Partnering for Change
housing for persons with
Tim and Diane Madden have never thought of themselves as entrepreneurs. In fact, Tim says, “If someone asked me if I’m an entrepreneur by nature, I’d say no, that’s not me.”
On the other hand, as a couple who started a service from scratch 35 years ago, took on government regulations, unhappy neighbors, and financial challenges to make it work, and then grew it into a program that now spans 14 states, these two pretty much define the term.
Tim and Diane were newly married—he a first-year law student with a degree in speech communication, she a recent graduate with an interest in special education—when the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that people with mental disabilities were entitled to live in residential group homes. In practice, these homes would require staff and managers. Enter Tim and Diane.
“She was interested in this field and I was interested in her, so it seemed like something we could do,” says Tim. “We liked the idea of working together and working for ourselves. We didn’t fully understand the risks.”
explore so many different subjects
and so many different ways of
thinking about things,” Tim says.
“That kind of openness is really
exciting and it’s the kind of thing an
entrepreneur needs to enjoy. It’s
that exposure, rather than a specific
training, that’s the advantage. If
you’re the sponge, CLA is the
And there were plenty. They navigated their way through incorporation in 1975, located a home in St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood, and called their venture Dungarvin, after an Irish village where a stranger had once helped Tim when he was a hitchhiking college student. The name was the easy part.
“I learned more about property law in this process than I did in law school,” Tim says, remembering the maze of zoning, health, safety, and local government regulations that came next.
Then there was the neighborhood. “Most people had never known anyone with special needs,” says Diane, who literally went door to door explaining the new home to neighbors. “People were concerned about property values and the safety of their families. Everywhere we went there was some community opposition.”
Meanwhile, the state was pressing hard to get people out of institutions and into new homes, while unhappy state-institution employees worried about losing their jobs.
“I suppose you almost have to be an entrepreneur to go through that kind of stuff,” Tim says. “No one would raise their hand and say, ‘I want to go through that rigmarole.”
But Dungarvin opened its doors in 1976 with Tim and Diane as caregivers and managers, even as Tim continued his law practice. As the home flourished and they were asked to manage more, Tim and Diane decided to commit to Dungarvin full time.
“The choice wasn’t too difficult,” Tim says. “I wasn’t as fulfilled sorting through divorces or real estate transactions or car accidents as I was working with these folks, teaching someone how to read or how to use a bus schedule to get from us to their day program.”
More than three decades later, Dungarvin employs 3,000 people and serves more than 2,000 residents nationwide. In 2006—appropriately announced on March 17—the Maddens turned over day-to-day responsibilities and now continue on Dungarvin’s board.
“We were fortunate to have the right opportunity at the right time in our lives,” says Diane. “So I would tell someone who wanted to start a business to be patient. Maybe the first thing won’t be a hit. There will almost always be some financial issues. That wouldn’t scare me as much as making sure it all seems to be the right fit.”
What they say:
“I think an entrepreneur needs to have a certain openness to looking at an idea and thinking it can be done. The idea that this is ours, that this is a legacy we have created—this is where the fulfillment comes. You might stumble or fall, but at least you know that this is something that you were able to do.” –Tim Madden
“We learned as we went. But it was so much simpler then. In a lot of ways, we did what seemed like common sense. We had a lot of other people helping us and holding our hands because we couldn’t do it all ourselves. But we had the sense of ‘our venture’ and investing ourselves.” –Diane Madden
“CLA was a place where you could explore so many different subjects and so many different ways of thinking about things. That kind of openness is really exciting and it’s the kind of thing an entrepreneur needs to enjoy. It’s that exposure, rather than a specific training, that’s the advantage. If you’re the sponge, CLA is the water.” –Tim Madden