day so that if they any legal questions. We also work with – we have partner agency here who comes monthly from weekend and for any legal consultations for our families.

So we’re partnering more and more with different agencies around the Cape to ensure our families get all the benefits they can. But now, they’ll know that they also have another advocate in the court system as well who is the attorney of the day to answer any questions.

Elisabeth Swan: Wow! A lot of partnerships. That’s great.

Lisa Donovan: A lot of partnerships. It is great. A lot of collaborations.

Improvement Data – Self-Identified Homeless Receiving Benefits

This is my run chart, Lis. And what it started out in June has now at the end of the October increased to 8 families that had identified as being homeless. So it was nice to see that possibly with the new enrollment application form that rolled out in June, it is giving people the opportunity to feel a little more comfortable with as you say, just putting blank, where am I right now in my residency?

Elisabeth Swan: Are you also seeing the number of services increased? Because I know based on your work with the advocates, you identified this broad list of things that they can really provide families. Do you know that there is more of each of those being tapped in terms of they can have an advocate, they could get help with getting jobs, things like that?

Lisa Donovan: All the family advocates, they are really, really passionate about helping every single family that comes through here. So while this was only one segment of – in my specific Six Sigma process, all the family advocates are working with our families on a daily basis to ensure they get every single thing that they need.

They will set up medical and mental health appointments for them. They will help them as I said with – they can help them SNAP benefits. They can help them with different applications. So they are constantly assisting with our families with anything that they need no matter what. No matter what the need is, the family advocates are there.

Elisabeth Swan: But specifically, do you think the form you created increased the number of things the advocates made the families aware?

Lisa Donovan: I think we made them aware of, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that that was a great bonus on our end so we could really see and we could really assist the families in a more expeditious fashion.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s wonderful. That’s a great story.

Benefits and Lessons Learned

Lisa Donovan: So basically, some benefits and lessons learned was naturally to increase – the most important thing was to increase the services offered to our families. I wanted to be able to join more task forces around the Cape and off Cape as I stated. So I would know. We had to guide our advocates so they could assist our families.

I really needed to have this process continue. This isn’t something that was just for the months that I worked on this. This is something that will go on as long and far long after I’m no longer in this particular role. I want us to ensure that our families as each family comes through yearly that they feel comfortable in speaking with us, feel comfortable in having an advocate and sharing with what their concerns and needs are so we can help them and help sustain them in the Cape Cod community.

I really needed to have this process continue. This isn’t something that was just for the months that I worked on this. This is something that will go on as long and far long after I’m no longer in this particular role.

Elisabeth Swan: Nice.

Lisa Donovan: It’s wonderful. It really is a great – the collaborations on the Cape, for being such a small area and everybody really works well together. We out three for the same reason. We’re out there to really assist the families. Nobody is out there to make their name known. You’re out there to make the families known.

Elisabeth Swan: Really nice. Really powerful project, powerful results.


So if you think about other people in the nonprofit world and the kinds of things that you encountered in this project, what advice would you give in general to someone starting out like you did earlier this year in learning Lean Six Sigma, applying it to your process? Any advice general or specific for someone starting out?

Lisa Donovan: For someone starting in a nonprofit?

Elisabeth Swan: In a nonprofit world, trying to apply Lean Six Sigma in the nonprofit.

Lisa Donovan: I think it’s really important to get to know each department that works within the nonprofit, that’s where I started with here even before Six Sigma. I wanted to go around because I wasn’t aware. This is a completely different career for me than in my past. So I wanted to ensure that I was – in order for me to speak to and for our families, I need to know what every department and the agency did. So it was really important for me and I think it’s important for anybody to get right into the trenches and find out exactly what each department does and how they can – what their processes to assist and then take it from there.

I think it’s really important to get to know each department that works within the nonprofit, that’s where I started with here even before Six Sigma.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah, that’s one of the foundational pieces of Lean Six Sigma which is be a student of the process. And I think you are a student of the process and the people. You really tried to learn what do you do and who are the people that are doing it. And obviously, that has a huge impact in terms of what came out of this project.

Lisa Donovan: It was a fascinating process. It really was. I thoroughly enjoyed this and I really would recommend anyone to take this and become a part of Six Sigma.

Elisabeth Swan: You really took this to heart. I mean this project, I feel like it impacted you in a big way. Like you said, you really – this opened up your eyes.

Lisa Donovan: It did. It did. Much more so honestly when I first started this, I wasn’t really sure what to encounter. I really had no idea where this would lead. You’re absolutely right. It really – it became such a part of what I do on a daily basis now. And then just walking through it and coming back to it. And I’m using terminology from Six Sigma that I wouldn’t think of.

…it became such a part of what I do on a daily basis now.

Elisabeth Swan: Shocking!

Lisa Donovan: Total.

Elisabeth Swan: Shocking. So what’s next for you in process improvement?

Lisa Donovan: I want to continue on our path here with the homeless. There are a lot of things that I want to revamp in our agency as well regarding the family advocates. We have a food pantry on that side. So I really want to revamp that because right now, I have a concern that it may not be utilized by our families as much as it could be.

And once again, I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know what the question could be. Is it pride? They don’t feel comfortable coming here. I need to go – I really need to delve into that because everything that I can do to assist our families here is going to make – just make it great for Cape Cod Child Development and everybody that comes here. So that’s next in line.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s a nice challenge. How to help these families make better use of the food pantry and find – and like you said, the first questions you have are, why are they not using it? Because it could be a lot of reasons.

Lisa Donovan: Absolutely.

Getting Started

Elisabeth Swan: That’s great. I’m Elisabeth Swan. And you’re listening to a’s success story highlighting Lisa Donovan and her work with the homeless here on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I want to thank Lisa for joining us today and sharing her success story. And I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. I hope you found this success story helpful and inspirational as I have.

If you have a success story and you’d like to share, send us a note at [email protected] Don’t forget to go to our website and view our other success stories. We’re going to have a whole series on nonprofit world. We have a series on work in government and we keep adding every day. So download any free tool, templates. We’ve got all kinds of blogs, podcasts, and tools for you on our website.

Thank you for joining us and we will see you again next time.

Get the inside scoop on many other successful Lean Six Sigma projects at our Super Stories of Success page. Do you have a story to tell? We’d love to hear about your own project success! Please contact us.

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.