The following is a conversation between Alejandra Castillo, CEO of the YWCA, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970, WNYM, The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: There are not many businesses or non-profit organizations that have been around for more than 160 years. The YWCA happens to be one of those organizations, moving fast, so they can continue to meet the needs of girls and women in this ever changing world. And here to tell us about what they’ve been up to and what the future holds is Alejandra Castillo, the Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA USA. Good evening, Alejandra, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Alejandra: Well, thank you so much. I’m excited about this conversation, and I’m looking forward to really going into The Business of Giving.
Denver: Well, there you go, likewise. Boy, you have such a rich history at YWCA. Why don’t you share a little bit of it with us?
Alejandra: Well, thank you. Our history is truly a testament of our values as an organization, but also how we have stood at the most important junctures of our nation’s history when it comes to advocating for women and girls. It started in 1858. We stood at Ellis Island welcoming immigrant women who did not have a place to go, or a job, and we created many of the places where they would come and be able to stay. That’s why at the YWCA you see so many buildings because, in many respect, we were that safe haven. But we also created the first women’s employment center because we knew that women would fall prey to unscrupulous employers.
We marched for the 8-hour workday. We created some of the first health programs in the country. We also convened women physicians in the country. We also had amazing professionals that created YWCAs around the country, like Julia Morgan who is well-known as one of the architects of several YWCAs throughout the country. But more importantly, we stood at the intersection of race and gender. That’s why our mission statement is not a new mission statement. It’s actually a mission statement that has been with us since 1946 – eliminating racism and empowering women.
Denver: You’re an organization way, way ahead of its time, that is for sure. So, let’s talk about one of those buildings; and let’s say, you and I are standing outside of one and we’re going to walk in. Tell me what I’ll see and what’s going to be going on.
Alejandra: So you can see, let’s say we are in Brooklyn, not too far from here, and we will walk into a building that dates back to 1926– 9 stories of floors, and you may see a gymnasium that has now become a community center where community organizations can convene. You will probably see a theater, which, in the case of Brooklyn, has now been turned into a wonderful place for the arts. You may also see a pool, or you may not. Pools have now become either another convening area, and we like to say that not all YWCAs have pools, but we help women when they feel like they’re drowning.
Let’s take the elevator up in the YWCA in Brooklyn. We house over 320 women who are survivors of domestic violence, and that is very important because as we know, we want to continue to be that place for safe shelter and a safe haven. But if you go to the second floor of perhaps a YWCA like Brooklyn, you will see co-working spaces for other nonprofits. So, we’ve also become that place where other nonprofits have started their operations and then have grown and continue to become a fabric. But like Brooklyn, I can also take you to Salt Lake City; I can take you to Silicon Valley, or I can take you to El Paso, Texas, and what you will see is an organization that’s responding to the needs of their local communities. So whether it’s early childcare education, after school programs, domestic violence, housing, or workforce development, women entrepreneurship, we have just a breadth of programs. And they’re all geared to not just helping women and girls, but to helping communities.
Denver: Yes, 1,200 of them, as a matter of fact. Is there is a misconception or misunderstanding that people have about the YWCA?
Alejandra: Well, we’ll start with just the name. We are not the YMCA; we are the YWCA, and that’s important because our models are very different. We are an organization,160 years old, so we’ve been around for a very long time. At the beginning, one could argue that we had very similar efforts, but today, we are very different. And the reason we’re different is because we really serve with direct services; so everything from, as I mentioned earlier, early childcare and after school programs, but the work that we do, we are the largest providers of services for survivors of domestic violence in the country.
Denver: What do you think makes your services in that arena so distinctive and unique from other organizations?
Alejandra: First of all, we are a very trusted partner. Because we’ve been in these communities for such a long time, we’re kind of that anchor in many communities. So people know us; they trust us, and also the confidentiality because of the programs that we serve. We have been in some ways very inward, which is challenging, particularly in today’s day and age where everything has to be on social media and everything is at split second. We have a culture of making sure that the people that we serve are respected, that dignity is part of it, but most importantly, that our programs are excellent. And that’s where we are moving more towards.
Denver: And one of the things you do in this regard is something called the Week Without Violence. When is that held, and what’s its objective?
Alejandra: So, Week Without Violence is the third week of October, and that’s the moment that we take to really talk about the issues of violence that are plaguing our communities and our society. And then as I mentioned before, because we are the largest providers of services for survivors of domestic violence, the issue of domestic violence is very important to us. I have encountered many people of all ages– men and women– who have narrated at one point or another their own experiences, or their witnessing experiences from their parents who have been victims of domestic violence. So, we want to make sure that we raise awareness, one; two, that we inform individuals of what does it take to ensure that our communities are safe without violence? And thirdly, that we make sure that women understand that we stand here to provide them the services that they need.
Denver: You have a wonderful way at the YWCA, Alejandra, of really focusing attention on an issue, and as we said, one of your pillars is for race, equality, and social justice… and there’s another week that you have which is called Stand Against Racism. What happens then?
Alejandra: So, Stand Against Racism is yet another signature program of the YWCA. It is the third week of April, and it is an opportunity to engage communities to have these conversations in a safe place. Again, I hark back, we are a safe place for communities to really tackle some of the hardest issues that are confronting us. And right now, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of very negative conversations, conversations that are bubbling up in so many ways that are concerning.
This year, we chose immigration as the topic because we wanted to bring communities to have this conversation, but also to address some of the stereotypes. Most immigrants that are coming to our country are not necessarily coming from Latin America. They’re coming from other countries, whether it’s Asia or Africa. They’re not coming through the southwest border; they’re coming through our ports of entry, many overstaying visas. The conversation of immigration has to be addressed in order to, one, inform, but secondly, to recognize that we have to embrace the stranger among us. That is the value and the nature of our country, and addressing immigration issues has to be something that we do as a nation, not just finger-pointing or finding challenges with individuals that don’t look like us.
As a daughter of immigrants, I witnessed, I saw my parents struggle, and there’s nothing more interesting than to see them now as US citizens, the love for country, but also the values that they instilled in me. And that’s why I chose to be in the space because as a daughter of immigrants, I know the potential that our country has to embrace everyone from all over the world.
Denver: And something else you do for all women who walk through your doors is to empower them, and one of the ways you do that is through financial literacy and financial independence. Tell us about your efforts in that area.
Alejandra: We’re doing some amazing things. Because of the work that we do with survivors of domestic violence, we also recognize that financial independence is one of the key issues that keep women in situations that they would otherwise leave, particularly when they have children. So, we want to make sure that we’re empowering them in terms of financial literacy, but also empowering them as entrepreneurs.
We have some amazing women entrepreneurship programs. As a matter of fact, we have partnered with Coca-Cola and others to really raise those programs of women entrepreneurship. The other thing that we’re doing is looking at financial independence as it relates to job training, workforce development. As the future of work is changing, we want to make sure that women are prepared for that change in the economy, but also the type of jobs that they need to be ready for.
Denver: You know, one challenge I think that every non-profit organization faces is how to measure your impact. How do you go about doing that? And give us an example of some of the impact that you’ve had in these respective areas?
Alejandra: So, when I came to the YWCA a little bit under two years ago, we have a lot of data. We have a lot of data that we collect from our 210 associations. So, we have embarked on a very exciting data mapping project which we will unveil very soon, and that question is going to be answered from various perspectives. We have triangulated data, both at the county level, labor statistic data, census data, and our own data, because one of the things that we want to show and prove is that wherever there is a YWCA, the social economic indicators for that community are rising.
And the way that we have looked at the data is more longitudinal, making sure that we’re looking at how we touch women’s lives and girls, and communities, and looking at it long term, and seeing whether the health indicators are going up. How are they doing with regards to employment? How are they doing with regard to their own wages and their financial independence? Because showing social impact is key, and as you know, it’s key not just managing a nonprofit, but also when we talk to potential donors and sponsors, they want to see that every dollar has an impact. So, we’re excited about really taking the data and telling the YWCA story through numbers, because it’s a very compelling argument when you look at the data and how much we touch people.
Denver: Yes, and I’m sure you’re early in the process, but what have been the preliminary findings you’ve seen from that data as it relates to the communities where the YWCA has a presence?
Alejandra: So, I can tell you findings, both numerically– how we have women who have come to our YWCAs, they have been able to access our services, and how they have been able to get back on their feet after surviving a situation of domestic violence, both for themselves and for their children. But I can also give you some wonderful anecdotal data from women who are now mayors. The Mayor of Topeka, Kansas, Michelle De La Isla, has attributed a lot of her success because she was able to access those programs from the YWCA when she needed it most, and now she is the leader of her own city. So, I can give you both numerical data and anecdotal data that at the end of the day, the programs that we provide are programs that are so needed in our community. What the challenge is, we’re unable to meet all of the need, and that number itself, the unmet need, is also an important number to keep in mind because we need more nonprofits that are able to be in communities throughout the country.
Denver: You know, I have observed that more and more nonprofits are beginning to appreciate advocacy and how they can really leverage their mission and their work by getting heavily involved in that area, and I know this is something which you are very familiar with, and the YWCA has been in the forefront of. Tell us some of the things that you are doing at the moment.
Alejandra: So, I have lived in Washington, D. C. for a very long time, and the advocacy component of the YWCA is very robust and very needed. For example, just a few weeks ago, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act… we stood with over 30 members of Congress, not just providing them with testimonial of how important this is, but also telling them how critical it is as a country for the requisite funding of VAWA.
When it comes to issues, for example, with the census and the immigration question, being able to provide our testimony for the record so that those decisions are well-informed, that’s a critical component. We are coming in with our voice, the collective voice of the YWCA, and telling our legislators what are the on-the-ground real issues. And we’re elevating that information; we’re elevating those voices because legislators– whether it’s our members of Congress, our Senators, or even our President– they need to understand. We have to elevate that community voice so that decisions are better tailored, and policies that are being enacted are really responsive to the needs of the community.
Denver: And getting beyond that community voice, the YWCA also has a world voice.
Denver: You’re an international organization, you have a presence in 120 nations. You’re based in Geneva, Switzerland. Tell us how all of those organizations come together to really make a worldwide impact.
Alejandra: Sure! So very recently, we were here as a World YWCA during the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which we have been part of since its inception in 1947. So our voice at the UN Commission on the Status of Women is critical. Because we are in 120 countries, we’re able to bring women from those countries to really bring to the forefront that although we have made some inroads and some progress, there’s still a lot to be done. And as a sisterhood of the YWCA, we’re able to support one another, and be able to, again, not only support, but raise the voices in places of power like the UN and other gatherings.
Denver: What would be your number one issue of that world organization, even in your own opinion?
Alejandra: Sure, sure. So, Casey Harden is the General Secretary of World YWCA, and it’s about gender-based violence, writ large. It really pains me that gender-based violence across the world continues to rise, and we have to stem it. And part of that conversation is not only supporting women, but also bringing men into the conversation. And that’s something that as an organization, with the longevity and with the gravitas of the YWCA, we’re really able to be that validator, that community convener, as well as that amplifier of these issues.
Denver: Speak about your business model, those different sources of revenue. Where do you get your money from to support all these operations that you’ve been talking about?
Alejandra: Sure. So, you know, to be very candid, I came to the YWCA, having come from the private sector, and it was puzzling to me that this is a sector where the business model– I describe it as a broken business model, because we’re chasing dollars. We’re begging and pleading and chasing dollars, trying to accommodate sometimes donors when they want shiny objects, but the core of our mission still needs to get funded.
So, one of the things that we are doing at the YWCA is diversifying our revenue stream, not only private donations and public donations, but we also launched what is called an exchange-traded fund, and it’s called the Impact Shares YWCA Women’s Empowerment Exchange-Traded Fund, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker WOMN.
The interesting thing about this is: it’s twofold; one is, it engages the private sector to talk about what are their policies and procedures to empower women. So, we’re not only talking about women on the board, women in the C-Suite, but we’re talking about pay equity, paid leave, anti-harassment policies–19 criteria– and the private sector is engaging us because no longer do they have the excuse of “Well, we don’t know; we don’t know what to do.”
Denver: It’s a great opening to go in there and have that discussion.
Alejandra: Absolutely! So, now we come in as a trusted partner and say, “Here are the things that would benefit all the women in your company to really support them.” But the second thing is that we get returns from the advisory fees; they come back to the YWCA. So, instead of going to a manager who is probably going to buy another house in the Hamptons– and I’m saying that a bit with levity– those dollars now come back to the YWCA to support our mission. And that is important because what we want to drive is that we don’t want charity for women, but we want you to invest in women; and this is aligning investments with values. And it’s the whole ESG area which now many people are thinking about it, but we’re one of the first organizations to really venture into the space.
Denver: Yes, it’s very, very cool, no doubt about it. And a lot of those advisement fees go towards an innovation fund.
Alejandra: Correct! The Innovation Fund is to allow YWCAs that have good ideas, that are trying to look at innovative ways to solve problems, to be able to give them enough funding to seed those concepts and then to scale it. One of the beauties of YWCA, as I like to describe it is, we’re not just a distribution network; we can distribute information and services. We’re also an activation network, which is the policy component, and then we have the ability to scale. We can test it, and then we can scale it across the country to really empower and address the issues that are impacting women and girls throughout the nation.
Denver: That is such a wise use of those funds because it’s almost impossible to raise money for innovation, but I can’t think of a sector that needs more innovation than our sector; but there’s never any money available for it. Well, talking about partners, give us an idea of who some of your corporate partners are and what you’re doing with them.
Alejandra: Sure! So, corporate partners from Coca-Cola, which I mentioned, is partnering with us on engaging women entrepreneurs and creating more women entrepreneurs, to Google, which we just announced a $2-million grant and hopefully others to come to look at: How do we bring in stem education, stem employment, and stem entrepreneurship.
Alejandra: E3, correct. And we have Nordstrom as an amazing partner for us for many years, Centene which is a partner of us, looking at trauma-informed care, particularly among teenage girls of color, and we have a series of other– Allstate is an amazing partner, particularly in the domestic violence space, and Allstate has been extraordinary, not just with the YWCA, but with many other organizations. And what I would say is we need more corporate sponsors that understand what the need of the community is; And how do we raise those issues, but also fund those critical areas of programming?
Denver: Absolutely! Alejandra, describe the workplace culture at the YWCA USA. What’s special about it? And is there anything that you do on a regular and consistent basis to help shape it and influence it?
Alejandra: Sure. Our culture is, first of all, I’m excited about it; we have young women who are extraordinary who are looking at: How do we empower young women to raise their voices? We have individuals who are experts in the area of racial justice; throughout our network we have incredible leaders that are looking at ways to address the issues of women in the 21st century reality. So, the work culture is intense. I say I’ve never worked as hard in my life, and I have worked for a 4-star General, and I’ve worked for a billionaire, but I’ve never worked as hard because we see the need every single day.
And when you walk into a YWCA and you see kids running around happy, but also eager to learn, that really empowers you. When you walk into a YWCA and a mother says, “Thank you, the YWCA saved my daughter’s life,” that’s empowering. When you walk into a YWCA like in El Paso that is helping immigrants who are coming into the country, and they’re hungry; their eyes are shallow, you see that we are really meeting humanity, and we are providing dignity to women, girls, and communities across the country. So, I will tell you it’s intense, and part of my challenge is to allow, to give my team enough space to recognize that we need a little bit more work-life balance because it tugs at our heart. We don’t know when to stop because everything is so critically urgent.
Denver: Well, you need to set that example, you know?
Alejandra: Absolutely, I do. You’re absolutely right, you’re absolutely right.
Denver: You’re a New York girl from Queens in particular, which explains in part why you’re a Mets fan. Tell us a little bit about your upbringing and the influence that it had on you, and how it informs your leadership at the YWCA.
Alejandra: Sure! So, I grew up in New York. My father and mother came from the Dominican Republic, but they met here. I call it the E train love affair because they met along the E train. And my father began a small business in the Bronx in the ‘70s, which as you may recall was a very challenging place. I usually reference the Paul Newman movie, Fort Apache, The Bronx, because it was challenging.
But my best times were going to work with my dad and being able to see not just the formal economy of New York, but the underground economy of New York, and understanding how business owners can truly be leaders. It informed my drive also to be a public servant because I recognized at that time that the city of New York was really failing its residents. And I was puzzled. I’m like, “What can government do better to address communities?” And since then, you know, I went to school here in New York, but then I went to D.C., and I was always intrigued by the multitude of issues that government has to address. And as we were talking earlier: How can we today bring government back to understand that part of its role, if not a lot of its role, is to pave the way to the future? And thinking more long term… and I think that right now as the change in the economy and the change of work, I worry, I worry that we’re not ready for the technological tsunami that’s coming our way. And how does the nonprofit world stand ready, unfortunately, to be a leader in that space in the absence of other voices?
Denver: Yes, that’s very well-said. We do live in the present moment and don’t think beyond the day after tomorrow. Let me close with this, you are a relatively new leader at the YWCA, and I imagine when you came onboard, you had these constructive changes in mind to make the organization more effective and accountable. Share with us one of those changes that has really taken hold and been successful, and maybe another which has been a bit more challenging, and it’s going to take a little bit longer.
Alejandra: Sure! So, we are in the midst of our strategic business plan, and we learn so much. One is, that when you’re dealing with an organization that’s 160 years old, buy-in is critical, and what I mean by that is 210 associations have to believe in your vision; they have to be part of it, and everyone has to—no one can afford to be on the sidelines. And that’s the message that we’ve been driving, particularly as we come to the final iteration of our strategic business plan. It’s been fascinating because, again, we have leaders that are by themselves extraordinary, but it’s taught us a great lesson, which is despite what people may say about incrementalism, you still need incrementalism in order to get to the monumental.
Alejandra: And that is one of the things that we are trying to do. The question is: how quickly can we make those small changes in order to get to that larger area? So, that was a great learning lesson. The other learning lesson is we have YWCAs with great ideas. So this idea about the ETF really germinated from Chicago, and it was about bringing collaboration and partnership. And I try to use the collaboration and partnership, not just externally, but primarily internally as well because I need all of our 210 YWCAs rowing in the same direction with the same enthusiasm, and believing that we are taking this organization to its next phase of development and growth. And that has been exciting, and I’m looking forward to what the future is going to hold.
Denver: It does sound exciting. It’s funny how people just want to have voice. They don’t even necessarily want you to do what they suggested; as long as they’ve been heard, they’ll get on board. Well, Alejandra Castillo, CEO of the YWCA USA, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Now, for people who want to learn more about the organization, maybe someone who could be helped by your organization, or want to support it in some way or another, tell us about your website and what listeners are going to find there.
Alejandra: Sure! At our website, you’re going to find both cutting edge issues of the moment, whether it’s on our policy fund, our activities, but also you can find your local YWCA through our website, and our website is YWCA.org.
Denver: Nice and simple. Well, thanks so much Alejandra. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Alejandra: It was my pleasure. Thank you very much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.